When it comes to television documentaries on nature, nobody does it better than Cousteau -- and now that can be said about Jean-Michel Cousteau, too, because of a splendid exploration of Australia that is premiering on cable this weekend, and can also be seen on broadcast channels next week.
Jean-Michel is, of course, the son of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, the sensitive Frenchman who over the years has brought home to millions of TV viewers not only the undersea world he is most identified with, but an acute environmental awareness that asserts the oneness of the Earth. (Viewers may recall that another son, Philippe, was killed in a helicopter crash some years ago.)
In "Australia: Continent of Dreams," Jean-Michel ably demonstrates the same engaging sensibility, leaving the ocean environment for a thoroughly absorbing study of the interior of the continent he calls "a world apart."
The show premieres at 9 p.m. tomorrow on the TBS basic cable service, and then can be seen on many broadcast stations, including an 11:30 p.m. showing Monday here on WNUV-TV (Channel 54). The show is part of the Cousteau Society's "Rediscovery of the World II" series in contract with TBS Productions.
It is as if the family Cousteau is trying to awaken the family of humankind to the awareness that we all belong to the family of life on our diverse but not indestructible planet.
Some things we learn about Australia early on in "Continent of Dreams":
*It contains more native species of lizards than of birds.
*It is the world's driest inhabited continent, yet is really "the parched remains of an ancient sea." (The Cousteau crew is given a fossil cuttlefish found by an opal miner deep in the earth.)
*The vast interior, known as "the big empty," is as large as the contiguous United States, but holds a mere 7 percent of the nation's population.
*Yet for some 40,000 years, the native aboriginal culture has survived by adapting cleverly to the harsh environment, tapping tree roots for water and snacking for energy on "honey ants," a species of insect with grape-sized body sacs filled with a golden nectar.
Just as the Cousteau crew members over the years have infiltrated the marine world, seemingly forging relationships with the inhabitants, here they present an intimate glimpse of the aboriginal way of life.
American viewers inevitably will find parallels to, as well as divergences from, the topography and the native culture of the American West.
Elegantly, the show introduces a theme of modern concern by photographing crude paintings on the walls and ceilings of a cave, including a picture of a sailing ship bringing "new arrivals who would change life forever here."
And, intones narrator Mel Gibson, "Unlike aboriginals, who trod the earth lightly, the Europeans dug into it."
The show documents some of Australia's environmental problems, which are depressingly like those in much of the rest of the civilized world. Cousteau explores ecological changes in the rich Murray River resulting from construction of water supply dams, and visits a controversial uranium mine, which exports its problems because Australia bans nuclear power.
Interestingly, however, the focus of the show remains close to the land. We see virtually nothing of Australia's cosmopolitan cities, but learn a lot about camels, which were imported more than a century ago as beasts of burden and now are largely a tourist attraction.
The variety of wildlife is remarkable, and the people we meet are presented with respect and at least an attempt at understanding, as opposed to touristy gawking. In the end, despite the island continent's remarkable exposure over the past decade, attentive viewers will have gained some new insights.
As said before, nobody does it better than Cousteau -- all of them.
IN QUESTIONABLE TASTE -- Comedian Damon Wayans, who with brother Keenen Ivory Wayans is a key part of the Fox network's hit "In Living Color" series, has some acute and sometimes even funny observations about the world.
But they are difficult to find through layers of crudity and skewed taste in his "HBO Comedy Hour" special premiering tonight on the premium service (at 10, with repeats May 28 and 31 and June 2, 5 and 13).
In "Damon Wayans: The Last Stand?" taped at New York's Apollo Theater, the comic says he is through with stand-up comedy. If true, the loss may not be that great.
Wayans' good material is about his family. He talks of his son attending a private school, and says, "What he needs is some street." He says he's 29, but has three children with a fourth on the way, which means "that's 29 to the fifth power." And of his family past, he says, "We were P-O. So poor we couldn't afford the O-R. We were just po."
The bad stuff? Beyond a relatively high level of bad language and sexual preoccupation, we'll name just two things: an extended bit in which Wayans fantasizes a new superhero, "Handi-man," as a mentally and physically handicapped individual; and a lengthy speculation on whether he would still love his wife if she were hit by a truck and lost both arms and legs, in which he thinks about the unusual sexual possibilities.