“Autumnwatch New England” on PBS is nuttier than a red squirrel’s dinner

Host Samantha Brown frolics in a cranberry bog.
Host Samantha Brown frolics in a cranberry bog.
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It’s shocking, really, that nobody has given the red squirrel a reality show. These fierce, food-hoarding rodents are all about high drama. They pick on tiny chipmunks; chase much larger gray squirrels; and dive-bomb one another to protect their seed stashes. They’re also ridiculously cute.

Thankfully, the red squirrel is finally getting its 15 minutes of fame, via Autumnwatch New England, a three-episode special currently available to watch or stream on PBS, co-produced with the BBC. This show is like a local tourism council’s annual variety show, combined with Saturday Night Light’s spoof of public radio (video), with some Johnny Carson-style wild animal show-and-tell thrown in. It is the goofiest shit ever. I cannot recommend it enough.

As a Vermont native, fall foliage is a serious matter to me. So when an unusually warm, wet fall mostly ruined autumn foliage in Northern New England last year, it wasn’t just disappointing; something felt unnervingly wrong. This year, again, foliage is MIA in the mid-Atlantic, and in other places around the country.

Autumnwatch New England can’t make the trees turn gold and crimson, but now at least you can warm yourself up a mug of cider and join in the cheery insanity on PBS.

The two hosts are unabashed superfans of the season: Samantha Brown is a travel journalist who grew up in New Hampshire (as she often points out). And Chris Packham is a BBC presenter who has hosted the British Autumnwatch for 11 seasons (along with Springwatch and Winterwatch).

The show opens with the two presenters and a roaring fire pit, along with a rather bemused porcupine. “Beautiful animals,” Packham tells Brown. ”We’ll catch up with that porcupine later in the program.” And indeed they do, carefully caressing it and then gingerly sniffing to take in the aroma of its scent glands.

Bantering enthusiastically, the pair leads viewers through a series of set pieces, interviews with locals, and short films, like the one dedicated to Sciurus vulgaris—the red squirrel. They roast marshmallows, sip warming drinks out of pumpkin-shaped mugs, wade hip-deep into a cranberry bog, and tool around in a vintage lime green farm truck.

Not good at sharing.
Not good at sharing.

In a typical segment, the two pick pumpkins at a roadside vegetable stand. “I think you can tell a lot from a person by the pumpkin they pick,” Brown says. “I’m going to pick out the pumpkin that I think you would like, and you pick out the pumpkin I would like.” (Spoiler alert: She chooses a pumpkin that’s tall, and he selects one that’s “neat,” small and smooth.)

The presenters engage in some friendly sparring about the relative merits of New England versus jolly old England, with Packham at one point dismissing a historic covered bridge as “a shed over a river.” Even when clad head-to-foot in sporty gear, Packham manages to look British: He wears a thick fleece zipped all the way up, then covered by a shiny puffer, which provides the closest visual approximation of an ascot and smoking jacket you could possibly devise in sensible New England outerwear.

The true star of Autumnwatch, even more than the red squirrel or that tolerant porcupine, is Bob Poole, a wildlife cinematographer. Equipped with a special thermal camera that reveals moose, bears, coyotes, and flying squirrels moving through the New England woods at night, Poole is clearly having the time of his life.

“This coyote looks fantastic!” he says at one point. “I’m telling you, there are animals all over the place.” His sense of wonder is infectious. “Flying squirrels—that’s an amazing animal,” he says before launching into a story about bottle-feeding a raccoon back to health when he was a child.

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New England is not known for its exotic animals—though as Poole points out, the flying squirrel can definitely hold its own among world’s coolest creatures. And there’s nothing truly significant or educational to glean from any of these cider-soaked, pumpkin-spiced moments. But that’s really the point: It’s about appreciation of everyday pleasures, and of nature’s glories, with a dash of wacky earnestness. And for a few hours, it can make your couch feel like a place of sweet escape.