“Earth Moods” may look like a screensaver, but you’ll have to pay Disney+ to enjoy its calming effects.
“Earth Moods,” which landed on Disney+ on Friday, is a television show: five episodes, each 31 minutes long. So why does it look so much like a screensaver?
There are no voices in “Earth Moods” because there are no people. Just the abstract beauty of nature — the streaks and whorls of green water and red earth, as the screen drifts from dunes to reef to river delta. (There is an urban episode, “Night Lights,” but the aerial photography elides the human occupants of cars and buildings.) The soundtrack soughs and swells in step with the slowly moving cameras, occasionally giving way to the music of wind, water and birdsong.
Unlike a laptop or smart-TV screensaver, though, which appears unbidden, “Earth Moods” takes some effort — it doesn’t come to you, you need to go to it. And you need to have paid for a Disney+ subscription. It might not exist if it weren’t for the big tent of streaming video, but it’s still TV, even if it sits at the far edge, requiring participation but asking for only the tiniest bit of engagement. Gliding past creative, derivative and meditative, it arrives at vegetative — the couch potato’s final destination.
You could, with justification, dismiss “Earth Moods” as an anomaly, an incidental bonus that Disney+ (via its National Geographic subsidiary) throws in for its more anxiety-ridden subscribers. It is that, but it’s also one of a relatively small collection of original series on the service — on the home page, it is currently featured two icons ahead of “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.”
It’s also not unique, even if it’s still a rare and extreme example of its kind. It fits in the larger category of comfort TV, the broad, hazily defined genre that has thrived off the fallout from political despair and pandemic restrictions.
There is a tradition for “Earth Moods,” even back into the history of terrestrial TV. Yule logs and other fireplace-based features have served as seasonal backdrops. Nightly signoffs, when local stations used to go off the air, offered comfort with their predictability and their patriotic playing of the national anthem. Restless viewers fell asleep to “The Tonight Show.” Endlessly repeated commercials, back when we actually watched them, were another form of background noise.
Today, comfort TV has taken on a new sophistication and substance. Shows like “Ted Lasso” on Apple TV+ and “Schitt’s Creek” (on multiple streamers) draw devoted audiences with a finely tooled sincerity that removes any potentially provocative or uncomfortable edge from their jokes — they offer the structure of situation comedy without the challenge it has at its best.
Even more self-aware are the shows that play with the conventions of comfort TV while still embodying them. Adult Swim’s “Joe Pera Talks With You” is a comedian’s intricately constructed simulacrum of Midwestern courtesy and inoffensiveness, rendered with just the slightest perceptible edge of satire. In HBO’s “Painting With John,” the actor and artist John Lurie invites us into his pastoral, tropical home to watch him paint and listen to him opine, like a hipster Bob Ross or Fred Rogers. He’s the slacker nature host: Turning the camera on the horizon, he says: “There’s a sunset. You think of something poetic.”
Shows like these are at the high end of the comfort-TV spectrum, but “Earth Moods” has an increasing amount of company at the simpler end. Disney+ also offers “Zenimation,” a set of 10 shorts with titles like “Water” and “Flight” that simply edit together scenes from Disney’s animated movies, so that we can “unplug, relax and enjoy.”
There is a close kinship between this kind of programming and the traditional nature show, and it’s reflected in things like PBS’s “Soothing Nature” shorts on Facebook and the BBC site Wonderstrucktv.com, whose A.S.M.R. channel collects short clips featuring the sounds of waves, birds and meadow insects.
Slightly more demanding of attention, but still aimed at alleviating stress, is the HBO Max series “A World of Calm,” based on a series of recordings for adults called “Sleep Stories.” Celebrity narrators present 22-minute episodes on standard subjects of nonfiction TV — Lucy Liu on coral reefs, Oscar Isaac on the making of noodles — but they speak verrry slowly, in time with the often slow-motion progress of the images.
The category also includes instructional shows like Netflix’s “Headspace Guide to Meditation” and, coming April 28, the comically self-explanatory “Headspace Guide to Sleep” — in place of Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon, it provides soothing tones, childlike animation and episodes that end with hopeful countdowns to slumber.
It’s the encapsulation of vegetative TV: television made to stop you from watching television.