National Geographic

I never thought I'd be reduced to mentioning the word "frisky" in any discussion of National Geographic. And yet here I am, wondering what motivated the sexy-as-sediment title to plop a blurry seduction shot on the cover of its February issue, right below a "Wild in California" corner-page banner. Never mind that "Wild" refers to a different story entirely--sadly, not one involving a body-painting jag at USC's Kappa Kappa Gamma annex--National Geographic seems positively stoked to shed its charisma-free rep, dude.

Mercifully, the relative exuberance doesn't extend beyond the cover, though the title has clearly made its share of tweaks to adapt to the changin' times. It plugs a tacky "Best of Australia" sweepstakes, potentially taints the photography pool by promising to publish its readers' best shots, and does everything short of flash a switchblade to nudge all comers towards its revved-up Web site. Outside of that, National Geographic mostly remains the same old trusty magazine that bored the crap out of me when I was a kid.

As a just-south-of-smart adult, I dig it a whole lot more. It's funny how time blanches your memories: mostly I remember lots of school-library-sanctioned tribal nudity and llamas as far as the eye can see. Today's National Geographic, on the other hand, exists at the intersection of ecology and economy, surveying the impact of mankind and his technology on natural habitats and species.

That's why the decision to run with a hubba-hubba cover story doesn't make much sense. I have no problem with the central conceit of "This Thing Called Love," which likens the brain chemistry of infatuation to that of mental illness. The feature is smartly written--especially the quirky anecdote about the author's wedding day--and impeccably grounded in scientific minutiae. Yet any higher-aiming men's or women's publication might have run a similar piece; I don't think National Geographic should be settling for topical overlap with GQ or O: The Oprah Magazine.

"A Faith Grows in Brooklyn," which provides a glimpse at the life of Lubavitch Jews in Brooklyn, also falls well short of the usual National Geographic insight. Between the commonplace inside-the-community approach and the who-edited-this? snooze of a lead ("To outsiders, Chabad-Lubavitch Jews with their black fedoras and symbolic trappings can look very strange"), the feature neither engages nor particularly enlightens. It offers up some sharp pictures, but so what? Sublime photography is pretty much a given for National Geographic, isn't it?

As for the story on global warming in the Alps, well, okay. We're ruining the world. I get it. Let's move on.

The February issue redeems itself with the lengthy "Heartbreak of the Serengeti" spread. Never mind its title, which sounds like an Oscar-bait flick starring Meryl Streep as an impassioned conservationist and Ralph Fiennes as the stuffy government geologist who learns to love her. Over the course of 30 pages, the mag lays out the ongoing tangle between commercial and environmental interests, illustrating how a solution may be slightly more complex than simply hanging all poachers by their toes.

So maybe the February issue is far from National Geographic's finest hour. But much in the same way that the greatest Bryan Adams song can't touch the lowliest Springsteen one, so too does a middling National Geographic tower over most everything else on the newsstand. Bet on subsequent issues playing much more to the publication's strengths.

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