Character development took a back seat to feline drama over the first five episodes of Treetop Cat Rescue, and that’s not necessarily surprising, you know, given that this is a reality show about saving cats stranded in trees. But! We have learned a few things about our heroes: Tom, for example, works full time for the city of Olympia as an arborist. He has a daughter in elementary school. And he’s a generally mild-tempered dude who, despite an irrational bias against overweight cats, seems pretty sweet. (Also, considering the fact that we’ve never seen him without a hat, maybe he has a cranial deformity that he’s too embarrassed to reveal on television? Too soon to tell.)
Shaun, on the other hand? Shaun contains multitudes, and so it’s to Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself that we turn to better understand the other half of Canopy Cat Rescue. “Do I contradict myself?” Whitman’s unnamed narrator asks. “Very well then I contradict myself.” The poet may have just as easily been writing about Shaun: He is sweet to cats yet seemingly ill at ease when interacting with his own kind (unless he’s speaking in meows and purrs, at which point it’s the other humans who get uncomfortable). And Whitman once again brings Shaun to mind when he writes, “The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab and my loitering. / I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable”: Shaun is a stay-at-home father, yet he displays the tendencies of an alpha male, scaling trees in his free time as if to reclaim his perch at the top of the animal kingdom. Every time he climbs to the heavens, he’s fighting the forces that would tame his soul. Also, he likes making kissy noises at cats.
This week, in episode six of Treetop Cat Rescue, we pull back yet another layer to find that Shaun is, in fact, a sex symbol. (Fine! The Whitman/Song of Myself metaphor extends only so far.) The episode begins at Thurston County’s Animal Services, where Shaun and Tom plan to host a fundraiser for their operation. It’s a scene meant to convey their dedication to this line of work, but it instead devolves into a gathering of Shaun groupies. After one star-struck woman asks Shaun if he’s married, another — identified only as Linda — asks if his clients ever want to show him any “gratitude” (WINK WINK) for saving their cats. “There is nothing sexier than two guys saving cats,” she later tells the camera, out of earshot of Shaun’s wife, who’s also on hand. (One of the items available for purchase at the fundraiser is a Canopy Cat Rescue calendar, and we can only assume how disappointed Linda was to find that it didn't comprise 12 pictures of a half-naked Shaun cuddling with kittens.)
Shaun’s fangirls have been alluded to before. In episode two Tom informed us with a chuckle that thanks to the many treetop selfies Shaun has taken over his years of rescuing cats, he’s amassed a considerable following of female admirers. But the interactions at the fundraiser are the first real evidence we’ve seen of the phenomenon. (It’s no coincidence that the episode is titled “Cat Scratch Fever.”) And it’s setting up an interesting storyline going forward: If you’ll remember, we learned in episode one that Shaun is married to Tom’s younger sister, Katie. So while Tom plays the whole thing for laughs, it’s hard not to imagine that down deep — like any big brother looking out for his little sister — he’s resentful of the attention that Shaun attracts. Could the producers be foreshadowing familial infighting that will drive a wedge between Tom and Shaun and threaten to destroy the cat-rescuing operation that they’ve worked so hard to create? Seriously, I’m going to be disappointed if the season finale doesn’t end with the brothers-in-law fighting in the treetops, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon–style.
Because this show needs some drama. Once again, both rescues are paint-by-number: The boys get a call, they show up, they climb, something makes the cat skittish, they grab it and put it in the bag, and they descend. Wash, rinse, repeat. The only moment that registers as memorable this week comes when Shaun wonders aloud if he should try to put a cat at ease by putting on a brown wig to look more like its owner. (Another way to read this, though, is that he’s growing so confident in his sex appeal that he’s he knows there’s little he could do to drive away his fans.)
In other words, if this show hopes to get a second season, a retooling may be in order, focusing less on the cats and more on the men who save them. Because one thing is becoming abundantly clear: The show may be called Treetop Cat Rescue, but the real tension is on the ground, between Shaun and Tom. And it may only be a matter of time before the real claws come out. Let’s just hope that the producers have the guts to show it.
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