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A True Reality Show: The Unexpectedly Distressing ‘Our Planet’

Nature docuseries have traditionally been more of a comfort watch for curious animal-lovers. David Attenborough’s new Netflix series is decidedly not that.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The skeleton key to Our Planet, Netflix’s foray into the flourishing ecosystem of nature documentaries, is the word “remain.” In the voiceover that introduces each episode, narrator David Attenborough promises a survey of Earth’s natural wonders in all their splendor—or at least the ones we’ve left standing. Before Our Planet has shown a single mating songbird or grazing wildebeest, it’s already harshed its own vibe.

Our Planet is an unusually brazen instance of a deep-pocketed tech company airlifting a successful TV show template through sheer financial might. Not that Netflix is alone in adapting this strategy: Amazon is currently developing a fashion competition show starring the former co-hosts of Project Runway and a would-be next Game of Thrones with the quarter-billion dollar rights to another beloved series of epic fantasy novels. The marquee offering of Apple’s soon-to-launch TV+ streaming service will Voltron together the stars of Big Little Lies, Friends, and The Office. Our Planet, meanwhile, doesn’t just follow in the footsteps of the BBC’s bar-setting opus Planet Earth. Its production company, Silverback Films, is headed by Planet Earth and Blue Planet maestro Alastair Fothergill; its distinctive sound is that of Attenborough, the nonagenarian whose trademark instrument my colleague Brian Phillips has described as “somewhere between the voice of a golf announcer and the voice of a loving god.”

Plenty of tropes carry over from Planet Earth to its successor. Shot over four years in 50 countries, Our Planet can’t resist the occasional humblebrag about just how difficult and rare it is to capture an Arabian leopard in the wild, or a concentration of cheetahs hunting as a group. Episodes are organized into biomes like “Frozen Worlds” and “Fresh Water,” hopscotching continents to spotlight nature’s recurring patterns. Scoring and narration help anthropomorphize the animals onscreen, turning courtship rituals into full-blown relationships and the everyday work of survival into an epic struggle.

But Our Planet distinguishes itself by emphasizing nature’s fragility as much as its beauty. Attenborough’s script is deeply concerned with the immediate effects and potential fallout of climate change. Forests and ice caps are shown shrinking from space to emphasize the sheer scale of humankind’s destruction; animals are depicted suffering the consequences of limited resources to show the intimate and devastating impact of global warming. So distressing are certain passages of Our Planet that Netflix issued a content warning for certain scenes that might disturb sensitive viewers, complete with time stamps. An interlude featuring walruses, overcrowded by vanishing sea ice onto a rocky beach, tumbling off a sheer cliff face to their likely deaths has already become infamous. Emotional trauma is an occupational hazard more commonly associated with slasher films than ecological surveys, but in this case the heads up is warranted.

If Our Planet’s intention is to impress upon viewers the gravity of the crisis facing its namesake, Fothergill and his team succeed. But in the process, the show threads several tricky lines: between the expectations of viewers and the goals of producers; between the need to communicate a message and keep audiences engaged so they can absorb it. How will those who tune in expecting a mellow, possibly THC-assisted evening of stunning visuals react to an abject lesson in the impending apocalypse? Once they’ve been suitably cowed by the carnage we’ve wrought on our home and its occupants, will viewers have the will to continue or will they remain curled into the fetal position on their couch?

Like many, I took in the recent Planet Earth and Blue Planet sequels in long, sustained gulps. I wanted to live in the world these shows presented—or rather, take reassurance in the knowledge I already did. These updates included their fair share of concessions to environmental realities, including a heartbreaking sequence in which newly hatched sea turtles were drawn to city lights instead of the sea. Mostly, however, they served as an escape from the pressures of everyday life, not a reminder of them. Nature documentaries tend to emphasize the simplicity of life in the wild, in contrast with the complexities of human civilization. Much like the gathering spots where the film crews strategically position their cameras, they serve as an oasis, a resting place for weary travelers to zone out and take in some beauty.

Our Planet does not have this same effect, nor is it meant to. Rather than illustrate nature’s separation from humanity, Our Planet underscores how every region explored is connected on a geologic level—and that disrupting any point on this supply chain can lead to an unpleasant domino effect. Ice caps reflect sunlight back into space, keeping the rest of the planet cool; rainforests emit clouds of vapor, which result in precipitation hundreds if not thousands of miles away. Interfere with one part of these reactions, as we continue to with alarming speed, and you choke off the other. Even the rare unsullied patch of land Our Planet manages to stake out comes with a reminder that while this watering hole may be legally protected from poachers and development, others aren’t. A scenic interlude in a Madagascar forest is followed by a somber announcement the grove has been razed entirely since filming.

Our Planet impresses the dire threat posed by climate change and unchecked growth; it does not quite inspire the compulsion to continue watching. This is not, precisely, Our Planet’s stated goal; on the spectrum of education to entertainment, this show skews heavily toward the former. At times, such commitment to principle sharpens Our Planet’s appeal as an empathetic argument for climate justice. At others, the prospect of queuing up yet another cavalcade of man-made atrocities heightens the temptation to defect for lighter fare. This creates something of a dilemma: Can Our Planet fully get its point across if receptive viewers can’t bear to stick around? Ironically, the very sympathy Our Planet works to foster is exactly what can make it so hard to endure.

Fittingly, Our Planet’s most optimistic scene is also, in another light, its grimmest. The show’s final episode, “Forests,” includes a look at an unlikely hotspot: the ruins of Chernobyl. Among Soviet-era signage and concrete apartment blocs, trees have flourished and wildlife moved in. The result is a lush, haunting postapocalypse, with shades of films like Annihilation or Stalker—except this dreamscape is very much real. In the forced absence of human life, nature has reclaimed itself, with wolves and deer thriving where radiation-infected Homo sapiens cannot. Here, Our Planet presents a potential solution to its seemingly intractable problems. Earth is surprisingly durable, capable of recovering once its immediate source of distress is removed from the picture. Our Planet may be able to survive after all. The question is: Will we?