Netflix has really gone all in on documentaries recently, even though they can be something of an acquired taste. But documentary fan or not, every Netflix subscriber should sit down to watch Penguin Town, which hit the service just last week.
Penguin Town isn’t your typical David Attenborough-narrated animal documentary series. It’s more like a reality TV show — albeit one populated by adorable black and white birds, rather than whatever Kardashian knock-offs are popular right now.
I stumbled on Penguin Town completely by accident. Normally, my girlfriend and I have a hell of a time trying to find something to watch together, particularly since we have very different tastes in TV shows. I just started rewatching Star Trek Deep Space Nine, and she’s been watching Sailor Moon Eternal. We make it work, though.
But after a few awkward minutes of show hunting, Penguin Town caught our eye. Penguins are cool, and we had just seen some at a nearby aquarium, so we figured we’d give it a try and see what it was about.
One day later, I can tell you that Penguin Town’s eight episodes are not enough. Within 24 hours we’d finished the batch, and the only reason we didn’t watch all eight in one sitting was because we had a very early start the next day. Something about reality TV with wild animals was really captivating.
What the heck is Penguin Town anyway?
Penguin Town is set in Simon’s Town on the South Western coast of South Africa, and ever since the mid ‘80s it has been home to a colony of African penguins. Evidently Simon’s Town hosts the birds over the summer months during which they nest and breed.
The show follows a number of different penguin families during their summer shenanigans, and anthropomorphizes them to hell and back. These aren’t just animals, these are bird-like people, complete with their own backstories and personalities. It’s a more glamorized look into the lives of these feathered folks, rather than the brutal uncensored footage you’d see in something like the BBC’s Blue Planet.
Needless to say this is not an Attenborough-narrated affair. Instead Netflix called in the vocal talents of comedian Patton Oswalt, whose you may recognize as the voice of Remy the Rat in Ratatouille, or MODOK in Hulu’s MODOK series.
Penguin Town skips the gore, but ramps up the drama
Nature documentaries tend not to shy away from the nasty details about life on Earth. They’ll show the effects of human activity, pollution, or predators actively pursuing and eating other animals on camera. Penguin Town goes a more gentle route, but like all good reality TV, it’s all about the drama.
Whether the penguins are being stalked by predators, rescued from certain death by human conservationists, or getting into scraps with the penguin incels known only as the ‘Car Park Gang,’ they’re always waddling into interesting chaos.
That said, Penguin Town doesn’t exactly shy away from how horrific nature can be to animal life. It just presents those things in a way which probably won’t affect even the most squeamish of people.
And that’s where the show’s charm lies. With a mixture of drama, anthropomorphized protagonists, and loads of tension (especially at the end of each episode), Penguin Town sucks you in. I won’t say too much about those protagonists, to avoid spoiling the show for other people, but needless to say a lot can happen in those eight episodes.
There are always real stakes in nature, but Penguin Town wins by treating its stars like people and making the audience empathize with them as if they were. Except they’re better than people, obviously, because penguins are awesome. Human beings? Less so.
Penguin Town is a novel approach to nature docs, and I want more
I’m not a huge fan of documentaries in general, and watching nature shows always reminds me of being in science class back at school — the last place I want to be. But Penguin Town showed they don’t all need to be the same. In the same way that, say, Captain America: The Winter Soldier can be a superhero adventure and a cold war-inspired spy thriller, documentaries can borrow from other TV genres.
Right now the streaming market is looking pretty saturated, and it’s not enough for services to just ride off the back of a few basic original shows. Innovation is necessary to draw eyes, which is why we’re seeing shows like the bizarre/horrifying dating show Sexy Beasts.
The classic Attenborough-inspired documentary series will always have a place on TV or streaming sites, but Penguin Town is one example of how things could well change over the next few years. And I could not be happier about that.