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Nature documentaries can be as dry as dust. Think about all the docs you’ve seen where the narrator uses a soothing monotone, or a David Attenborough-voiced doc where even his enthusiasm isn’t enough to keep you from falling asleep. The best of the more recent nature documentaries and docuseries use humor to tell the stories of the animals they follow around. Penguin Town takes this form to a new level.
Opening Shot: A shot of sunset over the ocean. Then we see swimming penguins; narrator Patton Oswalt says, “There are a lot of movies about penguins.”
The Gist: Oswalt narrates (and is an EP of) Penguin Town, an 8-part docuseries about a group of African penguins who annually decamp for summer mating season in the resort town of Simon’s Town, South Africa. Yep, these penguins aren’t perching themselves on a glacier or floating on an ice floe; these penguins — the locals call them “jackass penguins” — mingle with the residents and tourists in the sunny, warm climate, hoping to find a good spot to mate, lay eggs and take care of their new chicks.
The penguins are pretty brazen, having no issue walking amongst people and nesting in residential gardens. The series follows three sets of penguins: A veteran couple dubbed “The Bougainviellas”, a pair of “Newlyweds” dubbed “The Culverts”, and “Junior,” a young bird on his own for the first time.
The first episode shows that, once the couples find a nest, they go back to the water to hunt sardines, while dodging predators like fur seals. The idea is to get as fat as they can to get through both the molting season and mating/caring for eggs. For the Bougainviellas, this is old hat; what they have to contend with is a “grumpy neighbor” who wants to take over their nest under a bush.
After we see the Culverts “meet cute” and get to know each other, we see them searching out a home where they can nest. It’s hard; all the more experienced penguin couples are snapping up the prime real estate. They find a spot under a fence, with concrete barriers and an ocean view. Let the mating commence!
Meanwhile, Junior, who hunts for fish by himself instead of as part of a raft of fellow penguins, doesn’t have enough fat reserves to go through the molt that will change his feathers from a juvenile brown to an adult black. He’s shivering and starving, but then he looks up and sees a person reaching out for him.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? March of the Penguins, but funnier and warmer (literally and figuratively). This reminds us more of some of the Disney nature documentaries where narrators like John C. Reilly, John Krasinski and Tina Fey mix the funny in with the touching and dramatic.
Our Take: How do you make an 8-episode, 4-hour docuseries our of penguins mating? Make them into characters, of course! Many nature films, like the Disney ones we describe above, do this. But Penguin Town really leans into it, giving each character their own graphic and giving them actual backstories. It’s one thing to call a penguin by a human name, but making one couple the “Bougainviellas” and another the “Culverts” is a step beyond. And it makes Penguin Town a funny and adorable show to watch.
It takes some doing to sketch out a storyline for a nature documentary. And we’d imagine that Oswalt helped EPs Brian Armstrong and Shannon Malone-Debenedictis in this regard. The filmmakers went to South Africa to film these endangered penguins in an environment that people don’t expect to see them — among people, in a warm environment. Then whittling down the hundreds of hours of footage, they see storylines emerge. At that point, we suspect Oswalt was there to punch up the comedy, as he has done on scripts throughout his entire career. If he wasn’t the one to come up with a name like “Bougainviellas,” then we’d be shocked.
Are some of the moments corny? Sure. But the humor Oswalt brings to the show really makes for an easygoing, fun watch. Too many nature docs take themselves too seriously, making for movies and shows that are a struggle to get through unless you have a true fascination for the animals being followed. What Penguin Town does is follow the tradition that these animals – and in this case, the humans interacting with them — can be funny as well as graceful. Informing while entertaining is the key, and this show definitely gives us a picture of a type of penguin we’ve never seen before.
Sex and Skin: Some penguin smooches and a scene where the Culverts mate. Still, even the mating scene is pretty safe for your nature-loving kids.
Parting Shot: We see a pair of human legs next to the scrawny, shivering, half-molted Junior. Then we see a camera shot from his perspective and the blurry form of a female conservationist. “What the…?” Oswalt says as the woman reaches down to grab Junior.
Sleeper Star: Poor little Junior. Seeing him half-molted and stuck was one of the more heart-rending moments of the episode.
Most Pilot-y Line: Like many nature docs, there are lame lines, like when Oswalt says about the Culverts, “It’s a nice day for a black-and-white wedding,” referencing an old Billy Idol song (“White Wedding”) that he never wrote with mating penguins in mind.
Our Call: STREAM IT. With the requisite beautiful photography and a funny but warm narration from Oswalt, Penguin Town is definitely something you can either binge or dip in and out of, especially if you’ve bought into the penguins as something akin to sitcom characters.
Will you stream or skip the humorous nature docuseries #PenguinTown on @netflix?
— Decider (@decider) June 17, 2021
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.
Stream Penguin Town On Netflix
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