Netflix seems to be all in on the outdoors and survival lately. The streaming platform has released a flurry of new shows that look at what happens when humans and nature collide, from a docuseries about the earthquake that devastated Nepal and Everest in 2015, to a dramatized retelling of the 2018 rescue of a Thai soccer team in a flooded cave. We can’t resist stories of the human spirit prevailing in the face of nature’s fury, but we know your time is precious and you can only binge so many shows before your loved ones start to worry. So we watched the latest batch of Netflix’s adventure-minded shows to determine if they’re worth your time. Here’s what we thought.
Aftershock: Everest and the Nepal Earthquake
In 2015, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake shook Nepal from Everest down to Kathmandu, killing almost 9,000 people. Aftershock is a three-part documentary that takes a look at the earthquake and the devastating toll it took by weaving together the stories of climbers on Mount Everest, a hotel-owner and his family in Kathmandu, and trekkers in the remote Langtang Valley. A phenomenon of natural disasters in the modern age is that everyone has a camera in their pocket to document what’s happening in real time. The filmmakers make use of this, splicing actual footage from the three locations with interviews of survivors to tell the story of the earthquake from a variety of perspectives. The series opens with headcam footage at Everest Basecamp from a climber getting enveloped by an avalanche. It gets more disturbing from there. You see buildings crumbling in Kathmandu, and people panicking in the streets amid falling debris. You watch headcam footage from Everest as climbers navigate the ladders up and around the Khumbu ice fall as the earth shakes. There are still photos shown of the complete decimation of a remote village high in the Langtang Valley.
Aftershock gets even darker while exploring the period after the earthquake, when the threat shifts from an unstable physical environment to unstable humans. Villagers and trekkers turn on each other in the Langtang village, climbers stuck on Everest go head-to-head, and international teams of rescuers jockey for power in the rubble of Kathmandu.
And yet, Aftershock transcends mother doom and gloom territory. The filmmakers take their time with the event, building narratives around several victims so that the series is more than just a collection of disaster footage. It’s the tale of human nature in the most dire of circumstances.
Watch It If: You need another reason not to climb Everest.
Thai Cave Rescue
At this point, you know the story: a Thai soccer team of 12 kids and their coach get trapped in a cave when an unexpected monsoon floods the entrance. You know it because we were all engrossed in the wall-to-wall media coverage during the 18-day ordeal in 2018. And you know it because it’s been the subject of at least two documentaries (one by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi) and a feature film directed by Ron Howard. But those films told the story from the rescuer’s perspective. Thai Cave Rescue is a six-part dramatization of the event from the perspective of the soccer players, their families, and the local authorities. Netflix negotiated the rights to the story with the Thai government and used Thai and Thai-American directors, executive producers, and actors to give us the local’s perspective. The series was even shot on location in the actual cave where the soccer team was trapped.
It’s an inspirational story, and I’m glad the human beings at the heart of it are getting their due. Go Wild Boards! But don’t go into this series thinking it’s a slick Hollywood production. First of all, Netflix automatically defaults to running the dubbed-in-English version of the show. The dubbing is terrible—like old school Kung Fu movie stereotype terrible—and cuts the legs completely out of the story as it unfolds. That’s not the filmmakers’ or actors’ fault, though, and you can opt to watch the series in its original Thai language with English subtitles. I urge you to do that. Yet even watching it in Thai doesn’t make up for the fact that the writing is often bad, leaning into melodrama more often than not.
But the relationship between the coach and the players is interesting, and how they managed to survive inside that cave for so long largely because of that bond is something worth seeing, even if the writers had a heavy hand with the dialogue. Personally, I was fascinated by the details of the Thai kids’ lives—how religion is woven into their day-to-day and how diverse their socioeconomic backgrounds were. The show gives us a look at another culture on the other side of the world that many of us know nothing about. That alone makes Thai Cave Rescue worth the watch.
Watch It If: You ever wondered how those kids got into the cave in the first place.
Here’s how I know this series is good: both of my 13-year-old children got sucked into it and watched three episodes in a row with me. They didn’t even look at their phones. Do you know how hard it is to hold a 13-year-old’s attention in 2022? When there are cat videos on Insta and hand-dances on TikTok? Aim Human Playground has the magic sauce of Hollywood A-lister Idris Elba’s soothing-but-authoritative voice, stunning scenery, wild athletic feats, and cultural intrigue. Each of the six episodes explores how different people “play” in the outdoors. Sometimes that play is running the Marathon de Sables in Morocco’s Sahara desert. Sometimes it’s sumo wrestling in Japan or hunting with eagles in Kurdistan or using really tall sticks to jump over creeks and ponds in the Netherlands.
We travel to Ethiopia and learn how the notion of play evolved from the need to survive when ancient tribes were at war with each other, while watching two families play a “game” where the men strip naked and hit each other with sticks. In Madagascar, we learn that play can be a rite of passage as young men try to hold onto a raging bull’s hump for as long as they can, mostly to show how tough they are to the women in their village.
All the while, Elba is discussing the cultural significance of these mesmerizing athletic feats and trying to discern how different forms of play help define us as humans. It’s a lofty task, but Elba and the filmmakers succeed by focusing on the details and largely leaving the answers to the big questions up to the viewers. Along the way, we get gems from the subjects of each segment. Kiki Bosch is a young woman who dives beneath the ice in sub-20-degree lakes to cope with the trauma of sexual assault. She tells us that “physical pain is stress leaving the body.” And Talgar, a middle-aged man in Kurdistan who hunts with eagles for fun, muses, “If a person doesn’t play, he ages quickly.”
The Human Playground is absolutely mesmerizing. It had me questioning the sanity of humans in general and being envious of their bravery and skill, often in the same breath. It’s inspiring and confounding at the same time. And after watching it, I really, really wanted to try jumping over creeks with a very long stick and racing behind a reindeer while wearing skis.
watch it if: You want to find new ways to push yourself.