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Netflix Mashes Reality TV Tropes With the Nature Doc in Penguin Town

The Patton Oswalt-narrated docuseries flip(per)s the genre on its head.
  • Every year a colony of African penguins takes over a small town in South Africa, where they mate and raise their young. (Photo: Netflix)
    Every year a colony of African penguins takes over a small town in South Africa, where they mate and raise their young. (Photo: Netflix)

    Beginning with its opening credits, Penguin Town makes clear that it's not your average nature docuseries. Set to an upbeat pop song, the intro informs viewers that over the course of “six hot months, one wild colony” of African penguins descends upon a small South African community, where the rules of polite society go out the window. The penguins can be seen hooking up (repeatedly), fighting, and trekking through human environments in search of food and shelter.

    Penguin Town’s opening credits even introduce the show's central players, Real Housewives-style: there are the Bougainvilleas, longtime “soulmates” named after the bush where they make their nest; the Culverts, two “newlyweds” who settle beneath a water tunnel; Junior, a “misfit” who has yet to complete his final molt before adulthood; and the “bad guy” predators eager for a penguin snack.

    Reality TV fans will immediately recognize this kind of table-setting as a staple of the genre, with shows like Below Deck, Too Hot to Handle, and Love Island relying on pop-fueled introductions to set the tone and welcome the season’s stars. The catchy opening tune is just one of many reality TV tropes that Penguin Town employs in its quest to flip the nature documentary on its head, and it works. After years of creative experimentation in the docuseries and reality space, Netflix has taken everything it’s learned and put it into Penguin Town, a nature doc unlike anything that’s come before it.

    Netflix has long been invested in nature documentaries, but rarely has it diverted from the form’s traditions. Typically these films and docuseries favor solemnity over frivolity, and they almost always rely on somber, David Attenborough-style narration to make it clear just how difficult survival is in the wild. Instead, in Penguin Town, Netflix has recruited Patton Oswalt, the actor and comedian known for his unique vocal stylings, to provide color commentary, much as Michelle Buteau does on The Circle. At times, Oswalt lowers his tone of voice to reflect the gravity of the penguins’ mission — “to mate their way off the endangered species list” — but he’s just as happy to cheer the penguins on as they dry hump each other across town in order to achieve that goal. It’s a transition that Oswalt makes seamlessly, and the wonderment in his voice both highlights the breathtaking nature of the colony (and the show’s ability to film it), and subverts the genre’s frequent doom and gloom themes.

    Penguin Town further differentiates itself from its cohort by ditching one-off episodes with a singular focus — such as the individual “Coastal Seas” and “Jungles” installments in Our Planet — in favor of a serial approach that carries across the entire eight-episode season. Each episode we dive deeper into the Bougainvilleas’ family dynamic, Junior’s struggle to shed the last of his baby fur, and the Culverts’ land dispute with the other penguins, ensuring that each of these stories is central to the season’s arc, much like Francesca and Harry's will they-won't they romance grounded Too Hot to Handle. When something tragic does happen (this is still a wildlife show, after all), viewers are that much more invested, as we’ve now spent nearly four hours with these adorable, flightless birds.

    There’s even a nod to streaming-age dramas, with each episode of Penguin Town concluding on a cliffhanger. Just when the Culverts have laid their first eggs, or when Junior manages to snag a meal, Netflix amps up the suspenseful music, Oswalt’s voice drops, and the screen cuts to black. With these cuddly creatures in such dire straits, how can you not press that “Watch Next Episode” button?

    Given the penguins' overwhelming cuteness — watching them waddle around the beach, into homes, and through parking lots dressed as if they’re headed to a black-tie affair is nothing less than captivating — Penguin Town probably would have been a massive hit for Netflix even without its jazzed-up, reality TV-inspired format. But by taking the lessons learned from dating shows like Love Is Blind, adding in a few drama conventions, and mixing them with the beloved nature documentary format, Netflix has created the perfect mashup. Much like the African penguins of Simon’s Town, South Africa, it seems likely that Penguin Town will be back again next year with a new batch of birds ready to take their place atop your streaming queue.

    All eight episodes of Penguin Town drop Wednesday June 16 on Netflix.

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    Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.

    TOPICS: Penguin Town, Netflix, David Attenborough