Babies can’t really talk.
At least not in the way that documentary participants tend to. It’s an unfortunate fact that puts the Netflix series “Babies” at a bit of a disadvantage — making a six-part series about toddlers means that it’s impossible to get traditional input from its main subjects. What “Babies” chooses instead to fill that time is an unexpected blend of toddler reaction shots and an overestimation of the rousing nature of peer-reviewed studies on adolescent behavior.
At the outset, “Babies” touts that it will follow the development of a select, cross-continental group of infants as they develop from their opening days after birth through their many early developmental milestones. One by one, each successive newborn is introduced, along with their parents, spread out mainly across England and rural New England.
What comes to dominate most of “Babies” is a science-heavy dose of “tell, not show,” led by a parade of international experts serving as translators for the experiences that viewers occasionally get to see for themselves. Neurological and behavioral experts from a global collection of prestigious institutes of higher learning relay their most pivotal findings.
These two threads — the babies and field experts — aren’t exactly incompatible. In many cases, what the featured scientist is expounding on ends up being relevant when the attention swings back to the little one crawling around on a living room or gurgling in a high chair. Even still, there’s a strange disconnect between the theoretical and the practical, as the show’s guiding pendulum swings between a holistic approach to cognitive behavior and the families that more or less selectively prove the point.
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What makes “Babies” feel like a missed opportunity is that if the show wanted to double down on viewing early adolescent development through an experimental lens, it already has a perfect set of test cases at its disposal. There’s real insight in seeing how — removed from any qualitative judgment or hierarchy of preference — different babies in different environments progress in their own physical and temperamental ways. Given that each episode really only has room for a handful of babies, what comes in its place are a few montages of things like week-by-week crawling techniques. (One of the most incisive observations in the episode about language comes when one of the babies’ older sisters learns she’s known how to translate between French and English before even knowing the word for what she’s doing.)
Not every documentary trying to speak to human nature has to take the “Seven Up” mantle, but it’s hard to watch this and not want more of that iconic series of docs’ DNA. With tantalizing glimpses into how each of these little ones are grasping the vital changes that the first months of life can bring, there’s still precious little that viewers come to understand about the babies themselves, aside from the fact that they have parents willing to film some private moments that aren’t usually subjects of home movies.
To the show’s credit, those moments do offer some sort of counterbalance to standard parenting-focused programming, particularly other series rooted solely in giving advice. Though “Babies” doesn’t have the narrative real estate to offer an effective cross-section of global experiences in child rearing, there’s an attempt to show and examine the resultant changes in moving outside a heteronormative understanding of a baby’s potential family life.
Yet again, if the babies themselves can’t fulfill the traditional role of main documentary subjects, the parents also get sidelined to some extent. Rather than view the development of individual children through the perspective of the parents trying to adapt to the ways their baby doesn’t fit the mold, the show foregrounds the triumphs of scientists trying to shape that mold in new ways. Again, those elements aren’t necessarily at odds with each other, but “Babies” is akin to watching a documentary about falling in love that spotlights couples but also leans primarily on the testimony of dating app experts. There’s a story to tell there, but the priorities seem skewed.
One of the strangest choices of “Babies” is to use plentiful footage of animals and adults to illustrate concepts of human children. True, babies aren’t a monolith and understanding them means going outside a narrow focus. “Babies” is just at a perpetual disadvantage by how far it strays from the actual thing that gives the show its title. Even if they can’t put their experiences into words, there’s the feeling that these babies still have more to tell than the people speaking for them.
“Babies” is now available to stream on Netflix.