[This post originally appeared as part of Recommendation Machine, IndieWire’s daily TV picks feature.]
There’s a well-established nature doc series format. Any decision to stray away from the familiar rests on the edge between distracting and distinctive. Give the audience a POV of the animal in question? Use some special lenses to show activity at night? Zero in on neon-colored creatures so otherworldly they seem alien? All have been (and probably will remain) viable options for other series.
But as long as you’re using one, picking a narrator can be one of those key choices. For the new Netflix original “Animal,” a different household name helps set the stage for each corner of the animal kingdom. Rashida Jones talks about big cats, Bryan Cranston connects foxes and wolves to household dogs, and Rebel Wilson brings a lighthearted touch to the world of marsupials. It’s the final chapter on the octopus that’s the standout here, due in part to the contributions of Pedro Pascal.
Setting aside the fact that these episode topics seem dictated by previous Netflix algorithm success — If these are the nature-doc counterparts of sorts to “Tiger King,” “Dogs,” and “My Octopus Teacher,” should we be expecting a “Kangaroo Jack” reboot soon? — Pascal’s part in this is a savvy tweak to expectations. It helps that this episode largely dispenses with imposing human impulses and psychology on animals. Instead, Pascal gets to revel in the straightforward majesty of these eight-tentacled marvels.
Although, it’s key that Pascal’s narration isn’t marked just by wonder. Whether or not it’s informed by his other big role where you don’t see his face, there’s a certain even-keeled approach here that lets the animals on screen be the real stars. There’s a ripple of awe and a tinge of danger when predators start circling, but for the most part, this is the kind of narration you want when focusing on creatures who glide gracefully and exacting through the ocean water. It’s not that slightly more enthusiastic narration isn’t welcome (Laura Carmichael’s work on “A Wild Year on Earth” really is excellent). It’s just that Pascal’s steadiness here really helps keep all the globe-hopping segments cohesive.
Aside from the vocal components here, this octopus episode also benefits from having one of the more visually dynamic subjects in all of nature. Luminescent at times and with an ability to color-shift camouflage, there’s so much to take in when these octopuses (the show’s preferred plural) are in motion. The most striking moments — not coincidentally when this footage is allowed to play out in real time, not sliced up like sashimi — come when they’re in confined spaces, for protection either in caves, simple structures of their own making, or found shells on the ocean floor. Watching those prehensile limbs ripple through a small area is just as impressive as any squid spray or outstretched attack pose.
The “Animal” approach to underwater showdowns is another way that Pascal makes for a good complement. While some shows are able to wring an incredible amount of drama out of interspecies battles, there’s something almost as effective in recognizing that any particular predator/prey dynamic can easily be an unremarkable fact of daily life, too. After an octopus snatches crabs off a tidepool surface, Pascal explains that this has to happen at least 5 times a day for the fast-growing cephalopod to stay nourished. There’s a workmanlike matching of action and delivery that zeroes in on the more practical side of nature just as well as it can the fantastical.
Pair It With: There is no shortage of nature-focused podcasts in the world. A fruitful place to start depends on what you want from a particular show. For reporting and analysis that breaks down the ecological challenges and realities of an evolving climate, New Hampshire Public Radio’s “Outside/In” is a dependably fascinating collection. If you’re looking for a sensory experience, “Off Track” and host Ann Jones mix that nature storytelling with an added emphasis on basking in the sounds of wildlife and beyond.
(Oh, and if “Animal” gets a Season 2, here’s a humble request to use this LUMP song as a new theme.)