Our Great National Parks is the latest five-part nature documentary series from Netflix, Wild Space Productions, and Michelle and former President Barack Obama’s production company, Higher Ground. In a crowded, post-Attenborough genre, and in a world tearing itself apart, the series tries something kind of radical. It tries to sell you hope.
Netflix’s new five-part documentary series, Our Great National Parks, opens with the gentle shushing of waves, and a drone zooming low over Hawai’i’s Hanauma Bay, where we see a lone figure in a linen shirt, walking slowly over the sand. Wait a minute… that’s former President Barack Obama.
He looks older than I remember him, but without that exhausted, beaten-down, pursued-by-wolves vibe he seemed to carry around late in office. The eyes are still bright and intelligent. The hands move and bounce with every oratorical beat.
“I grew up in Hawaii. This was my backyard,” he says with that trademark, yes-we-can, Obama cadence. “My love of the natural world [slight pause] began here.”
When you choose Barack Obama as the voice and face of your new flagship nature documentary, you invite political commentary and (let’s face it) partisan attacks. It’s inevitable. Which makes Our Great National Parks kind of interesting, because it’s a show that wants more from us than your average wildlife doco series. The Obama choice was deliberate, and not just for PR purposes. The show isn’t about cute, anthropomorphized animals and soaring 4K drone footage—although, to be fair, there’s plenty of both of those. It’s more about us, and our relationship with nature. The good and the bad.
In short, it’s a series about hope. The thing, as Emily Dickinson wrote, “with feathers that perches in the soul. And sings the tune without the words. And never stops at all.”