Friends, in these trying times, shall we try out a lil escapism, as a treat? Binge-watching the Marvel movies in chronological order might seem a magnificent pastime when a brain break is in order, but honestly, the explosions just end up blending together. And, yeah, we all relish Kardashian bickering as background noise, but when our favorite reality shows can’t satisfy a craving, desperation sets in. Sometimes we need to be soothed. Sometimes we need to take a walk outside—without actually, like, going outside.
Enter: The wonderful world of nature documentaries. They’re the perfect blend of entertaining and informative. You get cute baby pandas and horrifying sea monsters for the price of one. Nature docs are kinda like all-you-can-eat salad and breadsticks at Olive Garden: a little bit good for you, but still very indulgent. You can ogle stunning vistas while learning some weird fact about monkeys that’ll impress your next Hinge date. Plus, if anyone ever accuses you of spending “too much time watching TV,” you can politely respond, “Um, excuse you, I’m learning.” Documentaries are basically school.
But finding the best ones to watch can be a struggle. So let’s get wild. Here’s what we recommend for a raucous night in spent, uh, exploring the great outdoors.
Listen, this Emmy Award-winning Netflix original series is pretty much Nature Documentary 101. If you’re looking for a rabbit hole to jump down as you spiral toward true Documentary Nerd-dom, this is where you start. Explore tundras, jungles, fields and oceans from the comfort of your IKEA furniture. Truly, the dream.
The Ivory Game
If you didn’t already care about elephants—first of all, how dare you—there’s no chance you’ll walk away from watching this without your heartstrings thoroughly tugged. Digging deep into the insidious corruption in the ivory trade, The Ivory Game’s filmmakers went undercover as poachers to understand how the slaughter of African elephants continues to be so prominent (and lucrative).
This might not make for the most relaxing TV dinner, but you’ll have a better understanding of the context hurting both humans and animals worldwide.
Growing Up Wild
You knew we wouldn’t let you leave without some ~baby content~. Five baby animals. Learning to survive. All curated and presented by Disney, makers of many of our favorite (cartoon) animals. Stressed? Need a pick-me-up? You don’t even need to go scrolling for puppy videos on your Insta explore page! Just click “play” on this doc, and you’re set for the next hour and 17 minutes. What a time we live in.
Maybe you’re antsy for a little Arctic adventure as you brew your fourth cup of work-from-home coffee today. Or maybe you need a healthy dose of climate anxiety! (It’s okay. We all needed to channel Greta Thunberg, uh, yesterday?)
You’ll see the damage we’re doing to our world firsthand in this illuminating (and terrifying) documentary from environmental photographer James Balog. Watching time-lapsed footage of our ever-changing glaciers, you’ll be transfixed—and motivated to make major life changes.
Ken Burns: The National Parks – America’s Best Idea
Ken Burns!!! What screams “documentary” more than the man you watched so many times in high school when your history teacher didn’t feel like giving a real lesson?
Ken is at his best in the director’s seat—a throne for the king!—and this show is one of his finest works. Following the history of America’s national parks from their creation in the mid-1800s to now, we see firsthand how many forces continue to threaten the wild places we hold dear.
On a side note, vote to protect parks!!!
This is the gold standard of nature documentaries, and for good reason. It’s got everything—mountains, caves, deserts, and more importantly, the narration of Sir David Attenborough. Did you know that there are undersea volcanoes taller than Mt. Everest? Well, you would if you watched Planet Earth! You’d also to get see a snow leopard, an animal so rare that it took three years to film one for the show.
Blue Planet II
Yet another David Attenborough joint, this sequel series is all about the ocean, a crazy alien place that is not even remotely as cute as Finding Nemo made it look. Fish are vicious and insane, as you will learn after watching the deep-ocean-centric “The Deep,” an episode of television that has haunted me for years.
This acclaimed 2013 documentary tells the story of Tilikum, an orca responsible for the deaths of three people over the course of his 30-year captivity. The movie paints a particularly damning picture of SeaWorld, which claimed that Blackfish is “misleading.” In March 2016, however, SeaWorld announced plans to phase out their orca shows and breeding programs.
Nominated for an Academy Award in 2014 (and executive-produced by your boyfriend Leonardo DiCaprio), this documentary spotlights Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the conservationists working to make sure it remains a haven for mountain gorillas. The park remains a source of conflict as the government considers whether or not to drill for oil in nearby areas.
Guess who’s back again? David Attenborough! He likes nature, okay? Similar in scope to Planet Earth, Life focuses on the ways different species have evolved in order to survive, with each episode zeroing in on a different group like mammals, reptiles, and birds. Don’t discount the “Plants” episode either—finding water in the desert is hard.
Dogs With Jobs
It’s exactly what it sounds like—a show about dogs that have jobs. It can be corny at times, but you’ll be able to look past it because there’s truly nothing better than a dog who’s found his purpose in life.
This is the last David Attenborough documentary on this list, I promise. If “Ice Worlds” is your favorite episode of Planet Earth, this is where you should go next, because the show is entirely about life in the Arctic and Antarctic. Pro tip: Skip to episode two to learn about the narwhal, aka the unicorn of the sea.
You don’t get the title of “most-watched documentary film series on public television” without some really excellent shots of lions, eagles, and everyone’s favorite trash panda: raccoons. To watch all of the seasons, you’ll have to shell out some cash, but here’s a pro tip: Season 4 is free to stream with Amazon Prime.
Night On Earth
We all love to watch meerkats pop their tiny heads out from under the earth, but rarely do we get to see such lovable interactions under the cover of darkness. This fascinating series peels back the mystery of night, exploring how lions and bats alike survive (and thrive) after the sun goes down.
The Wildest series is a nature doc staple, filming in locations such as Africa, the Arctic and Indochina. But these particular episodes hone in on paradise, where islands along Japan, Sri Lanka, the Caribbean and more provide a home to thousands of bold, brilliant species. You’ll find yourself wanting to book a flight immediately—or, as soon as you finish binging the series, anyway.