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Our Great National Parks, Reviewed: Barack Gets Beachy
[REUPLOAD] originally posted May 11, 2022
A couple weeks ago, a new billboard showed up on Sunset Boulevard. It was an ad for a Netflix show, and it had all the trappings of a good ol’ nature doc. The lioness and her cub gazing into each other’s eyes. The grand savannah at golden hour; the blue mountains in the background. All of it in glistening, bristling 4k resolution. And then the reverent, all-caps title in white, sans-serif font: OUR GREAT NATIONAL PARKS. Cue the angels singing.
But then, off to the side, in smaller (white, sans-serif) font: narrated by BARACK OBAMA. Cue the angels…murmuring in confusion amongst themselves?
Obama! I thought, when I saw the ad. Don’t you have more important things to do? But then again, the next day was 4/20, and I, unlike Obama, do not have more important things to do. So the next night I popped a gluten-free, dairy-free weed brownie and proceeded to watch it.
Let me tell you: this show is a whole lotta Obama, right off the bat. You get Obama walking barefoot on the beach with his shirt untucked and half-unbuttoned. You get Obama with rolled-up sleeves. You get Obama with cuffed jeans wet to the shins with sea spray. You get an ankle-height close-up of these aforementioned cuffed (!) wet (!!) jeans in case you missed it the first time. You get a 360º panorama of Obama’s upper body while he rubs his hands and gazes out pensively – oh, so pensively – onto the ocean. It’s very early 2010’s/nostalgic mid-2010’s lib porn, and he knows it.
Confusingly, the show isn’t even about America’s national parks. It’s about the national parks of the world, which is honestly very cool, plus it explains the lions on the billboard. But it makes Obama’s connection to the material even looser. Sure, he is a citizen of the world, but last I checked, he’s more famous for being the 44th President of the United States. Which he studiously avoids mentioning as a reason he gets to do this show. Instead, he explains his qualifications as follows: 1) when his mom was pregnant with him, she used to come to the beach to listen to the ocean, and 2) a few years after that, she brought him to live in Indonesia for a while. Cool, Obama, but it feels like ya skipped something, ya know?
I guess I don’t really know what former Presidents are “supposed” to do. Make shitty paintings? Endorse their wives for the same office in which they got impeached? Neither of those is more compelling than “star in a universally likable Netflix show about elephants.” But any moment I spent watching this show during which I didn’t feel the usual blazed awe at the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of ecosystems where we haven’t obliterated biodiversity for good, I felt the tug of this nagging question: Obama, why did you do this?
Certainly not to say anything new, incisive, or politically actionable about conservation or environmentalism. It was probably naïve to hope he would, but I still found myself vexed by the show’s closing monologue, which begins with Obama delivering such empty platitudes as “we’ve got to do more” and ends with his breathtakingly out-of-touch command to “Vote. Like the planet depends on it.” Over a shot of a heart-shaped lake, no less.
It’s just SO smug. In the course of five episodes, Obama has identified exactly zero policies a viewer might vote for. He hasn’t so much as whispered the phrases “carbon tax” or “Green New Deal.” He’s pointed out how farmers on lands bordering national parks in other countries receive federal compensation for crops lost to the parks’ protected wildlife, but he hasn’t demonstrated how or where that could happen in America, much less how to advocate for that legislation as an individual. He’s calibrated a carefully neutral, apolitical, ratings-friendly rallying cry. But it’s vaguer than a SparkNotes summary of a Patagonia ad, and it doesn’t work for me.
Let’s put aside the reasons the average American citizen’s faith in the power of their vote might be justifiably eroded at the moment; that conversation clearly exists outside the scope of this show. Let’s just say: it’s a weensy bit tiresome for Obama to preach that “each of us has a role to play” in protecting our wild spaces. (Like, sure, but tell it to Joe Manchin?) It’s an irresponsible omission to declare that “national parks are one of our greatest achievements” without recognizing that the American national parks system was built by still-idolized racists whose primary goal was to clear Native peoples from their ancestral lands in order to “protect” it for rich white people’s recreation. It’s unhelpful to declare we need “accessible” wild spaces without offering context on how race, class, and ability create interlocking obstacles to access. And it’s meaningless to promote “smarter climate practices” Without! Naming! What! Those! Are!
It’s feel-good bullshit, and while that may be acceptable from almost every other nature documentary I turn on to soothe myself into oblivion, it’s really fucking irritating when it’s sold to me as political wisdom from a public intellectual. “Demand to protect our last wildernesses,” Obama instructs me, five days after Biden announces his plan to sell off more public land for gas and oil drilling. Sure. Great. I’m on it. I’ll just go ahead and chug right along through the devastating dramatic irony of everyday American citizenship :)
The Obama of Our Great National Parks is either living in the past, when pithy but unspecific (and therefore useless) political slogans seemed inspiring, or he’s a cynic capitalizing on his overdeveloped skills at public speaking without taking an actual stand on anything he would catch flak for. In my mom’s words: “I don’t like it when rich people cash in on their names and associate with mediocre work.” Damn. Mama knows best.
I fear I sound too much like a Twittered-out grump machine, so I should say: setting aside Obama’s missed opportunity to use his platform for a meaningful education in environmentalist issues, this show does exactly what a nature doc is supposed to do. It relaxed me, it taught me exciting yet forgettable fun facts about hippopotami, it looked gorgeous all the way through, and several times, it made me think, “Holy shit, this is an animal that EXISTS???” All the nature content was extremely palatable and scratched the exact innocuous itch a nature doc should. Chef’s kiss!
But if you’re still looking to scratch an ~intellectual~ itch…
For robustly reported, community-oriented TV that rejects the false dichotomy between urban ecosystems and “untouched” wilderness, check out John Oliver’s piece on environmental racism.
For a much smarter media analysis of why Obama’s blissfully oblivious optimism has aged so poorly in art & entertainment, here’s Constance Grady for Vox.
I don’t have a third thing, but three bullet points look better than two, no?