Human Playground is a six-part docuseries, narrated and produced by Idris Elba that shows how humans play. But it’s not showing people playing Uno or tossing a Frisbee around the yard. These methods of play push humans to their physical and mental limits. It can be pushing through pain, performing cultural rituals or experiencing rites of passage, finding the best and most challenging of earth’s natural wonders, or other reasons, but the people profiled in this series aren’t the type who get injured opening plastic bags, unlike certain sedentary TV critics we know.
HUMAN PLAYGROUND: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
Opening Shot: A shot of a crowd gathering in a circle. Narrator Idris Elba says, “We humans love to play. We’ve been playing since the dawn of our existence.”
The Gist: The first episode is about “breaking the pain barrier,” starting with a woman named Amy, who is attempting to do the Marathon de Sables, a grueling set of six marathons in six days, across the blistering and unforgiving Sahara desert in Morocco. Amy is pushing herself because, having lost her left leg at 19, she wants to prove to herself and others that she can finish such an extreme race.
Other pain-inducing activities include a French bike race where competitors are destined to fall as they navigate their racing bikes over ancient cobblestones, a woman who dives in ice cold waters with nothing more than a swimsuit on, and a group of French men train to avoid charging, horned cows in a bullring.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? Human Playground is somewhat in the same family as the HBO Max docuseries Edge Of The Earth, at least as far as people doing extreme sports is concerned.
Our Take: Two thoughts came to mind as we watched the first episode of Human Playground. First, the cinematography is spectacular, really taking advantage of 4K HDR technology to show detailed, bright, expansive scenery. It’s particularly spectacular during the scenes in the Sahara, with shots of undulating, deep-tan sand dudes, with the tiny figure of Amy climbing up one of the massive dunes.
All four of the segments show how people put themselves in extreme pain in order to “play,” though in this case “play” more means to push yourself until your body gives out. That’s where the second thought comes in: Why do people do this? It’s something that’s answered obliquely with the interviews and Elba’s narration. Sometimes the person doing it an adrenaline junky. Sometimes they want to physical trauma to help them work out emotional trauma. Some, like Amy, are trying to prove something to themselves.
Those reasons drive these people to put themselves in the position to get into these activities, so diving a bit deeper might have been warranted. Still, seeing these people put their lives on the line is fascinating just as they’re presented on the series.
Sex and Skin: None. There may be some brief nudity at points in the series, but that seems to be incidental to just showing how certain people do a particular activity.
Parting Shot: As the French “bull avoider,” who did get hit, is loaded in an ambulance, Elba gives is the old saw, “After all, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”
Sleeper Star: Series director Tomas Kaan has made sure that the cinematography in the series is spectacular. Besides the desert vista we described above, we also appreciated the shot of the diver swimming from under the surface to touch the thick ice that covers the freezing lake she’s diving in.
Most Pilot-y Line: It is kind of strange that an episode that goes into why people experience such high amount of pain by choice would end with the cliched statement “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” It would have been funny if Elba had prefaced that with the phrase, “As Kelly Clarkson sang….”
Our Call: STREAM IT. As you sit on the couch brushing away popcorn crumbs while watching Human Playground, you can be both fascinated and bewildered at the people who put themselves through such pain and other discomfort. Both are valid, and this series does a good job of evoking both reactions.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.