In these sports-starved times when we're all standing as attentive as meerkats awaiting Game Day — any Game Day— Netflix is offering two shows featuring international sports that will temporarily quench our competitive thirst. Home Game and Magnetic not only present a variety of sports to entertain us, but each also attempts to make universal observations about the nature of sports and the soul of the athlete, with mixed results.
Each of Home Game's eight half-hour episodes focuses on one sport that appears unusual to the average American but is hugely popular in its native country. The show could have been called Home Grown, because the games are as much about local identity as they are about the individual competitors.
The first episode is the most startling: In Florence, Italy, 54 thickly muscled men punch each other senseless while trying to throw a leather ball into a goal. Calico storico ("historical football") dates back to the 16th century and, some say, maybe even to the gladiators. Described as "rugby meets mixed martial arts," the sport is brutal, violent — and fascinating. Then there's kok boru, a popular game in Kyrgyzstan that takes place on horseback and involves slam-dunking a goat carcass into a hole in the ground. For something a bit more familiar, the show takes us to Austin, Texas, to enjoy the rough-and-tumble world of roller derby.
Some of the national sports may seem bizarre, yet the athletes' dedication is as intense and emotional as that of any player in the NBA or NFL. And many play for free. For these amateurs, the game and the team give shape to their daily lives. The relentless practices and the physical punishment are a welcome price in exchange for the comfort and joy of their teammates. They experience a shared intimacy of purpose and risk that intensifies their otherwise mundane lives. What's especially touching is that the fans appreciate and admire the monk-like dedication of these athletes who do it for love of the game and pride of the community and little else.
The two-hour documentary Magnetic also tries to reveal insights into the motivations and psychology of the elite surfers, skiers and mountain bikers it showcases. The film has its thrills, but is more successful with its travelogue photography of nature than exploring the nature of the competitors. One can't help but be awed by the surfers in Portugal facing the largest waves in the world. The skiers facing the dangerous and stomach-churning terrains of France, Switzerland and Pakistan are skilled and daring athletes. There's also windsurfing and mountain biking, but those are not as compelling.
Magnetic's athletes don't talk about teams, just their personal experience and satisfactions. They often speak in the cliches of sports — "I'm an adrenaline junkie" and "the ocean is my church" — the faux spirituality that they probably believe but which makes them seem shallow and self-indulgent. This doesn't mean they really are, just that the film isn't interested in anything more than easily digestible confections that don't interfere with the scenery. The danger these athletes face that's even greater than a 100-foot wave is turning their personal obsession with the sports lifestyle into a personal philosophy about life that seems scribbled on the back of an airline napkin while flying to the next thrill. In the end, Magnetic feels more like a promotion for the sports. There are no statistics about the dangers, the injuries, the deaths, just dreamy photography that could have been sponsored by the equipment manufacturers. It seems made to run on the monitors at Islands Restaurants while you eat your Big Wave burger.
Home Game stays with you long after you've finished all eight episodes. The series made me wonder why athletes pick the sports they do. Why choose standing in a sand lot slugging your opponents in the jaw? Why choose riding around with a goat carcass? It reminded me of a scene in an X-Files episode when the character, a psychic obsessed with cause and effect, looks at a dead woman's enormous doll collection and ponders, "What was it about, her life? Was it one specific moment where she suddenly said, 'I know — dolls.' Or was it a whole series of things? Starting when her parents first met that somehow combined in such a way that in the end, she had no choice but to be a doll collector." Home Game at least dips a toe in a deep pool of philosophy, and, in sports, the choices that athletes make.
Of course, the sport I originally chose was baseball. But it didn't choose me back. And that, as Robert Frost would say, has made all the difference.
This story first appeared in the July 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.