The Year Earth Changed reveals pandemic’s surprise silver lining [Apple TV+ review]

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David Attenborough and Penguins will teach us about The Year Earth Changed
David Attenborough and penguins teach us about the unexpected positive side effects of the pandemic.
Photo: Apple TV+

A nature special and a cautionary tale, The Year Earth Changed delivers a whole mess of qualified good news that you’re going to wish didn’t come with so many strings attached to it. An engaging, largely drone-shot 45 minutes of TV, the new Apple TV+ documentary about the environmental effects of the COVID-19 pandemic won’t change your life. But it will make you feel slightly better about having just spent the last year indoors.

The Year Earth Changed review

Narrated by David Attenborough, produced by Mike Gunton (Planet Earth II) and Alice Keens-Soper (Nova), and directed by Tom Beard (Britain’s Whale Hunters: The Untold Story), The Year Earth Changed tells one of the few objectively good stories to be told about the year everyone spent in lockdown. As you may have guessed, because people stopped traveling and gathering, the Earth had a little time to recharge its batteries.

The show, which debuts Friday, documents things like the Himalayan mountains’ sudden visibility from miles away after years enshrouded in smog. It reveals how penguins started making little treks to the South African town nearest their underwater habitat because there weren’t thousands of beachgoers to scare them off.

Turtles could more easily lay their eggs. And then their babies could more easily make it to the open ocean. Whales let their children frolic freely because without the sound of boats, they could hear their cries if something happened. Jungle cats and deer changed their eating habits.

Everything was different during the pandemic, and mostly for the better. As one biologist sort of puts it: Every species here is getting a break right at the moment they most needed it.

The year Earth changes back

Penguins, too, fill us in on <em>The Year Earth Changed</em>.
Penguins, too, fill us in on The Year Earth Changed.
Photo: Apple TV+

This is all great news and great viewing. Everyone likes wombats; everyone likes to see them thrive. And the cute animal footage makes for a nice counterpoint with all the drone footage of empty streets the world over. The show clocks in at the perfect length at 48 minutes, neither outstaying its welcome nor padding with things we don’t need. Someone wisely decided this doesn’t need to be a series, and I agree.

This is especially true in light of what the show half-heartedly portends: that all of this is just temporary. There’s a good chance, and so they only briefly talk about it, that all of this will be undone the minute everyone’s vaccinated and can get back to destroying the planet by going on cruises and spring break.

The Year Earth Changed isn’t really prescriptive. But while it doesn’t say that keeping us all in quarantine is the only way to save the planet from ruin, it implicitly makes the case by showing what just a single year without our usual pollution looks like.

This is a hard pill to swallow, I think, for a lot of people. Presenting it in terms of cute animals is probably the best approach. People didn’t listen to doomsaying when Al Gore tried to get us to start recycling. Every single thing he predicted has come true and we still haven’t stopped. Maybe the image of lion cubs will help …

An inconvenient truth

So we now have a few choices: Take the lessons of the film to heart and greatly reduce our footprint, stay inside like quarantine never ended, or do nothing and just live like the animals we were before 2020. I don’t wanna … say … exactly … which I think is the most likely outcome. But I am glad someone (lots of someones) was on hand to document all the good that comes when nature doesn’t have to mount the obstacle of human beings taking up way more space than they need and leaving waste so dangerous it’s destroying the planet.

The Year Earth Changed offers a very welcome look at the lifeforms that didn’t endure a spectacularly nightmarish year in 2020. It’ll brighten your day, I think, at least before the panic sets in.

The Year Earth Changed on Apple TV+

The Year Earth Changed premieres on April 16. Also arriving that day as an early Earth Day celebration are the second seasons of Tiny World and Earth at Night in Color.

Rated: PG

Watch on: Apple TV+

Note: We originally published this review on April 12, 2021.

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the director of 25 feature films, and the author of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.