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'Home Game' review: Netflix's wide world of weird sports

The game of kok boru in Kyrzygstan, where

The game of kok boru in Kyrzygstan, where horseback riders compete for possession of a dead goat, with the aim of throwing it into a goal, is one of the exotic sports profiled in Netflix's "Home Game." Credit: Netflix

DOCUSERIES "Home Game"

WHEN|WHERE Streaming on Netflix

WHAT IT'S ABOUT The eight-part Netflix docuseries "Home Game" profiles sports that are unique to particular regions and countries.

Subjects include Calico Storico, a violent hybrid of rugby and mixed martial arts that's a storied tradition in Florence, Italy; freediving without the assist of an oxygen tank in the Philippines; wrestling in the Congo and the game of kok boru in Kyrzygstan, where horseback riders compete for possession of a dead goat, with the aim of throwing it into a goal.

MY SAY This is a smart concept for a documentary series and it's arriving at a welcome time, with so many of its viewers stuck at home, live sports essentially nonexistent, travel curtailed and the opportunity to experience foreign cultures and traditions limited to whatever the internet can offer.

"Home Game" isn't exactly hitting on anything new in its depiction of the collective power of sports to bridge divides in communities, linking disparate populations behind the common goal of rooting for one side or another. Almost any opportunity to wax rhapsodic on the power of athletic competition in any medium invariably settles on the same notions.

But through a viewing of the first five of its eight episodes, the series offers a stark reminder of what we are missing in this era of social distancing, small gatherings and profound isolation.

Even if you're a roller derby expert, and learn nothing of note from the episode devoted to the sport in the hotbed of Austin, Texas, it's hard to watch scenes of teammates gathering and training, before competing in front of a live audience, and to not reflect on the extent to which we may have taken even the most mundane of public experiences for granted.

There is of course no way that the makers of this series could have possibly anticipated the extent to which these profound societal changes would shape the significance and impact of their work, and it's unreasonable to write about "Home Game" entirely from that standpoint.

In stripping away that context, what remains is a series comprised of mildly interesting short-form documentaries that follow a similar, predictable structure — a sport is introduced, its history examined, its key figures revealed, and a competition takes place. 

Some of the episodes would have benefited from a longer runtime. It's a shame and a waste to devote approximately 30 minutes to the aforementioned Kyrzygstani national sport and to then simply move on.

There's enough rich material in the story of this 5,000-year-old competition, and the athletes who excel at it — not to mention the nation itself, which has a remarkable history — to warrant a feature documentary.

Other episodes could be shorter. The 30 minutes on freediving in the Philippines, for example, are padded out with a lot of beautiful but sleep-inducing underwater shots. 

Whatever the case, the series is crafted with a utilitarian sensibility that suggests it's perceived in the vein of the sort of TV you might have playing in the background while cooking or doing laundry rather than something worth sitting down and concentrating on. Certain marks are hit, the surface is skimmed, and then the cycle repeats itself.

BOTTOM LINE The impact of "Home Game" is enhanced because it's a tribute to the power of sports as a communal gathering point at a time when that's not possible, but without that larger context, it's too superficial.

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