Netflix Reveals the Surprisingly Complex World of Professional Bull Riding in “Fearless”
The six-episode documentary series premieres August 19.
It’s a good time to be a streaming queue. This year’s crop of prestige shows and glossy serials is still a few weeks from harvest, but this summer has seen no shortage of captivating new work on TV. As with the restaurants it depicts, Netflix’s Chef’s Table is so rich it eschews binge watching, each episode its own feast of color and texture and inside-out thought experiments. The streaming service’s perpetually under-the-radar drama Bloodline dropped at the end of May, right about the time the Everglades begin to get steamy. HBO’s The Night Of might have been the phenomenon of the summer had it not been for the runaway—as in, run away from that moldy-peach-looking tree and and back to the comforts of your suburban home, Nancy!—success of Stranger Things.
Of course, the Olympics have made this a good time to be a forgotten sport, too. Sure, Michael Phelps and Kerri Walsh Jennings and all five of the Final Five are heroes of American sports, but for the most part, they toil in obscurity relative to the Big Four; as truly captivating as all of these athletes are every four years, the average American knows far more about the competitive comings and goings of, say, Matthew Stafford than we do Walsh Jennings. Despite the crowds that US gymnastics might draw to their events, the fact remains that they, like the majority of American athletes, operate outside of the sporting mainstream.
The same is true of the cowboys of Professional Bull Riding (PBR), who sell out arenas from New York to Nampa, Idaho. The circuit is the subject of Netflix’s latest documentary series, Fearless, which follows the riders as they trek across the country in pursuit of the Silver Buckle. It is grueling, and it is ugly, and both aspects are highlighted by the show’s glossy cinematography. More happens in the eight seconds of a round than can possibly be seen at full speed, and the hi-def, slow-motion filming captures every ripple in the 1500-pound bulls’s flesh, every jerk and buck, and every subsequent jolt to the body of the rider. When one cowboy falls off the back of his bull and the animal kicks in reaction, we see his head slide to safety mere feet from the bull’s hooves. It is savage and nearly balletic.
Fearless makes its name known in its opening seconds, as its extravagant opening credits give way to a black screen and the whimpering of a cowboy who’s been thrown from his bull. As rider after rider says, bull riding is the most dangerous sport in the world. The circuit’s doctor notes with alarming ease that he treats everything from common sports injuries to “the kinds of things they scrape you off the road for.” But the show’s true strength comes from its attempts to humanize the Brazilian cowboys who have steadily taken over the sport. Four of the top five riders in the world are Brazilian, and Silvano Alves, who the show follows extensively, is the only person to ever win back-to-back world championships and one of two riders to win three in their career; the other is Adriano Moraes, another Brazilian.
You might think that this would lead to some kind of gross xenophobia, or at least some kind of nationalist rivalries, but if there is any animus among the American riders, they don’t show it. “You’ll hear the fans say, ‘You’ve gotta beat those Brazilians.’ They don’t care who wins as long as it’s not a Brazilian,” says J.B. Mauney, himself a two-time world champion. “I don’t understand that. I never say anything back to them. I just say, ‘Yeah, whatever,’ [sign the autograph], and just keep on gettin’ it.”
The show follows many of the riders south to Barretos, in São Paulo state, the site of the biggest rodeo in Brazil, where 90,000 people pack Cowboy Park to watch some of the best riders in the world, and then out into the countryside, where sweet teenage boys still plumped with baby fat tell the cameras about how they have to keep their riding a secret from their parents.
Though it should probably be no surprise given the show’s pedigree (Chef’s Table’s Andrew Fried serves as showrunner, and the show is directed by Michael John Warren, who has made films for Nicki Minaj and Drake), Fearless makes for gripping viewing, and it flexes its muscles just as effectively outside of the ring as it does within it. While the obscurity of its subject might keep it from becoming the sleeper hit of late summer, its well-developed human-interest angles and its subjects’s dedication to their sport might help Olympic addicts battle the DTs.
Fearless premieres August 19 on Netflix.