The rescue, in summer 2018, of a youth soccer team and their coach from a flooded cave system in Thailand remains one of the most outright inspiring stories of recent years. Amidst intense interest and scrutiny, an international team came up with a plan to anesthetize the boys and maneuver them out of the flooded caves before monsoon rains intensified. It’s a tense story, and one with an outcome that isn’t just upbeat but is genuinely astounding. Little wonder that it’s lent itself to repeated retellings, including last year’s documentary “The Cave” and this year’s quietly released Ron Howard drama “Thirteen Lives,” starring Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell as the heroic British cave divers.
Netflix’s new scripted limited series “Thai Cave Rescue” focuses instead on the local response and on the children at the center of the drama. Created by Michael Russell Gunn and Dana Ledoux Miller of “Designated Survivor,” and shot on location in the actual cave system that trapped the 12 members of the Wild Boars team and their coach, the Thai-language series has a hefty seriousness of purpose and hits easily legible emotional beats hard. However, it sometimes overreaches in making the case that this incident was tense, scary, and upsetting — making a story that lends itself very easily to drama into a strained melodrama.
Gunn and Miller are at their best when running through the nuts-and-bolts of how a rescue of this sort could even happen, and how the kids survived their weeks without contact with the outside world. Coach Ek (Papangkorn Lerkchaleampote), the young leader of their squad, emerges as an understated hero, encouraging the team to meditate in order to remain calm and reduce their oxygen intake; the boys, in optimism and in fear, share a pleasant chemistry.
The show is less steady when trying to conjure the social dynamics around the excavation. A revealing scene comes early on, when a scientist tells his assistant, who is predicting heavy rainfall that ought to be communicated to the public, “You’re an intern. I’m the senior meteorologist. Who do you think knows better?” Outside the cave, the show’s writing tends to have this sort of heavy, blunt thud; no line of dialogue truly sings, because each is used either to remind us in very direct terms of who is who or to reach for a sort of vague uplift.
“Whatever you believe,” one character urges the grieving and stressed parents of the Wild Boars, “believe in these boys.” It’s an exhortation that feels, like many of the saccharine music cues throughout, a bit manipulative. And it’s also imprecise, given how much we the audience do believe in them — in the more interesting portion of the show, we’re watching their incredible story play out. “Thai Cave Rescue” does indeed depict a remarkable saga, but it’s at its strongest when letting the boys and their journey do the talking.
“Thai Cave Rescue” debuts Thursday, September 22, on Netflix.