Documentary series is a nonfictional motion picture intended to document some aspect of reality, primarily for the purposes of instruction, education, or maintaining a historical record. “Documentary” has been described as a “filmmaking practice, a cinematic tradition, and mode of audience reception” that is continually evolving and is without clear boundaries.
If you’re a fan of documentary TV shows, check below some of the best documentary series that you should be watching right now.
When people think of vacations, they likely think of visiting famous landmarks, fancy restaurants, or gorgeous beaches, but some people are drawn to a different sort of exploration. So-called “dark tourists” seek out the macabre corners of the world, skipping the Eiffel Tower and heading straight for the Catacombs, and David Farrier’s travel series Dark Tourist follows the journalist as he ventures into these eerie places. Each episode, Farrier visits a different country, looking for sites associated with death, disaster, even war. In Japan, for example, he joins a guided tour of a ghost town abandoned after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, where the tourists bring their own Geiger counters, panicking slightly as they pick up more radiation than they expected. In another episode he visits Medellin, home of drug lord Pablo Escobar, where an industry has sprung up around veneration of the dead crime boss. Dark Tourist is a unique exploration of places and cultures out of the mainstream, and a journey into humanity’s fascination with death and destruction.
2. Dirty Money
Netflix’s documentary series Dirty Money brings together a number of documentarians, including Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) and Erin Lee Carr (Mommy Dead and Dearest), to delve into the shady dealings of big businesses around the world. Each episode features a different director tackling a different subject, ranging from the outrageous (the Volkswagen emissions scandal, the payday loan industry) to the strange (a massive heist of maple syrup, which gives the filmmaker a chance to examine the cartel-esque nature of Quebec’s maple syrup industry). Dirty Money is an incisive examination of the behavior businesses will engage when nobody is looking — and sometimes, even when people are.
3. The Staircase
Long before Making a Murderer, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s The Staircase pioneered the format of true crime miniseries, following an ongoing murder case with incredible access to the defense and — for a while at least — the prosecution. The Staircase examines the trial of crime novelist Michael Peterson, who stood accused of murdering his wife, Kathleen. Peterson claimed Kathleen fell down the stairs after drinking; the prosecution thought otherwise. The facts of the case make rendering judgment difficult to begin with, and the case gets murkier as the prosecution zeroes in on Michael’s bisexuality as a motive. The series — which originally aired in 2005, and got new episodes in 2012 and again in 2018 — examines the case from varying perspectives, and while it won’t necessarily convince viewers of Peterson’s guilt or innocence, it provides a fascinating window into a contentious trial.
News site Vox has been publishing short, informative “explainer” videos for a while now. Explained, Vox’s new series on Netflix, offers longer, deeper dives into the topics of the day. Episodes — generally between 15 and 20 minutes in length — target a range of subjects, including the evolution of monogamy, the racial wealth gap in the United States, even the rise of K-pop. Explained makes use of interviews with experts, clever infographics, and other tools to convey information, and the show’s breezy attitude keeps even the most academic topics from getting too dry.
5. Evil Genius
Netflix continues its string of gripping true-crime documentaries with Evil Genius, which examines a case that is so bizarre it seems like the plot of a movie. As detailed in the first episode, the case begins with a robbery. A man named Brian Wells walks into a bank with a bomb attached to his chest via a locked, metal collar. The police apprehend Wells after he makes his escape, and he tells them that he is a hostage; a group of people ambushed him and fastened the collar around his neck, giving him instructions to follow — including robbing the bank — to get the key that would unlock the collar. The device explodes before the bomb squad arrives, leaving the police to figure out just what happened. If you aren’t familiar with the case, Evil Genius is a strange ride, full of shady characters and betrayals, but even those who know the details can appreciate the series’ compelling analysis of the twisted story.
6. Wild Wild Country
The documentary series Wild Wild Country follows a fascinating yet obscure episode in American history: The rise and fall of the Rajneeshpuram, a religious community that sprang up in remote Central Oregon in the 1980s and was built around the teachings of a guru named Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. The group’s cultish tendencies grated on the locals, and as tensions rose, the Rajneeshees became more militant, attempting to hijack the voting process in Antelope, Oregon, and even staging a bioterror attack. Wild Wild Country makes extensive use of archival footage, as well as interviews with the people who lived through the conflict. The perspectives of the former Rajneeshees are intriguing; many look back fondly on their time in the community. Rajneesh’s lieutenant, Ma Anand Sheela, is a particularly fascinating character. Expertly crafted and highly informative, Wild Wild Country is a sharp exploration of how cults develop, and why they create friction with mainstream America.
7. Ugly Delicious
Chef David Chang has built a career on bucking culinary authority, and his Netflix series, Ugly Delicious, finds the restaurateur waging total war on the concept of “authenticity.” The first episode is a great example of the show’s thesis, as it examines the ways in which chefs around the world have taken a simple dish like pizza and reinvented it. Ugly Delicious is less about gorgeous shots of cooking than it is about the way culture shapes cuisine, and the show is conscious of how different styles of food are tied to ethnicity. A conversation between two Italian-American pizza chefs takes a sorrowful turn as they reflect on the disintegration of the old Italian-American communities, and the fact that pizza is more an American icon now. Although Chang is not always on screen, his presence always comes through in the show’s dynamic energy.
In a globalized world, the food industry has grown so large, its networks so long and tangled, that most Americans probably don’t know where their food comes from. As the documentary series Rotten shows, that’s dangerous, because where there is obscurity, there is fraud. The show makes use of extensive interviews with people in the industries, offering first-person insights into these esoteric worlds. From companies cutting honey with other substances, to companies allegedly using forced prison labor to produce garlic, Rotten uncovers depravity in the strangest places.
9. Chef’s Table
David Gelb, director of Jiro Dreams of Sushi, returns to the world of cooking with Chef’s Table, a documentary series where each episode follows a different chef. With Jiro, Gelb found not only a guide to the art of sushi, but a story of fatherhood and the burden of legacy. In Chef’s Table, he similarly presents the chefs not as mere professionals, but complex people whose lives inform their work. The chefs involved include traditional culinary icons such as Massimo Bottura and new-wave chefs like Grant Achatz. Of course, those who crave footage of culinary grace will not be disappointed. Gelb has an eye for the sublime, his camera drifting slowly, gently across completed plates.
10. Making a Murderer
Heralded as Netflix’s answer to the hit podcast Serial, Making a Murderer tells the tragic story of Two Rivers, Wisconsin, native Steven Avery. After serving 18 years in prison for a horrific sexual assault and attempted murder crime he maintains he never committed, new evidence exonerates Avery, making him a free man. Now 41 years old and looking to clear his name, Avery sues Manitowoc County for a whopping $36 million in damages. However, shortly after filing the lawsuit, Avery’s name is once again tied to a grisly crime, this time the disappearance and assumed death of photographer Teresa Halbach. Coincidentally, Avery faces the same people who wrongfully put him behind bars in the mid-’80s and yet again maintain his innocence. Incredibly riveting yet downright infuriating at times, Netflix’s Making a Murderer is one of the most fascinating true crime documentaries you’ll find anywhere.