Television’s an important platform for nonfiction films, from HBO’s award-winning efforts to PBS’s invaluable documentary strands. But when it comes to nonfiction series, reality shows tend to dominate the public perception, from the dance and singing competitions filled out primetime to cable’s giant hit “Duck Dynasty.” As a reminder that nonfiction series are not all prospective pop star platforms, “Real Housewives” and Honey Boo Boo, we’re highlighting five shows that remind us that there’s room for ambitious, smart docu-series on the air as well as for guilty unscripted pleasures.
“Planet Earth” (BBC)
Perhaps no other television series has done more to unite stoners, naturalists and science lovers than “Planet Earth,” which, at the time of its production, was the most expensive documentary series ever made by the BBC. It showed. Shot almost entirely in HD, which was considered risky at the time because the cameras were still new and mostly untested in the field, the series is the granddaddy of nature docs. The sheer scale of the production must have been a nightmare to coordinate, but none of that comes through when you’re watching it. It’s difficult to talk about the show without sounding like Chris Farley on his celebrity interview show on SNL. “Remember, in episode four (“Caves,” my personal favorite), when that guy just leaps in to a massive hole in the ground and parachuted in? That was awesome.” The visual and aural delights are endless, and never grow tired. Though I prefer David Attenborough’s narration in the British version (because, really, who else can you trust to narrate a nature doc but an adorable, adventurous old Englishman?), Sigourney Weaver was a smart choice to talk over the US edition. Then there’s all the mind-blowing time-lapse photography, helicopter footage and truly unique filmed moments (an underwater piranha feeding frenzy, lions hunting an elephant at night, etc.). By going big and aiming to entertain as much as inform, “Planet Earth” become something of a phenomenon since its debut in 2006, showing in more than 130 countries. It’s a great unifier: Wanna veg out, get baked and look at some cool shit on TV? Or maybe you want to learn something new and have fun with science and nature? Like a great episode of “Radiolab,” the entertainment and the education are balanced perfectly in Planet Earth to create a piece of art.
“The Vice Guide to Travel” (VBS.tv)
Sure, Shane Smith and his cohorts over at Vice may have gotten served big time by badass NY Time journalist David Carr in a memorable scene from “Page One: Inside the New York Times” a few years go. But it’s hard to deny the power of their “Vice Guide to Travel” series that sees Smith and company go to scary, weird and all around crazy places in the world, film everything they can with a ballsy immersionist journalism style, and show the world the underreported stuff we need to see. The rise to fame and power for Vice has been swift and impressive: from magazine to full-on media organization with endless and bizarre reportage online and in print, then getting picked up by HBO to continue the Vice insanity and bring it to a more mainstream, broader audience. Success hasn’t softened these fearless documentarians. If you’re looking for a good starting point within the ‘Travel” series, check out the Liberia episode, in which we really see what struggle is like for the people who’ve lived through ongoing civil war and brutal poverty. And of course, there’s plenty of time spent with Joshua Milton Blahyi, aka General Butt Naked, a fascinating man responsible for countless murders, one-time cannibal and now converted evangelical preacher. The filmmaking is raw, visceral. It’s admirable for the sheer fearlessness of the crew to tell these stories.
For those who think Spike Lee has lost a step and become a shadow of his former filmmaking self (I’d include myself in this camp, barring the occasional great work like “25th Hour”), let us not forget this four-part miniseries made for HBO. When Katrina hit New Orleans, rendering the vibrant city an absolute disaster zone, Lee and a small crew jumped at the chance to depict the crisis, and the result is a docu-series that turns journalism in to televised art. Honestly, was there anyone better to tell this story than Spike Lee? His anger, compassion, interviewing style (love when you can hear his comments or rapid fire questions off camera: “You looking for Bin Liden or something?” he says offhandedly to a guy talking about his gun collection) and tenacity for finding the heart of a gigantic disaster is all on full display in “When the Levees Broke.” As devastating as the footage can be, and how understandable the anger is from the residents left high and dry in the wake of Katrina, the series never feels exploitative, manipulative or slit-your-wrists depressing. There’s a delicate balance struck between all four acts as we seemingly get every possible angle. Part of what makes great documentary television is the time allowed to tell a large story, and Lee seemed to relish the chance to weave such a full-bodied tapestry — so much so that he followed it up four years later with “If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise,” checking in with many of the subjects, detailing how the city has progressed since the hurricane. This will go down as an important time capsule, fearless enough to tell it like it was. The film comes down hard on the Bush administration and gives ample evidence that the entire disaster was preventable. Beyond all the failure of government and vitriol, though, lies a gentle humanistic quality that makes all the tough images — dead bodies floating and rotting in the streets, houses demolished — necessary viewing.
“How It’s Made” (Science Channel)
Documentary television has the power to make the mundane majestic, and one of the greatest examples to date is this lovely little Canadian series that does exactly as the title says. Most of us go through life and never consider that nearly everything we use has to be manufactured in some way. Watch an episode of “How It’s Made” and you’ll suddenly be more curious than ever: How are crayons made? What about snowboards? Hmm, I never realized that watching the production of bubblegum could be so fascinating. Before you know it, you’ve become hooked — everything you use and see in a day must have a segment in an episode. The show also has that dangerous ability common in all addictive television, as it makes watching these processes on screen far more exciting than seeing them in real life could be. Go to any factory or plant, watch the same procedures in person, and it just can’t compare to seeing a well-edited montage with perfectly calibrated muzak and the occasional voiceover providing just the right amount of context. Though much of the series’ straightforward style and tone — off-camera narration, rare employee interviews on camera, and a workmanlike editing style — is so the program can be easily translated to other countries, the effect is awesome in that it celebrates human ingenuity by mostly observing. It’s just the right amount of distance to take in all the crazy crap we make every day.
“The Story of Film: An Odyssey” (TCM)
Can’t afford film school? Hell, who needs it when this exhaustive, 15-hour televised tome, a personal exploration by Irishman Mark Cousins on the history of cinema, is just sitting on Netflix Watch Instantly, waiting to be consumed by movie lovers? The series is also currently airing on TCM, where it’s being paired with programming relevant to each episode. Whether you’re an all-knowing, cynical cinephile who’s seen everything, or an upstart just starting to develop a taste for cinema, there’s a lot to love about “The Story of Film.” It truly is an odyssey, as the subtitle states in no uncertain terms. Cousins and his rarely-lilting, soft-spoken brogue creates a warm, inviting narration as he guides you through the first 100-plus years of cinema and creates his own canon of the great movements, new waves, various worldwide industries and just flat out great films. He’s somehow authoritative yet never obtrusive. He’s not telling the audience they’re wrong for liking what they like, just making very well-articulated and researched arguments that these are the best the medium has yet to offer. Clearly he’s a learned, scholar of film, but he’s also unafraid to champion movies and their makers who’ve not always received enough credit (the section praising Paul Verhoeven and his satirical big budget action films “Robocop” and “Super Troopers” had me cheering). You can also find full episodes of Cousins’ show “Scene By Scene,” in which he interviews at length famous filmmakers, on YouTube. If you’ve not yet jumped on the Mark Cousins bandwagon, now’s the time. If you love film, it’s required viewing, now a part of the canon of great TV documentary series.
Indiewire has partnered with Pivot and its new series “Jersey Strong.” A real reality show that chronicles the lives of two families from parallel universes — the street and the executive suite. Reformed Blood (Jayda) and Crip (Creep) are a modern-day Romeo and Juliet romance in the hood raising two kids while pursuing their careers and following their dreams. Brooke, a trial attorney is balancing the stress of high stakes litigation with the real life drama of raising two college-aged kids with her partner in life and business, Maggie. From the producers of “Brick City,” “Jersey Strong” will explore Newark’s warm center and tough exterior through the eyes of two unconventional families striving to achieve the American Dream. The series debuts on Saturday, September 14, 2013 at 10:30pm ET — find out more here.