Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Tuesday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best show currently on TV?” can be found at the end of this post.)
This week’s question: What’s the best documentary series you’ve seen on TV? Opening this up to past series, current ones, and those that you may have seen screeners for that are coming up soon.
Liz Shannon Miller (@lizlet), IndieWire
While we debate whether or not it technically counts as a TV show (certainly that Oscar it won would suggest otherwise), “O.J.: Made in America” was without question a seminal work, and one which owed a lot to its episodic structure while proving to be an addictive binge. Documentaries aren’t exactly my favorite genre, but “Made in America” was as gripping as any scripted series — and we have definitive proof of this, thanks to the also excellent “People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” which took on some of the same material for one of 2016’s most compelling miniseries… one that was almost as good as Ezra Edelman’s five-part series.
Daniel Fienberg (@TheFienPrint), The Hollywood Reporter
With “The Jinx” and “OJ: Made in America,” I’ve had documentary series atop my Top 10 list two of the last three years, while other recent classics include HBO’s largely unheralded “On Freddie Roach,” just about anything by Ken Burns and, if you accept it as a collective series, ESPN’s “30 for 30.” None of those are my answer and I’m not going to cheat on this one, because it’s not even close: The “Up” series, began by Paul Almond in 1964 with “Seven Up!” and continued every seven years by by Michael Apted, is simply one of the most important pieces of ongoing filmed media ever. This chronicle of the lives of 14 British school children of different races and economic backgrounds, begun when they were seven and continued most recently when they were 56, is the defining critique and analysis of the entrenchment and evolution of the UK class system. And if that’s all it was, that would be enough. But for all of the specificity of its examination of people moving up and down the British cultural ladder, it’s the most amazingly universal series. It’s a series about life and aging, dreams and ill-faced realities, love and disappointment. I would say it’s impossible to watch more than an installment or two without becoming shockingly invested in jockey-turned-cabby Tony, snooty barrister and Bulgaria enthusiast John, emotionally tormented Neil and many more. These are real people and their divorces sadden us, their professional triumphs bring us joy, their evolution as people challenges us to ponder how we’ve changed ourselves in seven year increments. Several installments of the “Up” series have gotten theatrical releases, but it’s primarily a television production and it’s one of the five best things produced for the medium.
April Neale (@aprilmac), Monsters & Critics
“The Jinx”! HBO’s nail-biting six-parter that featured a missing wife, dismembered neighbor, murdered crime writer, and Robert Durst, a trust fund gazillionaire, living in squalor in Galveston dressed as a woman!
The HBO documentary series “The Jinx” ended with a huge bang too, in the finale’s last shot, Durst went into the bathroom with a hot microphone and said:
“There it is. You’re caught.”
Then he said: “He was right. I was wrong.”
The capper was this: “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.” Hello, new trial!
Filmmaker Andrew Jarecki sure knows how to pick ’em. I interviewed him after his doc “Capturing the Friedmans” came out, but that family had nothing on the Dursts of New York. Crazy rich people stories are better than fiction.
Todd VanDerWerff (@tvoti), Vox
I’ve seen better documentary series than “Nimrod Nation,” a 2007 Sundance Channel documentary about a small town in rural Michigan, its surprisingly diverse population (around 50 percent Native American), and the high school basketball team that knits the town together. As someone who grew up in a basketball-obsessed tiny Midwestern town, I was always going to like this show. But “Nimrod Nation,” from a team of folks who mostly went on to work in far less tony reality shows, zeroed in beautifully on the conflicts and hopes and fears that animated the people of a little town, and its “every episode has a new basketball game” structure made it a sort of real life “Friday Night Lights.” It’s available on DVD for the curious, and I highly recommend giving it a look. There’s something essential and true about it that too few portrayals of small town life — whether fiction or journalism — capture.
Damian Holbrook (@damianholbrook), TV Guide Magazine
I know “American Vandal” doesn’t count since it’s actually a comedy dressed as a documentary, but my god, did that thing suck me in. Of the real doc series out there, I would probably go with ESPN’s “30 for 30.” Because if anything can get me to invest my time in sports in any way, it must be good. Or sorcery. These easily consumed mini-films, ranging in jock-y topics from the Duke lacrosse scandal to O.J., are so distinct in approach and tone from each other and from most sports stories in general, that I often forget I’m actually watching something about athletes who are not hot gymnasts or American Ninja Warriors. In addition, as I am someone who is basically a sporting cypher, each one is also a primer on the finer details, rules, regulations and challenges of various games, as well as the often-flawed humanity we forget lies within those who have been hailed heroes for their abilities. And finally, “30 for 30” gives me just enough sports knowledge to successfully freak out my straight friends who never expected me to know anything about the XFL, mobster-related point shaving within college basketball or Brain “The Box” Bosworth beyond his starring role in the ’80s action mess, “Stone Cold.”
Tim Surette (@timsurette), TV.com
There are two easy answers to give here which I’m sure will appear several times on this list. The “Planet Earth” series, and anything that Ken Burns does (shoutout to “National Parks: America’s Best Idea”!). But let’s throw in a little variety here and allow me to tell you all about a particular episode of Nature called “My Life as a Turkey.” The 2011 special re-told the story of some endearing lunatic (in truth he was a naturalist) who decided that he wanted to be the mother of a family of wild turkey chicks, using imprinting to convince the chicks that he was their mother. He disappeared into the woods for a few years and raised the turkeys on his own with no outside human contact by pretending to be a turkey every day from sunrise to sunset. The guy pretended to be a turkey! In the wild! For years! And it worked! The Nature episode even recreated the experiment with a new endearing lunatic (another naturalist) and new turkeys and it worked again, this time caught on camera. It’s so frickin’ sweet and lovable and enlightening that I think I’m going to put it on right now while I’m still a few months clear of Thanksgiving. Also “Kid Nation.” Does that count as a documentary? That show was THE BEST.
Joyce Eng (@joyceeng61), TVGuide.com
My colleague Kaitlin would say any Ken Burns documentary, but I have to go with “30 for 30.” I love me some sports (my two deities are tennis and the Olympics) and I honestly cannot think of an outright abysmal episode of “30 for 30.” The top-notch filmmakers certainly add some flair and artistry, but the best, and worst, part of sports is you cannot make this stuff up. The series long outgrown its initial purpose of exploring 30 events from the first 30 years of ESPN’s existence (it spawned a podcast this year), but there’s definitely no shortage of riveting, sometimes stranger-than-fiction stories to cover. Some of my faves: “Hillsborough,” “The Fab Five,” “Broke,” “This Is What They Want,” “The Two Escobars,” “The Price of Gold,” “Without Bias,” “Of Miracles and Men,” “Benji” and “Survive and Advance,” which is also what I tell myself every morning.
Ben Travers (@BenTTravers), IndieWire
Though I’m a late-arriving fan of “The Jinx” and an long-time admirer of “Planet Earth,” I’ve got to single out Ken Burns’ excellent, stunningly comprehensive 1994 docu-series “Baseball.” Divided into nine parts, or nine “innings,” each episode chronicles a different era of America’s pastime. Burns connects meaningful developments in the game to what was going on in the world and doesn’t shy away from racial and business issues surrounding a sport beloved for its perceived simplicity. (That “Baseball” aired before the steroids scandal was exposed turns the limited series into an all-encompassing time capsule of what the game was like before it was corrupted, though Burns did examine the Steroid Era via the two-part 2010 film, “The Tenth Inning.”) How Burns split each “inning” of his series into a “top” and a “bottom” proved charming to my younger self, watching on the floor of the living room with the rest of the Travers family; the prolific documentarian recreated the very experience of the sport he chronicled for a little boy who just wanted to sit with his folks and watch a ball game.
Q: What is the best show currently on TV?*
A: “Better Things” (three votes)
Other contenders: “BoJack Horseman,” “The Lowe Files,” “Halt and Catch Fire” and “People of Earth” (one vote each)
*In the case of streaming services that release full seasons at once, only include shows that have premiered in the last month.