Lockdown has distorted our perceptions of time, making months of mandatory monotony congeal into a goo of boredom and malaise. How could we register the passage of, say, six months when July feels just like January, except hotter? Improbably enough, one of the only reliable ways of marking time during this pandemic year has been through the series of buzzy documentaries that bound us together in isolation.
The clock started, of course, with Tiger King last March; according to Nielsen, Netflix subscribers watched 15.6 billion minutes of Joe Exotic in 2020. April brought ESPN’s ratings smash The Last Dance, a retrospective of Michael Jordan‘s final NBA season that hit the spot for fans in live-sports withdrawal. HBO kicked off summer with an adaptation of late crime writer Michelle McNamara‘s book I’ll Be Gone in the Dark and ended it with The Vow, an inside look at the NXIVM “sex cult” that set Twitter ablaze weekly. (Starz unveiled its own NXIVM series, Seduced, in October.) Netflix nature doc My Octopus Teacher, now an Oscar nominee, became an unlikely global phenomenon in the fall. Most recently, FX and Hulu’s The New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears has fueled months of conversation about celebrity, mental health and the media.
When Game of Thrones staggered bleeding off the premium-cable battlefield two years ago, many wondered if it would be the last TV series that cut across demographics and political tribes to penetrate every inch of the culture. Since then, we’ve seen a fair number of prestige dramas break out; in 2020 that list included The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix, Hulu’s Little Fires Everywhere, and HBO’s Lovecraft Country and The Undoing. But it suddenly seems more likely for the watercooler show of any given moment to be nonfiction—and for that nonfiction show to be packaged as a docuseries or feature documentary, instead of crossing an increasingly blurry line into the realm of highly manipulated but technically unscripted reality TV.
A wave that broke early in the streaming era and rose to tsunami levels in lockdown, docu-mania has reached a point at which every big headline seems bound for streaming. In recent weeks, we’ve gotten dives into QAnon, WeWork, the college-admissions scandal, last winter’s COVID-stricken Diamond Princess cruise and this winter’s GameStop short squeeze, among many others. For better or worse, we’re watching a genre step off its highbrow pedestal—one that supported it through the making of many classic and literally world-changing films, but also helped to limit its audience. This democratization has been as messy as it is exciting.
Documentaries have always suffered from the misperception that they’re all textbooks in motion (think Ken Burns), or else harrowing ordeals like the nine-hour Holocaust testament Shoah, if not wordless, experimental image collages of the Koyaanisqatsi variety. The idea persisted despite the youth-oriented rock docs of the 1960s (Gimme Shelter, Monterey Pop) and the darkly comic political crusades of Michael Moore and his early-aughts emulators. It even came as a surprise when profiles in decency like Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and RBG started to dominate the box office a few years back.
The current crop of straight-to-streaming docs has roots in each of these eras. A Netflix movie has become de rigueur for pop stars like Taylor Swift and Beyoncé. Many recent streaming hits—not just Tiger King, but also Netflix’s and Hulu’s dueling Fyre Festival post-mortems, HBO Max’s ’80s-tastic Class Action Park and the bonkers Netflix crime caper The Legend of Cocaine Island—have adopted the humor of the Bowling for Columbine and Super Size Me era. And, like their big-screen counterparts, a lot of these films and series address the tumult of the Trump years (HBO’s Agents of Chaos, an investigation into Russian election interference; Netflix’s groundbreaking Immigration Nation; Amazon Prime’s voter-suppression doc All In) or provide a gentler antidote to it. What is My Octopus Teacher if not a cephalopod Mister Rogers?
Docu-mania also feels inextricably connected to the twin explosions of prestige true-crime content and podcasts, both traceable to Serial‘s debut in 2014. Crime docuseries soon broke out on TV, in HBO’s The Jinx and Netflix’s Making a Murderer. There has always been an audience for smart dissections of brutal acts, from Errol Morris’ 1988 film The Thin Blue Line, which exonerated an innocent man on death row, to Jean-Xavier deLestrade’s 2004 series The Staircase, which followed the long legal saga of Michael Peterson, an author convicted of murdering his wife and was most recently revived by, yes, Netflix in 2018. But the fervency with which Americans embraced true crime in the lead-up to the 2016 election suggests a profound collective thirst to see wrongdoing exposed and defeated through the revelation of facts.
That thirst kept the stream of information flowing. We got crime cut with sports, media criticism and celebrity culture in ESPN’s O.J.: Made in America and crime entangled with cults, spirituality and celebrity culture in Netflix’s Wild Wild Country. The craze collided with 2018’s so-called Summer of Scam, yielding not just the Fyre docs but also HBO’s Elizabeth Holmes profile The Inventor and McMillions, about insiders who gamed McDonald’s Monopoly promos in the ’90s. During Donald Trump’s tenure in the White House, filmmaker Alex Gibney—who made The Inventor before co-directing Agents of Chaos and Hulu’s COVID-mismanagement exposé Totally Under Control—investigated the many scams associated with his inner circle.
It sounds like a paradox that even as Trump undermined his constituents’ faith in what he called “the fake news media,” millions of people across the country embraced long-form audio in the form of podcasts and long-form video journalism in the form of documentaries. These formats did seem to resonate particularly with Dems desperate for counter-narratives to the former President’s “alternative facts.” From a less partisan perspective, however, they offered refuge from an out-of-control news cycle, with scandals, crises and fiery rhetoric flaring up and flaming out faster than a political reporter’s exhausted “and it’s only 10 a.m.” tweets could track them. What a relief it could be to log off and linger over a single true story for an hour or 12, luxuriating in its characters and details and moral implications, rather than just wearily scrolling past it.
That’s probably one reason why the front-page-to-streaming pipeline has become so crowded—and why the interval between breaking news and in-depth audiovisual exploration shrank from years to months, if not weeks. Meanwhile, as new streaming services proliferate, they’re satisfying demand for original content with lots of cost-effective nonfiction offerings. Launched in January, discovery+ is quickly building a library of docs, in genres ranging from nature to true crime, to complement unscripted hits like the constantly expanding 90 Day Fiancé “universe.”
The pandemic has accelerated docu-mania too. “Access to archival footage, remote post-production capabilities and even teleconference interviews mean audiences are likely to see several docuseries born out of COVID-19’s binding circumstances,” The Hollywood Reporter noted last April. Hence HBO’s brief but eye-opening Diamond Princess doc The Last Cruise, which uses new interviews with passengers and crew members to tie together cell-phone footage shot on the ship.
While they’ve mostly shed their fusty reputation, documentaries still give the impression of being more nutritious than the average TV treat. That’s not always the case, though. True crime has been criticized for exploiting victims and their families. Others have pointed out how the line separating some docuseries from reality soaps has blurred to near-nonexistence. Anyone who hit play on Tiger King hoping for insight into the ethics of private zoos instead found a Jerry Springer feud that doubled as an American Rorschach test: Do you prefer the female nanny-state crusader with a martyr complex or the vain, gun-brandishing male libertarian who wants her dead?
The ascendant subgenre of ripped-from-the-headlines doc has its own inherent pitfalls. On a streaming service, these titles can function as a sort of video clickbait, luring in viewers with a vaguely familiar, often salacious story. In that sense, they are streaming’s answer to popular, long-running newsmagazine series like 60 Minutes and Dateline. And they’re proliferating at a time when even those shows’ older audiences are increasingly cutting the cord.
Of course, timeliness doesn’t necessarily mean shoddiness. The mostly riveting HBO series Q: Into the Storm chronicles director Cullen Hoback’s arguably successful three-year quest to unmask QAnon’s shadowy mastermind. But it’s equally engaging as an explainer on how overlapping coalitions of extremely online reactionaries (8chan, the alt-right, incels, Gamergate), along with Trump insiders, a rising cohort of Q-radicalized politicians and a cottage industry of Qtubers, have thrown open the Overton window to such cartoonish ideas. The show leaves viewers with the crucial question of whether old free-speech laws should protect new conspiracy theories.
More and more often, however, newsy docs are coming off as rushed. Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal, from Fyre director and Tiger King producer Chris Smith, casts Matthew Modine as disgraced college counselor Rick Singer in re-enactments of recorded phone calls between the white collar criminal and his rich, famous clients. This is all very clickable. What’s frustrating is that the movie came out too early to tell the whole story. Many of the 50 defendants—including Singer—have yet to be sentenced.
Hulu’s WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn, is less satisfying. On the surface, its account of the company’s rise and fall checks a lot of docu-mania boxes. We get a scammer-ish subject who oozes hubris and narcissism in WeWork founder Adam Neumann; a secondary villain in Neumann’s wife Rebekah, a woo-woo type who’s always name-dropping her cousin Gwyneth Paltrow; many opportunities to gawk at the cultish absurdity of startup culture, and for the average viewer to feel smarter than various titans of business. But director Jed Rothstein’s lack of direct access to the Neumanns makes WeWork feel sketchier than some of the many meaty features and analyses (not to mention books) that have already emerged from the saga. It also demonstrates the emergence of new docu-mania clichés: Rothstein strains to connect WeWork to Trumpworld, produces some pseudo-sociological insight (in this case, about our society’s fascination with the rich), tacks on a few vague parting words about COVID for added relevance.
On balance, the streaming-doc renaissance still seems like a good thing. If reality shows in documentary drag are getting the green light, so are urgent, ambitious nonfiction projects with real-world implications—like Immigration Nation, which travels to our borders and beyond to capture the immigration crisis from multiple angles. The WeWorks are worth enduring if their popularity encourages more funding for the likes of Morris, whose docuseries Wormwood debuted on Netflix in 2017; City So Real and America to Me director Steve James; Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (One of Us, Love Fraud); as well as Allen v. Farrow and On the Record collaborators Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering. One of the most challenging, radical docuseries I’ve ever seen, Exterminate All the Brutes, from I Am Not Your Negro filmmaker Raoul Peck, comes to HBO on April 7.
It was inevitable that the doc boom would result in some subpar work. But when we look back on how we endured the pandemic year, we may end up feeling grateful for some of the juice that was squeezed from low-hanging fruit. It may not have been the most nourishing, but at least it added flavor to our days. —With reporting by Simmone Shah