When I was growing up, the idea of voluntarily watching a documentary – the TV equivalent of eating your vegetables — was laughable and about as probable as me doing extra homework.
Oh sure, at the movies there was “Endless Summer,” a documentary about two surfer dudes going around the world in search of the perfect wave, which in retrospect was a pretty sneaky geography lesson. And then there was “Woodstock,” which actually made me glad I never scored a ticket to that mud-fest. But most theatrical documentaries back then were pretty grim – stories about mental hospitals, plucky unionizers, or Vietnam War criminals.
And television was worse than grim. It was boring. To the extent they were any documentaries on TV they were on PBS, which was known in my youth as the “educational channel.”
And yet here we are in 2018 and I find myself distracted from scripted television because I’m drawn instead to such TV documentaries as “Andre the Giant” on HBO and Netflix’s “Wild Wild Country” about the 1980’s Bagwan Rashneesh cult. Last year I was captivated by the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary about the Vietnam War, and by “Five Came Back,” the story of five famous Hollywood directors who enlisted to produce propaganda films during World War II.
Maybe I like the format now because I’m older (after all it’s a cliché that dads like nothing better than to watch World War II documentaries on The History Channel). Or maybe documentaries are just better now. Either way, there’s no question that the number of high-quality documentaries offered on TV has grown exponentially.
For years PBS had the franchise on documentaries with regular series like Frontline, the American Experience and Cosmos. But the genre really came into its own with the 1990 broadcast of Ken Burns’ “Civil War,” which created a whole new generation of Civil War buffs. Four years later Burns’ series on baseball was another national sensation.
PBS lost its monopoly on documentaries with the expansion of cable TV, when networks like Discovery, National Geographic Channel, A&E and others jumped in with their own niche documentary programming. Without high-paid stars, documentaries became a cheaper source of programming than scripted programming and could be profitable even with basic cable’s smaller audiences.
In recent years, HBO, Netflix and even ESPN upped the game again. HBO’s “The Jinx,” became a minor phenomenon with its exploration into the allegedly murderous past of Robert Durst. Netflix followed with its own murder mystery documentary series “The Making of a Murderer.” And ESPN launched the “30 for 30” series of sports documentaries that culminated in the award-winning “O.J. Made in America.”
The TV format is perfect for documentaries. In a movie theater you can last maybe three hours before getting up and walking out but a TV documentary can be presented in multiple episodes over days or weeks (e.g., “The Vietnam War” was 18 hours long). Documentaries are also a short-term commitment – you don’t need to worry that you’re signing on to years of viewing like you do when you start a scripted series.
Most important, because the scope of documentaries is so vast there’s a subject of interest for every occasion. Documentaries can be fun, they can be searing, they can be thoughtful. They can be long or short. They can be esoteric. I once watched a documentary about the Helvetica typeface and it was surprisingly absorbing.
It was a sign of danger for traditional TV when I, a notorious late adopter, recently settled into my hotel during a business trip and didn’t turn on the TV to channel surf. Instead I logged onto my laptop and scanned Netflix for the documentary offerings. I was looking for something interesting but not too intense. I’m not proud to say that I landed on a history of the rock band Chicago. I hadn’t thought about them for years and didn’t realize I even wanted to know anything about them, but it turned out to be the perfect blend of nostalgia, pop history, and oldies music for chilling out.
But if it hadn’t been Chicago, it could have been a documentary about Roger Stone, Amanda Knox, the feud between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal, sushi or minor league baseball. All those subjects sounded a lot more interesting than the reruns, cable news, reality shows, or home improvement programs you’re likely to find watching live TV.
In the end, the appeal of documentaries is that truth is stranger than fiction, and all a documentary has to do is unveil the truth. That can be a lot more interesting than 80 percent of what else is on TV.