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Streaming is changing documentaries’ nature — and maybe even their purpose

The rise of the ‘insta-doc’ has turned them into something more like news, for better or worse

Billie Eilish looks at her phone with sunglasses dangling from her face while a documentary crew points a camera at her
Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry
Photo: Apple TV Plus

Polygon’s latest series, The Masterpieces of Streaming, looks at the new batch of classics that have emerged from an evolving era of entertainment.

For documentary fans, the past few years have been something of a heyday. Thanks in large part to the proliferation of streaming services, there have never been as many outlets for non-fiction film and television as there are right now. And several of these docs — like Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness and Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened on Netflix and The Vow on HBO — have popped into the larger cultural conversation, in ways that keep encouraging showbiz executives to hire filmmakers who want to tell stories drawn directly from reality.

For the streamers, documentaries fill a need. Netflix’s programmers in particular like to overwhelm subscribers with options each month — to keep the customers in the store, so to speak. Docs are both relatively inexpensive to make, and potentially limitless in scope. Deeply into politics? Love music? Fascinated by true-crime stories? Netflix has the inventory to cover just about any interest. (True crime especially… scarcely a month goes by without a new non-fiction murder series hitting the service.)

But quantity and quality rarely go hand in hand. In any given year, the best documentaries come from artists, explorers and dogged journalists, who have sometimes spent the better part of a decade filming their subjects, waiting for a story or a portrait to develop. Meanwhile, streamers like Netflix and HBO are increasingly announcing and producing documentary projects that are ripped from today’s newspapers … or from Twitter’s trending topics.

Some of these docs are still plenty hard-hitting, such as HBO’s recent The Crime of the Century, about the shocking origins of America’s opioid addiction epidemic, or HBO’s In the Same Breath, about the initial Chinese and American responses to COVID-19. Some are quite artful, like HBO’s The Last Cruise, about the ship that touched off an international crisis when it was quarantined in the early days of the pandemic. Some are both, like Netflix’s Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal, which features fascinatingly banal dramatizations of the conversations a few rich celebrities had with the people they paid off to get their kids into good schools.

But 2021 has also seen its share of documentary disappointments too, such as Q: Into the Storm, an HBO miniseries that promised to delve deep into the origins and the secrets of the QAnon conspiracy theorists, but which ultimately failed to offer much that attentive readers of the daily news didn’t know. Similarly, Hulu’s WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn features some eye-opening behind-the-scenes footage of a once-hot company flaming out, but it ends with a lot left unresolved.

WeWork co-founder Adam Neumann stands under an arch of stylized, animated sheets from business reports in the documentary WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn
WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn
Photo: Hulu

It makes sense that these docs’ producers and directors would want to rush their work out into the market while the public is still interested in the subjects. (And to be fair, WeWork, while flawed, is still entertaining and enlightening.) But both of these would likely have been even better if they’d been made a few years from now, with the benefit of some perspective.

That’s why it’s hard to get too enthusiastic about some of the buzziest documentaries already announced for 2021. Netflix will reportedly have a film about the Boeing 737 crashes of 2018 and 2019. An independent production company has announced a nearly completed movie about Rudy Giuliani’s disastrous Four Seasons Total Landscaping press conference from last November. These films could all very well be excellent. But their existence points to a creeping recency bias in the documentary business.

Even at their best, these films are unlikely to be as comprehensive as, say, veteran documentarian Stanley Nelson’s upcoming Showtime film about the 1971 Attica prison riot. Given Nelson’s previous work on docs like The Murder of Emmett Till and The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, his Attica picture (which doesn’t have an announced premiere date yet) will surely consider timely questions about racism and the criminal justice system, but in the context of a 50-year-old news story that’s had time to settle and to reveal its deeper meanings.

Perhaps the real issue here is one of classification. “Documentary” is a broad category, encompassing everything from moody portraits of Billie Eilish’s daily life to abstract, multi-part essays about colonialism. Netflix’s most popular docuseries run the gamut from nature shows to underdog sports stories to culinary travelogues to docs that are essentially podcasts with pictures. And not to get too bleak here, but honestly, for a lot of viewers, “documentaries” are the sometimes shady, often epic-length paranoid ramblings they watch on YouTube.

All of which is a way of saying that in the streaming era, the air of prestige the term “documentary” used to connote is fading. There’s a clear difference between a carefully crafted film like Apple TV Plus’ Boys State, examining the strengths and weaknesses of American democracy via the experiences of various Texas teenagers during an annual camp for budding political scientists, and Discovery’s hourlong quickie doc GameStop: The Wall Street Hijack, which was announced in late March when the clash between Robinhood customers and hedge-fund types was in the news, then debuted in the UK in early April 2021. But that difference is becoming harder to get across through any short description or label.

A room full of 16-year-old boys wearing identical T-shirts and lanyards in Boys State.
Boys State
Photo: Apple TV Plus

So what can we call this new wave of documentaries, which turn the headlines from last year (or even last month) into content? Well, how about just “the news?” What a lot of these films and series most resemble is the network “special reports” of old, when ABC, NBC, or CBS would turn over an hour of primetime to take a look at some much-talked-about story, whether serious or sensationalistic, in greater depth.

As is often the case, the newer methods of distributing media eventually get around to repackaging and rebranding ideas that long pre-date them. That’s how MTV’s music videos become YouTube’s “visuals,” and how TikTokers make money by essentially reinventing sketch comedy. And it’s how stories that used to be compact segments on weekly network newsmagazines become five-episode series that spend a month in Netflix’s Top 10 most-watched list.

None of this is inherently bad, to be clear. Times change, tastes change, and media changes. To put a positive spin on what’s happening, the surprise success of documentaries in the streaming era shows that as a society we still have a voracious appetite for information — even if we’re no longer as interested in picking up a newspaper or reading a book to get it. And it really is true that documentary connoisseurs have been well-served in this current era. Maybe our favorite docs don’t get the attention that all the serial-killer shows and current-events exposés get, but streamers are throwing money at the medium’s best filmmakers too, as well as at the hacks.

Nevertheless, it is disheartening to see the distinctions between the subgenres of documentaries get flattened out, such that the kind of programmatic fare that fills up any given day on the Animal Planet or the Travel Channel ends up sharing space on a landing page with meticulously researched and constructed films with strong points of view. It’s great that more people than ever are dedicating part of their recreational viewing time to non-fiction. But it’d be a shame if some of our most vital films about history and culture became just something else to put on in the background while folding laundry.