During Turbulent Times, Viewers Trade Fiction for Facts
In a year marked by uncertainty and misinformation, documentaries have come to fill an important need.
Documentaries educate, entertain and reveal the workings and motivations beneath the gloss of famous figures and events. At a cultural moment where behind-the-scenes coverage is preferential to a perfectly manicured facade (see Instagram, YouTube, the whole of TikTok), documentaries offer us a way into topics that’s easy to digest. Of course, this genre long predates streaming services and the internet. But the speed with which today’s technology helps ideas spread has made fact-based stories appealing to both consumers who want to learn more about the world and to producers, who are always on the hunt for gripping, real-life stories.
Perhaps some of the first examples of high-profile, popular documentaries came in the early 2000s, with issue-focused films like Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, Alex Gibney’s Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. Today, the documentary genre has spread into podcasting, which combines the investigative approach of documentaries with the serial, easy-to-binge format of episodes. Shows like Slow Burn (and later, Fiasco), Go For Broke (Vox’s new podcast on the dot com bubble) and, of course, the OG blockbuster documentary podcast, Serial, all borrow from traditional journalism and documentary filmmaking.
But this year, documentaries have been particularly prominent, especially on streaming platforms. From the political (The Social Dilemma on Netflix, Totally Under Control on Hulu) to the wacky (Tiger King and Mucho Mucho Amor, both on Netflix) to the inspirational (The Last Dance on ESPN and Netflix’s Becoming and Cheer) — the genre covers a lot of emotional ground. On the one hand, it’s clear that consumers are drawn to authentic stories in the midst of an unclear world. It’s also true that nonfiction content lends itself well to chatter and memes on social media, which might explain why the genre has been so popular in recent years. Documentaries are also closely related to reality television (with the disclaimer, of course, that much of what happens on shows like The Bachelorette is scripted).
Feature-length content that scratches a similar voyeuristic itch, while also teaching the viewer something they might not otherwise learn, seems primed for social sharing. That “didja know?” instinct, paired with easy access to these programs on streaming sites helps explain why platforms are so eager to produce this kind of content. If people like a documentary, or better yet, learn something from it, they’ll tell other people who will then want to be similarly enlightened. Generally speaking, documentaries also cost less to produce than similarly broad-appeal content in, say, the fantasy genre (looking at you The Witcher). For a brand like Disney, documentaries, which make up a surprisingly large fraction of the Disney Plus library, allow the company to rework existing IP into fresh content. (Examples of Disney-on-Disney docs include Marvel Studios: Assembling a Universe, Star Wars: Empire of Dreams and The Imagineering Story).
For the rest of us, documentaries help make sense of things, even if they raise more questions than they answer. The success of this genre is a good reminder that life, unlike fiction, doesn’t always resolve itself neatly.