The streaming era has given us plenty. With unlimited airtime, bigger budgets, and interest at an all-time high, streamers like Netflix and HBO Max have been able to provide us with bingeable series like Stranger Things, incredible original films like Roma, and a plethora of documentary series, like The Jinx or Making a Murderer.
I love documentaries – delving deep into a true story, exploring previously unknown aspects of the human experience and historical fact is endlessly fascinating to me, so the documentary boom has been a blessing. One of my favorite films of the last decade was Minding The Gap, a documentary that is streaming on Hulu, and I’ve binge-watched Unsolved Mysteries and Wild Wild Country with so many others.
But I’d be lying if I said it has all been smooth sailing. The appetite for documentaries seems to be so high that some of the quality-control may have verged a bit off course. For example, while true crime is interesting and can do wonders for righting injustices, it can also become voyeuristic and exploitative. With the increased demand for this content, empathy can sometimes hit the back burner. Several families with relatives killed by notorious serial killer Peter Sutcliffe issued their outrage at the Netflix documentary series detailing Sutcliffe’s crimes being renamed from Once Upon a Time in Yorkshire to The Ripper, which they felt sensationalized and glorified his crimes. And that’s not an isolated incident. Several documentaries in the past few years have upset victims and their families with insensitive language or sensationalism. These stories are inherently upsetting, but one of the first rules of journalism is “do no harm,” and lately, it feels documentarians have forgotten their mission for ratings doesn’t have to supersede their empathy.
Another issue that has seemingly grown with these documentaries is that their popularity has meant they can sometimes feel dragged out. Instead of giving an overview of a topic in 90 or 120 minutes, more and more series seem to be stretching stories to fill hours and hours of time. HBO’s series, The Vow about the NXIVM cult, received a lot of complaints of stretching the story out too long with its nine episodes. I experienced a similar feeling watching Netflix’s, Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, which felt like a story worth exploring that was dragged out too long and stuffed with way too many internet sleuths making wild assumptions and reckless accusations, instead of sticking to the facts of the case.
So.. yes, the increasing interest in documentaries has been a gold mine in interesting storytelling, but I do hope the industry can take a breath, slow down, and remember that brevity and empathy can go a long way in telling a good story.
I’m Evan Rook.