A well-made documentary film or series can be as entertaining and gripping as any piece of big budget celluloid fiction – and there’s the added bonus of it actually making you smarter to boot, filling your brain with tons of facts (some useful, some less so) with which you can regale your friends in the pub.
Netflix is absolutely stacked with documentaries, some of which are fantastic and many of which are little more than schlocky trash TV. But fear not: we’ve picked through the detritus to bring you our definitive list of the best pieces of fact-based film and TV on the streaming service.
Whether you’re interested in towering sporting achievement, tech history, true crime or culinary exploration, there’s something here for you.
Wild Wild Country
This slick, stylish six-part Netflix series will gleefully suck in anyone with more than a passing interest in cults, utopian visionaries, counterculture and power struggles.
It tells the story – by turns comedic and unsettling – of Indian religious leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh who brought his band of red-robed followers to a Manhattan-sized tract of land in the Oregon wilderness with the intention of founding a self-sustaining city based on “love and sharing” rather than ownership and individualism.
Unsurprisingly, this band of free love-advocating New Age nudists immediately come into conflict with the handful of local townspeople – God-fearing, conservative and mostly old – and the amazing true story of this rapidly escalating butting of heads is told masterfully through new talking heads interviews and hours of archive footage. With the tale taking incredible twists and turns (Germ warfare! Arson! Attempted murder! The FBI! The co-founder of Nike!), this is among the most compelling original documentary series in Netflix’s library.
Reckon Chef’s Table is a little too sedate and respectful for your tastes? Netflix has another, newer food show that might be more your speed: Ugly Delicious.
Fronted by award-winning chef David Chang and food writer Peter Meehan, it plunges face first into comfort food rather than venerating fine dining. Each episode focusses on a type of grub – pizza, tacos, fried chicken, home cooking, BBQ etc. – exploring its history and traditions and taking a deep, delicious dive into how different cooks and chefs around the world have developed it. For instance, did you know the best Neapolitan pizza in the world might just be in Tokyo?
Chang, Meehan and the succession of guest hosts make it a casual, irreverent and enjoyable watch, as well as an engrossing exploration of everyday eating. One note of advice, though: don’t view it on an empty stomach.
Flint, Michigan used to exemplify the American Dream. Like nearby Detroit, the city boomed off the back of the automotive industry, becoming home to a burgeoning middle class and some of the highest median wages in the USA.
Today, it’s a case study for the Dream's decay, one of the nation’s most impoverished cities, with crumbling infrastructure, soaring crime and an underfunded and shorthanded police force. Throw in a deadly (and totally avoidable) water crisis, and Flint starts to look like nothing less than exemplar of systemic failure, a microcosm of forgotten Middle America. Little wonder Michigan, after voting for the Democratic candidate in six consecutive elections, was won over by Donald Trump’s rambling promises to bring prosperity back to the Rust Belt.
It makes for a grimly fascinating subject in Netflix’s original eight-part documentary series, filmed over two years and focussed on the aforementioned police department. With fewer than 100 officers tasked with policing over a thousand times that many people, the department’s overstretched and demoralised, but determined to keep the city from collapsing. If you want a stark portrait of late capitalist America, and an inside view of how a US police department works (or doesn’t), Flint Town is a must watch.
Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond
Much of the footage that makes up this raw, funny and touching behind-the-scenes doc was only recently unsealed by Universal Pictures. Apparently, studio executives didn’t want Joe Public thinking star Jim Carrey was, in his own words, “an asshole”.
Because Carrey insisted on staying in character while filming Andy Kauffman biopic Man on the Moon, either as the misunderstood funny man himself, or his obnoxious lounge singer alter ego Tony Clifton - something that baffled, infuriated and entertained his co-stars in equal measure.
It’s a fascinating insight to Carrey’s state of mind at the time, when he seemed to genuinely believe he was channeling Kauffman throughout filming - leading to a news-making bust up with professional wrestler Jerry Lawler, private reconciliation with Kauffman’s estranged daughter, and on-set antics that genuinely made life hell for the filmmakers.
You don't have to be a sports fan to enjoy this must-watch doping exposé.
Icarus is effectively two documentaries in one, with the first third of the film a kind of Super Size Me for performance-enhancing drugs. The filmmaker, a semi-pro cyclist, embarks on a hardcore doping program to show how flawed the drugs-testing process is.
But when his advisor, Russian scientist Gregory Rodchenkov, suddenly finds himself in the eye of an international storm over Russia's state-sponsored doping program, Icarus handbrake turns into an enthralling fly-on-the-wall thriller about being a whistleblower in Putin's Russia.
Cue mysterious deaths, chilling interviews and a lots of hand-wringing as Rodchenkov goes into hiding from the new KGB.
Making a Murderer
Rural Minnesotan Steven Avery served 18 years in prison for a horrible crime that he didn't commit, and the revelations about the police handling of that case could be a 10-part series of their own – but here they're just the prologue to a far wider-reaching story.
That's because, a scant two years after his exoneration and release, Avery is charged with another crime: the brutal murder of a young woman. Given the circumstances surrounding the previous case, the local sheriff department's involvement comes under serious scrutiny, and to say there are troubling inconsistencies in the state's case against him would be a huge understatement.
Making a Murderer is a long, sometimes slow-moving series, but it's also compelling, deeply troubling, and constantly capable of sending shivers down your spine.
A Netflix Original series directed by documentary maker Errol Morris (responsible for the likes of The Thin Blue Line and The Fog of War), Wormwood is a six-part series mixing Morris’ staple of one-on-one talking head interviews with dramatised scenes. Being a bid budget production, those dramatised scenes are a cut above any we’ve seen in other docudramas, with superb special effects and big name actors like Peter Sarsgaard and Tim Blake Nelson playing the roles.
The series concerns a the supposed suicide of a biological warfare scientist after his involvement in a secret CIA programme, and his family’s attempts to find out the truth about his death and about what he was working on for the US government.
Arguably among of the BBC’s greatest series ever, Planet Earth is beloved worldwide for its glorious camera work (achieved through sheer skill, graft and bloody-minded patience rather than fancy CGI tricks), which offers an unprecedented look into dozens of aspects of the natural world, spread all over the globe. From polar bears to killer whales to birds of paradise, the viewer is shown a gorgeous greatest hits collection of our planet's flora and fauna.
It’s all accompanied, of course, by narration from Sir David Attenborough (unquestionably another of the planet’s treasures), which lends the whole series an air of homely authority. Whether you’re seeking high drama or breathtaking photography, Planet Earth (the first season of which is available on Netflix) has both in plentiful supply.
We can’t get enough of true crime documentaries and podcasts these days - and if you've already worked your way through Making a Murderer, Netflix’s seven-part documentary series The Keepers is well worth chucking on your watchlist.
Concerning the unsolved murder of a nun in 1960s Baltimore, it delves deep into the lives of many of those around her in an attempt to get to the truth – and ultimately, reveal the killer’s identity. It’s quickly discovered that what was initially viewed as a random “wrong place, wrong time” killing may be part of a wider-reaching conspiracy, and from then on the series doesn’t slow down as it pulls out thread after thread. Enthralling, dismaying stuff.