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Streaming services' ripped-from-the-headlines docs are diminishing the documentary format

  • "For the streamers, documentaries fill a need," says Noel Murray. "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." While some recent docs like HBO's The Crime of the Century and The Last Cruise were well done, docuseries like HBO's Q: Into the Storm and Hulu’s WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn could've benefitted from more work and the perspective of time. "Perhaps the real issue here is one of classification," he says. "'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."

    TOPICS: Q: Into the Storm, WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn, Documentaries