Real life is often stranger and more exciting than reel life — and the TV viewing public can’t seem to get enough of it.
You could say it was after the true crime series The Jinx in January 2015, or the Serial podcast in October 2014, or the satirical Last Week Tonight with John Oliver in April 2014, but no matter at what exact point of time you got sucked into the world of narrative non-fiction, there’s a good chance that there is, at this point, at least one piece of immersionist style documentary filmmaking that you are wholly obsessed with.
There’s been something for everyone in the age of ‘Peak TV’, over the past few years, with the most unusual channels or platforms making a foray into fiction, so as to not be left behind in the moment in pop culture where nothing says prestige more than making a TV series. Everyone from gaming platform Playstation to e-commerce site Amazon to tech giant Apple to the History Channel has put their fingers into the ever-expanding pie, and so it was only a matter of time when someone decided that it was time to move beyond fiction, into other realms of storytelling.
Not surprisingly, it was HBO that was the harbinger of change, giving audiences, yet again, a taste of something they never knew they wanted. HBO had been producing or broadcasting documentary features for many years, with a focus on news-making content, but it was in April 2013 that they changed the game for TV for the second time, since The Sopranos ushered in the golden era of TV in 1999.
In April 2013, HBO launched Vice, a documentary TV series that brought new media entrepreneur Shane Smith’s Vice magazine and digital news channel to TV. Produced by Bill Maher, with Fareed Zakaria as consultant, the series captured public and media attention alike, through the finale of its very first season — when it sent one of its journalists to document a basketball game with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. It was the first time any American TV show had gotten access to Jong-Un, a man most famous for basically wanting America destroyed.
HBO again led from the front in 2014, when it launched a weekly news comedy show, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, with a one-of-its-kind format that focussed not only on satire about the week’s political or cultural absurdities, but also on one 10-15 minute long main story that the show’s producers believed needed to be talked about. That story is essentially a satirical documentary-meets-rant about a hot topic of the week or the month, or even a long-standing problem, and from net neutrality to tax-exempted religious organisations to the American prison system, Oliver has taken on each with a cheeky grin.
But the narrative nonfiction storytelling device exploded into the collective conscience when Sarah Koenig began a weekly podcast, Serial, later that year, documenting the true crime story of the 1999 murder of 18-year-old Hae Min Lee by her then teenage ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, who was convicted and has been in prison ever since. As Koenig unravelled the case each week, interviewing the witnesses, the prosecutors, the family and friends of both as well as Syed himself, she opened up a Pandora’s box that revealed a life-size hole in the prosecution of Syed and a legitimate doubt about whether he had committed the murder at all. The show has since been downloaded a whopping 80 million times — and the case has been reopened.
Two more true crime serialised documentaries have also become worldwide sensations. HBO’s The Jinx became watercooler conversation, with the accused serial murderer it followed, Robert Durst, making several revelations on camera. After Netflix’s Making a Murderer was premiered last December, a petition of 128,000 signatures to free murder accused Steven Avery was sent to President Barack Obama. Amazon has now entered what is being called the ‘prestige documentary’ business, by premiering The New Yorker Presents, a weekly series that will bring to life some of The New Yorker’s most acclaimed stories (both fiction and non-fiction).
The success of the immersive non-fiction narrative has led to many other documentaries being developed across TV and streaming media, even as season 2 of Serial, season 3 of Last Week Tonight and Season 4 of Vice are on air currently. With Vice taking this success a step further and launching a 24-hour documentary channel called ‘Viceland’ in partnership with A+E Networks, and additionally tying up with HBO for a weekly primetime news show, you only need to choose your poison now — and there’s enough of it to go around for everyone.
6 unscripted series to follow immediately:
Multi-season documentary series covering one or two political, economic or cultural news topics in each episode, in gonzo style on-ground journalism.
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)
Multi-season news comedy show featuring a main story in each episode that often puts a systematic American problem on centre stage.
Serial (Free Podcast)
Twelve-part true crime series following the case of convicted murderer Adnan Syed, trying to determine if he indeed committed the crime.
The Jinx (HBO)
Six-part true crime series following the case against accused serial murderer Robert Durst, with a sensational twist.
Making a Murderer (Netflix)
Ten-part true crime series following the allegedly wrongful conviction of accused murderer Steven Avery.
The New Yorker Presents (Amazon)
A recently premiered video magazine bringing to life some of the most talked about and acclaimed stories from The New Yorker.