There is surely no better way to get a quick and dirty history of something than to watch a documentary about it. Documentaries are the Wikipedia of the screen—fast, easy and chock full of information that could very well be biased or wrong. Also, they’re endearingly concentrated on topics that may not reflect the tastes of the world at large. I love documentaries because they offer the perfect bite-sized morsel of information; you go in knowing nothing about a subject, you’re entertained for an hour or two and you come out knowing the whole story. Neat! Plus, there’s nothing more pretentiously awesome than peppering your conversation with, “I was watching a documentary about that just the other day!”
Thinking back on the movies I’ve seen in the cinema over the last few years, a surprising number of them are docs: DiG!, Spellbound, Fahrenheit 9/11, Super Size Me, Control Room. It’s been a really good half-decade for mainstream documentary filmmaking. What is better than coughing up ten bucks to see a movie on the big screen, however, is seeing documentaries on television. I enjoy TV docs of every possible brow, from Nova on down to E! True Hollywood Story. It just feels so nutritious watching something mildly educational, instead of The Simple Life: Interns. It’s similar to when you realize that you actually enjoy broccoli—there’s some cognitive resonance inherent to enjoying what you, as a child, tolerated only with your nose pinched.
Beyond the land of public broadcasting, though, the documentary medium has been metastasizing at a rate no one could ever have predicted.
A good example is The American Experience on PBS. For a long time I flipped past it, thinking that, after a hard day of pencil-pushing, I’d rather watch five reruns of The Simpsons in a row—especially since each episode of The American Experience is described in hilariously boring blurbs like, “Kathy Bates narrates a history of Tupperware.” And yet, when I actually made myself sit down and watch it, I discovered that the show is a perfectly self-contained dumpling of knowledge about subjects I never even knew I didn’t know about.
PBS is a classic bastion of cool, hippy documentary filmmaking. I agree with Jonathan Chait, of the New Republic, when he says, in an op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times, that it’s a damn shame some Republicans have the network squarely in their evil crosshairs. From here on out, apparently, “liberal” programming like Now will be balanced by more “conservative” programming like The Journal Editorial Report—white dudes from the Wall Street Journal sitting around, chatting about whatever’s got their balls in a twist that week.
Beyond the land of public broadcasting, though, the documentary medium has been metastasizing at a rate no one could ever have predicted. It’s like Reality Programming and Faddish Nostalgia had a baby. First on the bandwagon was VH1. They’ve got Behind the Music, obviously, and Driven, which is basically a Behind the Music about stars too new to have had their first real setback. There’s also The Fabulous Life of: ______ and When _____ Ruled the World. They even have Best Week Ever, essentially a documentary of the week that just passed, and I Love the 80s (or 70s or 90s)—kitsch-heavy documentaries about a year’s pop culture without a hint of history or politics or any of that boring stuff. VH1 can take any subject that is interesting and poop out a bubblegum-flavoured doc-style program that is virulently entertaining. I know for a fact I’m not the only one to have wasted entire hungover days boning up on the pop-cultural history of the recent past.
In a culture where critics rail endlessly against the mindlessness of programs, the laziness of producers and the vacuous passivity of viewers, the broadcast spectrum is being taken over by shows that aim to actually teach you something.
In a similarly trashy vein, the E! entertainment network is home to E! True Hollywood Story. These are mini-docs that run the gamut from revealing the inspiring, little-sitcom-that-could saga of Married with Children to a juicy exposé of Ben Affleck’s drinking problem to a puff piece on John Ritter, R.I.P. In other words, E! has taken the documentary format and filled it with just about every kind of tabloid runoff that you can think of. The Food Network, too, has opted to style much of its programming as documentarese. On Unwrapped, cheery guide Marc Summers teaches viewers how Twinkies are made and reveals to them the secrets of the world’s largest potato chip. A Cook’s Tour follows Anthony Bourdain around the world as he shoves still-squirming beasties in his mouth and translates world culinary culture for US viewers. Animal Planet is still airing its classic Wild Kingdom shows—beloved for generations by middle-school biology teachers and kids who like to laugh at zebras boning each other—but has now added an array of hipper, younger documentary-style shows like 50 Greatest TV Animals.
The point is, the documentary has infiltrated television programming at every level, on nearly every channel. In a culture where critics rail endlessly against the mindlessness of programs, the laziness of producers and the vacuous passivity of viewers, the broadcast spectrum is being taken over by shows that aim to actually teach you something. Granted, that something is often about the triumphs and failures of Dolly Parton’s breast implants, but you have to start somewhere. In a land where it’s assumed that idiots watch lowest common denominators like Cops and Jerry Springer, a style of show that informs first and entertains second is flourishing. And I think that’s pretty fucking cool.
Audrey Ference is a writer living in Brooklyn with a cat and a TV, among other things. She kind of doesn’t get what the big deal is about The OC. No offence.