Will High-Profile Documentary Miniseries Be The Best Nonfiction “Films” Of the Next Few Years?

By  · Published on March 7th, 2014

Yesterday, Landon wrote about how serial television, particularly miniseries and ongoing shows working with closed season-long narratives and involving the prestigious talent of great film directors, are providing us with the best “movies” of today. The focus, once again, is on the current new “golden age” of TV, which for the most part has been limited to fiction programming. But what about nonfiction? Unfortunately, that other side of the small screen has remained for the most part in the rut of lowbrow and cookie cutter reality shows with few traditional exceptions here and there. This year could see nonfiction television joining its counterpart, though, as some are pointing out that 2014 is already filling up with highly anticipated new documentary series from prominent filmmakers and other major personalities. It’s in some of these shows that you’ll find the true true detectives in the new era of quality television.

This Sunday night brings the premieres of two of these docu-series: Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey, on Fox, and Death Row Stories, on CNN. The former is a 13-part sequel to the popular 1980 PBS miniseries Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, which starred Carl Sagan and provided a sort of layman’s guide to everything then known about the universe. Sagan, who was the celebrity astrophysicist of the time and who passed away in 1996, has been replaced with host Neil deGrasse Tyson, who is now the celebrity astrophysicist of our time. The goal is for something even more mainstream in its presentation of scientific concepts, and the prominent filmmaker here is not a documentarian but a cinematographer: Bill Pope, who has shot many of the films of Sam Raimi, Edgar Wright and the Wachowskis, including The Matrix. Also on board is Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane, though that shouldn’t take away from our expectation that this will be a serious effort.

Death Row Stories is an eight-part series from prolific Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side; The Armstrong Lie), partnering with Robert Redford in the producer’s chair and Susan Sarandon as narrator, and its title is pretty straightforward regarding its premise. Each episode looks at a different case involving someone on death row – true crime stories seemingly meant to challenge viewers’ ideas about capital punishment and the American judicial system overall. It’s a popular topic for documentary filmmakers. Werner Herzog recently had a similar miniseries of his own, On Death Row, which was tied to his feature-length doc Into the Abyss. And, as it turns out, one week after Death Row Stories debuts, another eight-part miniseries on the justice system premieres on Al Jazeera America, this one from Oscar-nominated documentarian Joe Berlinger.

It’s called The System With Joe Berlinger, and of this new wave of high-profile documentary miniseries it’s the only one I’ve seen at least the pilot for. If you’re familiar with the director’s films (the Paradise Lost trilogy; Brother’s Keeper; Crude) and his personal experience with the U.S. court system over journalist privilege and protection, then it seems a very natural place to find Berlinger. He’s not normally so prominently featured in his own work as he is here, and the format is very conventional, nothing groundbreaking if you’ve seen any kind of investigative television. It may surprise some, however, in its lack of closure on the cases it highlights, as it’s more interested in highlighting different flaws of the judicial system than the examples used to explore those issues. Funny enough, at one point when Berlinger is asked if he believes one subject is guilty or innocent, he mentions that trials are unfortunately often not about seeking the truth as much as who presents the best narrative. In a way, in spite of his seeking one truth, he’s avoiding that other at hand – in fairness, though, the conclusion of each reopened case is likely still far off.

We can thank new outlets like Al Jazeera America and the reworking of CNN’s programming for so many notable documentarians heading or returning to television (Berlinger’s Paradise Lost was originally made for HBO, and Gibney also worked in TV before he started outputting so many great feature films), as well as the continued hiring of big name directors for ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, not to mention ongoing program brands on PBS. Gibney also has an upcoming series for Al Jazeera America on high school students (Edge of Eighteeen) and is expected to make films for CNN, as well. Berlinger’s latest feature, Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger, is also part of CNN FIlms’ roster for the future. Al Jazeera American also has a series on immigration titled Borderlands premiering in April.

Even in a time when one school of documentarians are focused on delivering cinematic nonfiction more necessarily viewed on the big screen, there’s logically more money and larger audiences in home entertainment markets. As you can see in the weekly home picks guides over at Nonfics, there’s tons of options for regular documentary viewing on cable television, including a plethora of acquired titles on Showtime, Starz and Pivot (and AJA and CNN) plus the yearly batch of HBO selections. Unlike the fiction side of TV’s new golden age, however, few of the series have been or look to be “too cinematic” for the small screen, as titles like Top of the Lake and True Detectives have been called.

For something of that stature, we may need documentary filmmakers to also look to foreign television for influence. Oscar winner Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s eight-part miniseries The Staircase, a French production but about an American murder case, has for ten years now gone unchallenged as possibly the greatest work of its kind (we can separate it with great distance from the traditional TV docu-series format of Ken Burns and Ric Burns – though Ken’s Dust Bowl miniseries was one of the best documentaries of 2012, and he seems to be growing more cinematically minded lately). Maybe following the new breed of investigative docu-series and, in the case of Cosmos, pop edu-tainment programs, the wave can also deliver that kind of suspenseful nonfiction serial that The Staircase offers. Someone should make a deal with either Simon Chinn or John Battsek (or both), for series like the films they produce, which includes Man on Wire, The Imposter, Searching for Sugar Man and Restrepo. There’s already been talk of giving The Imposter detective Charlie Parker his own show, so someone’s thinking on the right track.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.