It's crazy schedule-wise, but it's true: Each week, prolific streaming service Netflix drops a new original series – sometimes two, and a few original movies to add to the content load -- on to the platform. This doesn't count the glut of titles, culled from theatrical runs or TV history, added each month. That's a lot to watch, and if you don't know where to look, a mind-fuck to manage.
Here's a little Netflix hack for you: While the star-studded sitcoms and hour-long dramas usually get the most buzz, there are a handful of documentary and nonfiction shows currently available to stream that are totally worth your time. Below are the ones we can't recommend enough. Get bingeing.
UFC's Conor McGregor's Guide to Celebrating St. Patrick's Day
A lot of artists deserve their own documentary, but few require feature-length treatment. This series is basically a program of eight short films, each profiling an important figure in design, including illustrator Christoph Niemann and typography legend Paula Scher. There’s not a uniform structure or style, as a handful of distinct filmmakers, including Oscar-winner Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom) and Richard Press (Bill Cunningham New York), tackle one or two of the subjects each. That keeps the series fresh, yet also more like a set of volumes than something that must be watched in sequence or in one single binge.
Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, Seasons 7-11 (2016-2018)
Following the globetrotting journey of the late-greatAnthony Bourdain, Parts Unknown is a refinement on the jaded-but-engaged worldview of the chef as he travels to unique enclaves of the world where he meets interesting individuals, experiences their culture, and tries the dishes that their communities have to offer. Throughout these episodes, including the most recent final season of the series, Bourdain shares a mature, nuanced depiction of what it's like to experience a culture that's not your own.
Chef's Table (2015-present)
The first season of Chef's Table featured six distinct episodes, each profiling one of the world's most ambitious chefs, like Dan Barber, Massimo Bottura, and Niki Nakayama. The cinematography is gorgeous, the narration is tight, and it never loses the viewer's interest or focus, even when diving into mundane topics. It's helmed by the director behind Jiro Dreams of Sushi, so you can expect it to be pretty much perfect.
The Civil War (1994)
Ken Burns went from just being a prominent documentarian to a household name with this nine-part, 11-hour miniseries -- one of PBS’s most watched programs of all time. Still his most famous work, and arguably still his best, The Civil War chronicles the American conflict between the North and the South through Burns’s signature combination of archival photos, readings of contemporary texts by notable actors (including Sam Waterston and Morgan Freeman), and expert commentary from today’s historians. This series turned many viewers onto documentary and the “Ken Burns effect” in particular by offering an emotional as well as educational experience.
After hours of grueling police interrogation, is it possible that you might find yourself confessing to a crime that you might have not committed? This has happened so often that Netflix released a docuseries about it. The Confession Tapes examines cases in which people convicted of murder detail how they believe they were coerced into confessing under pressure, even in some instances where those convicted maintain that the claims are completely false. While the series may seem like just another true-crime binge, over six stories told in seven episodes, The Confession Tapes narrows in on one specific issue and its unfortunate grasp on the criminal justice system.
Evil Genius (2018)
Evil Genius is the kind of story that would only work as airport fiction had it not actually happened. In four tightly wound 45-minute episodes, the story of Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong and her twisted, murderous ways are recounted via FBI investigators; local police in Erie, Pennsylvania (where the crimes took place); journalists; and the friends and family of those involved. Be warned, though -- the show will likely leave you with more questions than answers.
From monogamy to cryptocurrency to K-Pop, the subjects of Netflix's new Vox-produced docuseries dives deep into the topics that drive contemporary conversation. For a show that bounces around liberally from topic to topic, Explained does its job well in 20-minute episodes brimming with Vox's trademark graphics (the charts!) and notable guest hosts.
Five Came Back (2017)
Adapted from Mark Harris' comprehensive book of the same name, this film -- chopped into three episodes for maximum binge-iness -- explores the lives of five Hollywood directors who exited the emerging Hollywood scene to aid their country during World War II. Through filmmaking, John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens played pivotal roles in shaping the American understanding of WWII, and after the war subsided, they too were changed by the experience. With interviews from names like Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, and Guillermo del Toro, Five Came Back is a historical epic for every Netflix-subscribing movie-lover.
Drawing from John Grisham's only nonfiction work of the same name, The Innocent Man follows two mysterious murders that occurred in the small town of Ada, Oklahoma in the '80s. This gripping series documents the early conviction and exoneration of former suspects, as well as the fate of two other suspects later discovered who maintain their innocence to this day while they remain behind bars. In the vein of other hit true-crime series, this Netflix original knows how to hook the audience by slowly unraveling details and alternate case theories.
The Keepers (2017)
True-crime docs are a dime a dozen these days, but The Keepers takes the genre to another level by dealing in both micro and macro layers of a story involving sexual abuse, murder, police corruption, and the Catholic Church. At its center is the strange disappearance and death in 1969 of a schoolteacher nun named Sister Cathy Cesnik, a case that continues to be investigated by her former students, who the filmmakers follow. Numerous shocking twists are revealed over the course of the seven-episode series, as the haunting mystery turns disturbing exposé and then circles back around again.
Last Chance U (2016-present)
This award-winning, ongoing series makes up for all the feature-length sports docs that feel too compact in their confined, movie-length runtime. Last Chance U is still far from exhaustive, but its initial six episodes offer a fuller experience of a football season at East Mississippi Community College, where the Lions pursue their third national championship in three years. If not part of the team, you at least feel like an invested member of the EMCC family given how deep the vérité series places you into its world, intimately observing the drama alongside the players, their coach, and their academic advisor. Like in sports, success begets success in the docuseries world, and the latest run of the show will take viewers to a new school to meet a new batch of players fighting for their last chance.
Making a Murderer (2016-2018)
Netflix's true-crime hit was 10 years in the making, and it still didn't totally resolve the case of Steven Avery, who after spending 18 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit was convicted of murder and sentenced to life without parole. It's a heartbreaking story, and whether or not you think Avery is guilty, the show exposes disturbing truths about crime, justice, and the way America processes both. As the case continues to develop, the second season promises to dive deeper into those disturbing truths.
The Mind of a Chef (2012-present)
Featuring narration by the late, great Anthony Bourdain, The Mind of a Chef is a thoughtful look at the world of top-class chef David Chang. It eschews the trappings of reality-competition cooking shows, by presenting food as an art form instead of sport. While Bourdain waxes poetic over footage of Chang pioneering recipes and discovering food culture around the country and globe, it delivers an experience unlike any other, as you actually get a nuanced look inside the mind of the iconoclastic chef and what makes him tick.
Planet Earth (2006)
It's difficult to convey the splash Planet Earth made when it arrived on American television screens in 2006. Like, holy shit, that great white shark captured in super-slow motion jumping completely out of the ocean as it snapped its jaws down on a seal? No one had seen anything like it before, and each episode felt like a new experience, bringing more attention to the environmental and conservation movements than anything since Silent Spring, no small feat. It's worth a rewatch, because it holds up even after 2017's Planet Earth 2 -- the follow-up features more advanced camera work, but it doesn't quite match the massive scale of the original, because nothing really can.
Planet Earth 2 (2017)
Catch the Solar System's most inhabitable planet in breathtaking high-definition before it's too late! The decade-in-the-making sequel features this insane footage of way too many snakes chasing a newborn lizard, which should be enough to convince you to watch.
Riveting history meets rousing subject matter with this Ken Burns and Lynn Novick series chronicling the years when America outlawed alcohol. Actually, the three-part documentary is broader, exploring the lead-up to and aftermath of Prohibition as well as that notorious dry period itself, while also coming across as surprisingly timely for today’s audience. Any misconceptions you have about the cause of the passing of the 18th Amendment and then the ratification of the 21st will be ironed out in your viewing of this relatively short program featuring another all-star cast of voice actors, including Tom Hanks and Samuel L. Jackson.
Rapture follows some of the most compelling figures in hip-hop -- T.I., Nas, 2 Chainz, A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, etc. -- as they share stories of their respective upbringings and their journeys to success. The series' first season features eight hour-long episodes that dive into all things personal, from Logic's emotional rags-to-riches story to 2 Chainz hitting the stages of his Pretty Girls Like Trap Music tour in a tricked out pink wheelchair days after an injury. The result is an ambitious look at what goes on in the lives of some of your favorites artists when the music stops.
The food world is a messy business, as this Netflix docuseries demonstrates in unappetizing detail. From powerful garlic lobbyists to fraudulent fish to hormone-laden chicken, Rotten goes the extra mile to show that the reasons a wealthy nation like America has (some measure of) food security are often unpleasant and exploitative. It's not for the weak-stomached, but it will hopefully make you think before your next trip to the grocery store.
The Staircase (2004; 2018)
Before French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s The Staircase was picked up by Netflix in 2018, the mid-2000s series was one of the first auteur true crime series that its many successors have since modeled their stylistic choices and formats after. The series follows the lengthy trial against Michael Peterson, the author accused of murdering his wife in 2001 after Kathleen Peterson was found dead at the bottom of the staircase in their home. Peterson has maintained his innocence, even with one crazy revelation after the next and the emergence of interesting theories that strongly suggest that an owl might have done it. While the case approaches a two-decade long stretch, the show illustrates that whether Peterson is innocent or not is besides the fact: If the system doesn't even work for a wealthy and well-known white man, then who does it serve? The mess of the criminal justice system is nearly as haunting as the murder's mystery itself.
The Toys That Made Us (2018)
If you're looking to catch a break from the heavier topics that the streaming giant's documentaries tend to spotlight, The Toys That Made Us is an easy, lighthearted watch that lets viewers revisit some of the most iconic toy franchises from years past and get some insight into their success stories.
Wild Wild Country (2018)
One of Netflix's newest documentary series, part of the platform's collaboration with producers the Duplass brothers, is chock full of jaw-dropping twists and turns that, while a bit meandering at times, are nevertheless worth the six-hour binge. With the help of archival news segments and home-movie-style footage, the doc takes a trip back in time to chronicle the forgotten about story of a 1980s cult commanded by Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, whose purchase of an extensive plot of land in Oregon leads to conflicts with locals and eventual scandal on a national level. Most of what unfolds in Wild Wild Country isn't unlike other cult documentaries that have come before it, but that doesn't make watching it any less of a wild ride.