Think TV only rots your brain? Think again. The slate of recently released and upcoming documentaries on the small screen can educate even the most lax of couch potato.
January gave us BBC America’s breathtaking and environmentally conscious Blue Planet II as well as the Netflix miniseries Rotten and Dirty Money, which respectively challenged the way we think about food and commerce. So far, February has given us behind-the-scenes looks at captivating figures from fundamentalist Warren Jeffs (for A&E) and musician Eric Clapton (for Showtime).
This spring, things keep marching right along (sometimes quite literally, as Hulu is releasing a sequel to March of the Penguins). Since we’re still keeping our New Year’s resolution to cut through the clutter—and are waiting for Netflix’s upcoming series with Marie Kondo—we’ve rounded up some of our favorite documentary movies and docuseries that are celebrating their TV or streaming debuts in the coming months.
Premiere Date: March 2
Coming after Lifetime’s Writers Guild Award-winning scripted movie Flint and the Rosario Dawson-hosted segment about that Michigan community’s water crisis in the Epix miniseries America Divided, this Netflix miniseries reminds us that just because something isn’t in the national news as much anymore doesn’t mean it’s not still happening—or isn’t just as important. This eight-episode documentary series from co-directors Zackary Canepari, Jessica Dimmock and Drea Cooper follows the local law enforcers who are risking their own lives to protect their citizens amid decreasing resources and crumbling infrastructure. (Photo: Netflix)
Network: National Geographic
Premiere Date: March 12
The idea seemed like a suicide mission to many at the time: A young, attractive woman and her mother/documenter went off to Tanzania to live among the chimpanzees. Instead, anthropologist Jane Goodall found her life’s work when she was able to draw correlations between the goings on of these primates in their natural habitat and those of us, their human cousins. In this biographical film, which had a theatrical release last year, Goodall talks candidly with director Brett Morgen about her research and life, while never-before-seen footage plays under a score by composer Philip Glass.
Premiere Date: March 16
It’s a story of a utopian commune gone awry. It’s also the story of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, a controversial leader in Oregon whose feuds with his much more conservative neighbors make him the target of national news. The first bioterror attack in U.S. history ensues. Wiretapping, debates about the separation of church and state, and a good number of Rolls-Royces are also part of the conversation in this six-part documentary series directed by Chapman and Maclain Way and executive produced by Mark and Jay Duplass. (Photo: Sundance Institute)
Premiere Date: March 19
As one of the few interviewers who doesn’t really have to worry about losing access to her subject by asking the tough questions, filmmaker Rebecca Miller offers a look at her late father, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. The film covers the expected (Arthur’s notorious clashes with the House Un-American Activities Committee; his marriage to Marilyn Monroe), but sometimes misses opportunities to deal with topics lesser-known to the public. (The Hollywood Reporter’s review expresses frustration that Rebecca neglects to ask her father about the decision he and her mother, the photographer Inge Morath, made to send her Rebecca’s brother, who was born with Down syndrome, to an institution. But does sharing that information with the public now change the way we see the playwright?). The film is also a reminder of how culturally significant Miller’s plays still are. (Photo: Courtesy of HBO)
Premiere Date: March 23
The dream of the aughts is alive with this sequel to the 2005 Academy Award-winning March of the Penguins. This chapter spends a year with the emperor penguins of Antarctica during their annual trek from the ocean to their ancestral breeding grounds—a trip necessary in order to guarantee the survival of their chicks. Yes, Morgan Freeman is back as the narrator, and yes, the babies are adorable.
Network: National Geographic
Premiere Date: March 26
Sometimes it takes leaving your home to truly appreciate it. No one understands this better than the NASA scientists who share the power and majesty of our planet after having floated above it. This miniseries, which counts Darren Aronofsky and Nutopia’s Jane Root as its executive producers, includes narration from these men and women, as well as from actor Will Smith—who, lest we forget, has played characters who have defended Earth from intruders—as it canvases the globe to capture the bizarre miracle that is our existence.
Premiere Date: March 26
Director Judd Apatow offers a frank and emotional tribute to his mentor, Garry Shandling, through analysis of the late comedian’s journals, their own conversations, and interviews with the many, many people he mentored and/or supported during his life (think Conan O’Brien, Sarah Silverman, James L. Brooks and more).
“When he died, I realized that he was very much almost a parental figure to me because I met him when I was in my early twenties. But I actually realized that I didn’t know him that well,” Apatow told journalists in January at HBO’s Television Critics Association press day in Pasadena, Calif. with regard to Shandling’s sudden passing in 2016. “There was a lot we never talked about. We never talked about his childhood and everything that led to how his personality formed. And when I read through all of his diaries—he had 30 years of diaries—I realized how Garry became Garry, and I also saw what his lifelong goals and struggles were, and it was very emotional and cathartic.” (Photo: Courtesy of HBO)
Premiere Date: April 30
Using the concept of science fiction as a mirror of how we see society as a whole, each episode of this miniseries finds the Avatar and Terminator director arguing with contemporaries like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas about the meanings of the films that interest them. Conversations will include topics like the parallels between dystopian science fiction and real-world events and whether some big-budget productions may hurt the cause.
The project is part of AMC’s Visionaries series, which last year featured The Walking Dead’s Robert Kirkman hosting a special devoted to the power of comic books. (Photo: Michael Moriatis/AMC)
Premiere Date: May 18
Much, much more than just a pretty face, old Hollywood screen siren Hedy Lamarr invented the blueprints for the very technologies you’re now using to read this story and carry about your everyday life (that would be secure WiFi, GPS and Bluetooth). So why did this Austrian Jewish emigrant develop her then-covert communications system? To fight Nazis, of course. This film, which premiered at Tribeca Film Festival last year, includes previously unheard recordings of the now-deceased Lamarr talking about her research as well as a retrospective on her personal life (six marriages!) and her rocky relationships with the likes of MGM’s Louis B. Mayer and director Cecil B. DeMille.
Before President Trump’s attempts at a border wall with Mexico and travel bans against those arriving from Muslim-majority countries—and also before President Franklin Roosevelt’s Japanese internment camps—there was President Arthur’s Chinese Exclusion Act. Signed into law in May 1882, the act made it illegal for Chinese laborers to enter America and for Chinese nationals already here to become U.S. citizens. It would stay on the books until 1943.
Directed by Ric Burns and Li-Shin Yu and narrated by Hoon Lee, this two-hour documentary examines the economic, cultural, social, legal, racial and political dimensions of the law. Conversations will also include the forces and events that gave rise to it and the ramifications it continues to have on American culture and identity.