It’s been a great year for documentaries already and whether it be a certain viral tiger series, a cheer-leading squad with a do-or-die attitude or a look at the continued push for more LBGTQ content on TV, 2020 has shown that the documentary genre is only growing from strength to strength. Out of the sheer number of different titles that have been released, some stand out ahead of the pack and here we’ll be showcasing our favourites.
We’ll be updating this page throughout the year but without further ado, TheReviewGeek team present our picks (in no particular order!) for best documentary series of 2020 so far.
Do note though that any ongoing shows that are currently airing on TV at the moment that may make the list will be added when the final episode finishes for consistency purposes.
Last updated: May 12th 2020
James May: Our Man In Japan
James May teams up with Amazon Studios and his plucky cast and crew to deliver six wonderful episodes that dive into the heart of Japanese culture. Beginning in the northern snow-peaked wilderness and travelling over 7223Km down to the southern point of the country, along the way James May brings his usual wit and humour, wrapped up in a jazzy, feel-good tone that explores this weird and wonderful world.
From the very first episode, James makes it clear that this is a travel program unlike other travel programmes. Tokyo doesn’t even show up until episode 3 and with plenty of establishing shots of the beautiful landscape, The Grand Tour star delivers an educational, interesting and humorous plunge into Asia’s prolific island.
“It’s a bit of a lark”, He says at one point and this ultimately encapsulates the feel of the whole show. With limited linguistic skills and ongoing jokes around “sumimasen” and haikus, there’s a consistency to the series that helps this one stand on its own two legs as a formidable travelogue.
Formula 1: Drive To Survive Season 2
One of the bigger surprises last year came from Netflix’s Formula 1 documentary series. Injecting a lot of excitement into proceedings and combining that with an in-depth and eye opening look under the hood of this sport, Drive To Survive is one of the best racing documentary series out right now.
Beginning several days before the Australian Grand Prix of 2019 and progressing through to the end of the racing season, the opening episode sees returning faces of old joined with fresh blood, as Mercedes show up this time around after their noticeable absence last year.
With a self-aware narrative (a lot of the racers now actively acknowledge Netflix are filming them) and some really tense stories interwoven throughout, Drive to Survive matches, and at times surpasses, the quality of its first season.
With every racer featured this time arond and a more level playing field (at least in terms of coverage, not on the race-track), Netflix’s Formula 1 series continues to impress. There’s a lot of drama to unpack and all the crashes, slips, wall hits and behind the scenes rivalries are shown off in full, for better or worse. It also makes for some really gripping TV and another must-watch.
Can one man make a difference in the face of insurmountable odds? Small town pharmacist Dan Schneider is here to tell you that’s certainly possible, especially given he himself beat the odds and embarked on an inspiring crusade for justice, all in the name of his son.
After a brief family history through the years, our tale begins in 1999. Dan’s son is shot dead in the heart of 9th Ward in New Orleans; a drug-ravaged no man’s land and the last place you’d want to end up in the middle of the night. With the police uninterested, writing Dan’s son off as “just another junkie murder”, this grief-stricken Father launches a crusade to try and find who murdered his son.
Jumping head-first into the lion’s den, the truth is far more shocking and surprising than you can imagine as twists and turns lead Dan to expose the truth, with the later episodes turning their focus upwards to Big Pharma and one doctor at the heart of this entire mess – Dr Cleggett.
Much like Dont F**k With Cats last year, The Pharmacist plays out more like a thriller than a straight forward crime documentary. The orchestral score is engrossing and intense, with a couple of surprisingly well-implemented twists along the way, and it makes The Pharmacist a must-watch for true-crime fans.
Visible: Out On Television
This profound five-part documentary series on Apple TV+ both celebrates the rise of LGBTQ coverage on TV and looks back and condemns the obstacles and issues this community faced (and continues to face), in the wake of cultural change.
Each of the five episodes tackle a different topic surrounding this theme, beginning with the late 50’s as political movements condemned homosexuality, before skipping forward to sitcom All In The Family which effectively opened doors for a brand new wave of of cultural representation on TV.
Tackling bigger social and political movements, including the Stonewall Riots and HIV, Visible: Out On Television takes on a multifaceted perspective, showing how TV has grown and evolved over time to become the dominant force it is now.
Alongside this, the show also tackles how the stifled, stuffy ideas of the past have grown to become much more archaic and ancient in the face of inclusiveness and diversity, making this one of the more unique entries on this list.
Sunderland Til I Die 2
Back for a second season and hoping for a new renaissance of life at the Stadium Of Light, Season 2 of Sunderland Til I die takes a somewhat different approach to life in League 1, with far more emphasis on the finances, deals and everything off the pitch rather than the dressing room drama that encapsulated last season.
New Owner Stewart Donald and Director Charlie Methven ultimately take centre stage here and with a fly-on-the-wall perspective, we see just how bad things have gotten at Sunderland over the years. And in their own words, it’s “pretty dire” to say the least.
From the club being bled dry through extortionate wages to the pressure mounting over the growing form and skill of star youngster Josh Maja (and the headache of dealing with player agents), there’s a lot of boardroom drama here that’s equal to the intensity felt on the pitch.
With a late, late transfer fee agreed on deadline day for a Wigan striker and all hopes on the club gaining automatic promotion resting on some nervy play-off dreams, the pressure is on for everyone involved to turn Sunderland Football Club around and bring the team back to where it belongs.
This documentary series perfectly captures the raw emotion, heart and drive that makes football such a unique sport and once again Netflix deliver the goods with this excellent follow-up.
Cheerleading is one of those sports a lot of people turn their nose up at, unaware of the athleticism and eye-watering amount of work that goes into performing these routines. Outside the US, it’s one of those side-lined projects used as a springboard to other avenues but in the United States – and in particular Corsicana Texas – Cheer is a big thing. Thanks to Netflix’s award-winning documentary format, Cheer finally opens up this lucrative sport and showcases it to the wider public.
Combining the production style of Last Chance U with the best elements of Amazon Prime’s All Or Nothing, Cheer produces a brilliant 6 episode docu-series, one that follows the stunning athletes in the Navarro Cheer team as they prepare for the College Nationals.
With their eagle-eyed Manager Monica Aldama watching and perfecting their every move, the series acts as a 68 day countdown to these championships, beginning with a history of cheerleading and progressing through to the team becoming one of the elite 20 (from a pool of 40) chosen to perform “on the mat” and beyond.
Of course, as with any high-stakes competition there are complications and ensuing drama along the way. From the first episode onward, the injuries pile up and it becomes apparent that the sacrifices made for a 2 minute shot at fame is the ultimate price to pay in this sport.
Cheer captures that raw intensity and drive to succeed like few other documentaries are able to achieve, making it an inspiring and gripping series that spun and tumbled its way onto Netflix this year.
Dirty Money Season 2
Much like last season, each of Dirty Money’s episodes stand on their own as individual tales and could easily be films in their own right. With their own directorial style and a damning look at the darker side of business, this documentary series exposes the corruption, exploitation and outright crooked nature of some of the world’s most powerful players. It’s an eye opening and poignant reminder that money talks and no matter the cost, these men and women will always be above the law.
Once again the Trump family hit the spotlight, this time in the form of Jared Kushner and his real estate business, while everything else from Formosa’s environmentally damning plastic plants, guardianship exploitation and Wells Fargo’s big scams are explored across each of the hour-long episodes.
If you’ve seen the first season then this will hold no surprises but it’s the stylistic differences between each episode that keeps things interesting and unique. If there’s one documentary series you watch this year – make sure it’s this one.
With plenty of twists and turns along the way, Tiger King essentially revolves around a bitter feud between two big cat owners. On the one side is enigmatic Joe Exotic, a man who owns over 200 tigers and subsequently finds himself in prison for instigating a murder-for-hire against his rival, Carole Baskin.
On the other side of the cage sits Carole Baskin of Big Cat Rescue. Adopting the side of animal rights and PETA, Carole does her best to expose what she deems to be ill practices performed at Joe’s park. What begins as a simple enough rivalry soon descends into an incredulous and fascinating world of deceit, murder, mayhem and magic as the two point fingers and start throwing mud at one another.
Regardless of how you feel about big cat owners and people taking on these wild animals as pets, there’s no denying that Tiger King is a highly enjoyable, shocking and oftentimes unbelievable series. It’s one that weaves its tale with venomous wit and charisma, while presenting an overarching, thought provoking message about the ethics of holding big cats as pets.
Some may debate whether this is the best documentary of the year, especially given how many memes and posts have been written about this series, but it’s undeniably one of the most unusual and bizarre for sure.
Once again, Netflix remains the king of the jungle when it comes to these documentary series and Tiger King roars its way onto the streaming platform in emphatic fashion.
And there we have it, our list of best Documentary Series for 2020 so far! We’ll periodically update this page throughout the year as each of our favourites show up so do feel free to check back in the future.
Did your favourites make the list? Have we missed any must-watch documentaries? Feel free to let us know in the comments below!