I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: docu-mania is upon us. Faced with COVID-related challenges to producing scripted series, many platforms invested in nonfiction TV, and just over a year into the pandemic those projects are starting to see the light of day. Not every product of this documentary boom has been great. But this month’s roundup of the best new shows is proof of just how many of them are worth watching, from essential examinations of white supremacy and criminal justice reform to surprisingly substantial explorations of clothing and, er, Bigfoot in weed country. For those searching for something more narrative, an immersive crime drama that casts Kate Winslet as a Pennsylvania detective should do nicely. And if you’re in need of additional suggestions, here are my picks from January, February and March.
Exterminate All the Brutes (HBO)
“The very existence of this film is a miracle,” says its creator, Raoul Peck, in the final episode of Exterminate All the Brutes—and that might be an understatement. A four-part experimental documentary that takes on the unwieldy, bitterly contentious subject of white supremacy since the so-called Age of Discovery, Brutes is unorthodox in both content and style. Drawing heavily on the work of leftist academics, the series also incorporates scripted passages and animations that serve as guided meditations on human suffering more than as visual aids. It may well be the most politically radical and intellectually challenging work of nonfiction ever made for television. [Read TIME’s full review.]
Mare of Easttown (HBO)
Mare of Easttown sounds like it’s going to be a YA equestrian novel. In fact, it is a poignant, richly observed, if occasionally over-the-top HBO crime drama starring Kate Winslet as Mare Sheehan, a police detective in rural Pennsylvania. Like a Gen-X Frances McDormand character, Mare is an aggressive, no-nonsense woman with too many responsibilities and too little faith in the people around her. In an early scene, we see her simultaneously driving, choking down a foil-wrapped sandwich and lacing into her ex-husband Frank (David Denman) on the phone. Then, suddenly, she’s out of the car running after a perp she knows on sight, because he happens to be the drug-addicted brother of a woman Mare played basketball with in high school. This is Easttown: a working-class enclave so claustrophobically close-knit that everyone who isn’t family is a friend or foe, where you find out your ex is getting remarried because he throws a party at his house, next door. It’s a tough place to be a detective struggling to find leads in the year-old disappearance of a young woman, whose cancer-stricken mother is exerting very public pressure on Mare and her superiors. More tragedy is on the horizon. [Read the full review.]
Philly D.A. (PBS)
What might the day-to-day work of dismantling systemic racism, mass incarceration and police power actually look like? Ted Passon and Yoni Brook go a long way toward answering this tough question in the eight-part documentary Philly D.A., airing as part of PBS’s Independent Lens series. The filmmakers spent three years following the longtime criminal defense lawyer Larry Krasner for this essential, remarkably balanced vérité-style account of his unlikely tenure as the city’s district attorney. A crusading progressive who’d made headlines for representing BLM and Occupy activists, he wasn’t exactly a beloved figure among prosecutors by the time he was elected in 2017. In an interview for the series, former DA Lynne Abraham, who held the post for 19 years beginning in 1991, doesn’t mince words: “I don’t like anything about Larry Krasner.” [Read the full review.]
“I’ve been witness to a lot of crazy stories,” says the journalist David Holthouse in the first episode of this unusual three-part crime docuseries. “But the one about a Sasquatch wasting three dudes in dope country is bar none the craziest.” What sounds like the beginning of a spooky campfire yarn is actually the inexplicable memory of a night in the fall of 1993, when two terrified guys rolled up to the Mendocino County home where a 23-year-old Holthouse was visiting a weed-grower friend, claiming to have three found bodies that had been torn apart by some kind of monster. The crime was never reported. So, decades into a career that had sent him on high-risk investigations of neo-Nazis, meth addicts and, most poignantly, the man who raped him when he was a child, Holthouse decided to find out what (if anything) really happened that night.
There are certainly some oddballs in Sasquatch: paranoid hippie pot farmers, cryptozoology obsessives, two men described as “Sasquatch hunters/life partners” who seem to have an ongoing disagreement over whether Bigfoots can teleport. But this is not Tiger King; its purpose is not to poke fun. Though it’s a shame so much of it unfolds in phone calls with subjects who wouldn’t speak on-camera, Holthouse’s investigation feels genuinely dangerous. And after reeling us in with a supernatural mystery, he and director Joshua Rofé (both executive producers, as part of a team that also includes Mark and Jay Duplass) unearth a true story that touches some of America’s sorest spots, from the War on Drugs to racism and xenophobia. [Read TIME’s guide to weed-adjacent new shows that premiered on 4/20.]
Worn Stories (Netflix)
Some people dismiss fashion as superficial or profligate or overly exclusive. For others, it’s high art sculpted around the human body—an abstract language composed of lines, shapes and textures with the ability to translate our innermost selves into terms the material world can understand. Both camps have a point. But clothing plays a more central role in our lives than either one allows. As universal and essential as food, it’s something that helps define our shared humanity and something most of us have to think about several times a day, if only to make sure we’re properly prepared to face the elements.
It’s through this broad lens that Worn Stories, a docuseries adapted from Emily Spivack’s book of the same name, views clothes, setting aside the art and business of fashion in order to focus on how people live with (which is to say, in) it. Woven together out of short vignettes, the eight themed episodes are sprinkled with famous faces. Simon Doonan pays tribute to the pair of Stephen Sprouse leggings he wore to the aerobics classes that helped him through the early years of the AIDS crisis, while Rep. Frederica Wilson explains her philosophy of bold, head-to-toe dressing. But Spivack, who executive-produced the show with a team including Jenji Kohan and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? director Morgan Neville, is just as interested in the sartorial experiences of everyday people: crossing guards, club kids, teen athletes, museum workers, musicians, even nudists. My favorite segment profiles Carlos, a formerly incarcerated man who helps recently released peers transition back to life on the outside after long prison sentences, a process that involves taking them to buy their first new outfits in years. Although the overall tone is light, Worn Stories takes our relationships with clothes seriously and, in doing so, explores aspects of our sartorial selves that we might never have thought about before. [Read TIME’s interview with Spivack about the show.]
Correction, May 21
The original version of this story misidentified the actor who plays Frank in Mare of Easttown. He is David Denman, not Joe Tippett.
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