No one can argue about 2020 being a beast of a year, in which we truly have needed entertainment to distract us. Part of that desire also includes escaping into other people’s realities, so to speak. We still very much want to see bad guys with a long game get put away for their crimes. Wanderlust is still very much a thing, as is the desire to gather and enjoy amazing food and celebrate culture. Fortunately, we can still experiencing these things vicariously through docuseries, and if this year has done anything right, it’s given us a plentiful supply of TV series, including the below docuseries, to binge while waiting until it’s safe to enjoy humanity (in person) again.
While putting this list together, I expected the true crime genre to loom large, and that’s happened, but also! Zac Efron graced us with his presence in one of the most enjoyable entries of the year, and even a sports-dummy like myself can enjoy Michael Jordan throwing drama. In no particular order — because the subject matter is so wide-ranging, and they’re all worth your time — here are the best 10 TV docuseries of the year.
I’ll Be Gone In The Dark (HBO)
Director Liz Garbus did an incredible job with this portrait of true crime blogger Michelle McNamara’s obsession as an armchair sleuth who eventually aided law enforcement (and inspired them to push harder with new DNA innovations) to nab the Golden State Killer. This series isn’t really about Joseph James DeAngelo, though, in the sense that he’s not given the spotlight after he’s apprehended. Instead, the show strips away the final shreds of power held by a predator; and although this is not light viewing by any stretch, it is ultimately a tribute to and a celebration of McNamara’s prowess. Further, the series is dramatic and suspenseful, but in no way does it sensationalize the violent crimes that sparked McNamara’s search for justice. She deftly wrote about terrifying subject matter in an empathetic way, and never in her mind did she forget that the victims weren’t mere numbers. Instead, she was interested in people. Garbus pieces together excerpts of Michelle’s 2018 book — which was completed by investigative journalist Billy Jensen and crime writer Paul Haynes with a greenlight from her husband, Patton Oswalt, who penned the afterword — with interviews from survivors (who react to the arrest), investigators, and Oswalt. Ultimately, this is an expansive docuseries that more than adequately does service to the epic source material.
Down To Earth With Zac Efron (Netflix)
Now for something completely different. Oh, I loved this series. Zac Efron’s team-up with wellness guru Darin Olien is simply delightful. I can’t stress enough how life-affirming it is to watch this duo get so excited about witnessing how Paris provides an insanely clean water supply while Efron’s (half-jokingly) searching for a merman. When Efron’s not shirtless, he’s raving about “sick” and “rad” geothermal power and learning how to bake bread inside of volcano-heated soil. He and Olien shout at other from two different continents, and they tangle with urban beekeepers. It’s all very casually regarded, and yes, what they witness is often truly mind-blowing stuff. It’s a mostly relaxing voyage too, but the episode that solidified my fandom most was actually a serious one, in which Efron and Olien visit Puerto Rico over a year after Hurricane Maria. At first, Efron hesitates to sign a wall of heroes that have come to help provide relief for the still-devastated U.S. territory. He doesn’t feel that he’s done anything to deserve being recognized, but later in the episode, he does a seemingly small thing that changes a woman’s life. She’d been living in the ruins of her home, unable to remove all of the debris, and Efron just stands up and does it for her with a few hands from the crew. That’s the essence of this whole series: the smallest of gestures can make a world of difference in healing our world, and it’s very “whoa” when that happens.
Murder On Middle Beach (HBO)
Director Madison Hamburg (who, incidentally, happens to be sort of a Zac Efron lookalike) brings us the culmination of a decade-long project following the murder of his mother, Barbara, in 2010. It’s a crime that remains unsolved, due to something procedurally sketchy on the part of law enforcement, and Madison placed himself into startlingly risky situations during his quest for the truth. It’s mind-boggling to fathom how Madison kept it together for the entirety of this project, as he interviewed various family friends and members, some of whom he was able to exonerate. Did the crime have something to do with her estranged husband, whose financial dealings were highly suspect, or can the murder be tied to “Gifting Tables,” for which multiple fellow participants were convicted in a Ponzi scheme after Barbara’s death? This series goes places that even Madison did not expect, and it’s a heck of a mystery that will keep you guessing after the end.
Taste The Nation With Padma Lakshmi (Hulu)
Clearly, this series unfurls as a deeply personal journey for Padma Lakshmi in her latest show that presents her twist on the American dream. Lakshmi revels in shining a light on marginalized people’s experiences, and as a formerly poor immigrant kid-turned-household-name emcee of sorts, she comes by her host role honestly. And Lakshmi’s compassion for her subjects knows no bounds, for she shines a light on the pain that results from American appropriation of dishes crafted by immigrants. It’s a gutsy, confident, and airtight approach, and in the end, Lakshmi exposes how Americans have essentially colonized everything, even the culinary accomplishments of immigrants. Somehow, none of it feels like a lecture, and that’s down to Lakshmi’s charismatic ways. At times lighthearted and others dead serious, she takes viewers on a whirlwind tour that manages to enthrall while also leaving an indelibly educational mark. It feels like a substantive game-changer for food-obsessed travel shows to up the ante on what they (pun intended) bring to the table.
Love Fraud (Showtime)
Online dating has never been for the faint of heart. Sometimes, even, a sociopath is afoot, and that person is really good at mirroring what their date wants to find in a mate. In this series, the warning factor is cranked up to eleven while showcasing the wild feats of one man, who managed to swindle dozens of women and leave them in financial and emotional shambles. Richard Scott Smith grifted his way through dozens of relationships, leaving a trail of devastation in his wake. The level of deceit he pulls off — time and time again, the rushed sense of connection and commitment and the emptied bank accounts — are the work of a master con-man. In this series, Smith’s victims finally get to tell their stories, and their collective experiences are awe-inspiring, as is the baffling appearance of Smith himself from prison. He seems so utterly unremarkable, and part of the mystery here is how, exactly, he managed to so smoothly prey upon the affections of countless women who appear to have their heads on (mostly) straight. There are also strange things afoot at a seafood restaurant (yes, there are weird, Tiger King-esque vibes), but overall, it’s a compelling glimpse into a bizarre long game from a predator and a heroic swing from a lady bounty hunter.
The Last Dance (ESPN Films/Netflix)
Michael Jordan’s miniseries does not even come close to landing in my usual wheelhouse. Yet even I was aware of the overwhelming reception to this (controversial) project from the NBA superstar, who led the Chicago Bulls to six championships. Obviously, I was not part of the initial ESPN audience for this one, but knowing how greatly this project affected those who did tune in led me to realize that, yes, I needed to watch and see what the buzz was about in order to not ignore it while writing this list. After broaching the subject with my sports-literate best friend over Thanksgiving, the binging began. No doubt, Jordan is painting his own picture of events here, and since I’m not aware of what the truth is — and cannot accurately judge whether Jerry Krause deserved to be drawn as a villain — all I can really do is comment on the entertainment factor. And reader, I was highly entertained by all the saltiness (“Don’t ever talk trash to Black Jesus”) and this extraordinary cast of characters, including wild, wild Dennis Rodman and that Scottie Pippen fellow (who ended up not being happy about this). Oh my god, the level of high drama here could rival the entire Kardashian empire.
Back in the day whilst dipping McDonald’s french fries into milkshakes, I never imagined that so much intrigue would spawn from this fast-food restaurant’s Monopoly game. Nor did anyone really grasp that the game could be rigged to the point where the FBI was on the case (McDonald’s itself had nothing to do with the rigging) and figured out that big-scale winners were suspiciously connected, and so on. The complexity and twists of the whole story all feel surreal, and of course the mob is part of the story, which yeah, no wonder I didn’t win millions of dollars. Then there’s Agent Doug, who had more fun on the show (while talking about how he’s taking down the fraudulent ring) than everyone this year combined. I’m happy for Agent Doug, and I’m amazed to remember that this show aired in the early part of 2020. Really? Yes, and it feels like five years have passed since then, so it might already be time to revisit this limited series again.
Unsolved Mysteries (Netflix)
This revival turned out to be as addictive as the original series even though some key changes — like declining to replace Robert Stack as host and face of the franchise, along with making each episode a deep dive of one case — updated the show for the streaming audience. Two batches of cases thus far prove that people’s appetites for crowdsourcing knowledge of cold cases won’t die anytime soon, and hopefully, the power of the Internet will lead to a lot more credible tips coming together to provide closure to families. Really though, Netflix has hit this project out of the ballparks so far. From stories about a dumbfounding rooftop disappearance and a French house of horrors to tsunami ghosts and a death row inmate allowed to go shopping for Christmas, some of these scenarios read like horror movies. The show’s still a bounty of compelling cases that supply no shortage of chills.
Deaf U (Netflix)
This reality series is more engaging than one could ever imagine. In short, Deaf U shines a groundbreaking spotlight upon the Deaf community at Washington, D.C.’s esteemed Gallaudet University. As the title indicates, the show follows deaf and hard of hearing college students, who are indulging in every type of antic that one comes to expect from, well, college students. Things get soap-opera-y on many occasions, but one never loses sight of the fact that these students are fiercely protective of themselves, and they’re very aware of how their conversations (in ASL and sometimes mouthed/verbalized as well) are presented to the camera. Dating and romantic rivalries and bar hopping and hookups and friendships and gym-going all go down, so it’s voyeuristic in that way, but the show also spreads an illuminating amount of insight about Deaf culture and identity, along with their experiences both as individuals and a full-on community.
Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich (Netflix)
Those audience members who have already gobbled up all of the wide-ranging accusations surrounding the international sex-trafficking ring of Jeffrey Epstein and his alleged accomplice, Ghislaine Maxwell, won’t find too many surprises in this docuseries, but it’s nonetheless worth watching to reinforce exactly how twisted of a trail the tycoon left behind following his August 2019 death in jail. Epstein (along with Ghislaine) was accused of abusing women and underage girls for decades, and their connections with Bill Clinton, Alan Dershowitz, and Britain’s Prince Andrew continue to spark questions of accountability. Over the course of four episodes, director Lisa Bryant doesn’t interview Ghislaine, but she does untangle Epstein’s complex web, which is aptly described as a “molestation pyramid scheme” that haunts dozens of survivors to this very day. That’s where this docuseries comes in and refuses to let Epstein’s death affect these women’s fight for justice. They all agreed to appear for reasons that define the very purpose of a true-crime docuseries: to shine a light on horrors that were committed with the hope that a scheme like this won’t ever be allowed to happen again.