10 Best Documentary TV Shows of 2024

Updated May 23, 2024 • Staff
At once educational and entertaining, documentaries are a great way to learn more about the world. There are biographies as well as nature docs, history lessons as well as cautionary tales. But while the variety can be endless, the running time is not—that is, if you're watching a documentary feature. Docuseries on the other hand have a lot more leeway to discuss whatever topic interests you. Ranging from three to ten episodes, these shows cover more bases and reveal more truths than a typical one-sit-down documentary. So if that's what you're looking for, then sit back, relax (or put you're thinking cap on, since some of these can get heady), and enjoy. Here are the best documentary shows of 2024 (so far!) that you can stream right now.
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10.

American Conspiracy: The Octopus Murders

The so-called “Octopus,” that is the eight powerful but sketchy individuals journalist Danny Casolaro believed to be in control of the entire country, is already a complex topic. Crazy, but impressively complex. Equally interesting is the series of mysterious deaths allegedly committed by the Octopus, which includes what looks to be Casolaro’s framed suicide. This four-part documentary by Netflix efficiently dives into all of that with the added bonus of duo Zachary Treitz and Christian Hansen’s perspectives. The former is the director who expertly weaves all the tangles into a coherent web, while the latter is our guide into it, a researcher who wishes to follow in Casolaro's footsteps despite the multiple signs that he should maybe stop, if not out of fear of what lurks in the shadows then out of fear of insanity. Not only do Treitz and Hansen relay the information in an accessible and intriguing way, they also effectively reproduce that paranoid feeling of falling deep into a conspiracy rabbit hole. If you’re not a fan of true crime, this is worth the watch if only for that feeling.

Our staff rating: 7.3/10
Genre: Crime, Documentary
9.

The Program: Cons, Cults and Kidnapping

The Program starts small and intimate, with director Katherine Kubler sharing the story of how she got into a school that turned out to be, in everything but name, a prison. In Ivy Ridge, Kubler and her peers were physically assaulted and subjected to cult-like practices, with most of the kids leaving the institution worse off than better. But soon the diaristic approach gives way to a complex and well-researched investigation of what is known as the “troubled teen industry.” As it turns out, there are plenty of other institutions like Ivy Ridge that scam desperate parents into spending thousands of dollars to incarcerate their kids and hand them over to faux educators. There are times when Kubler’s anger (understandably) gets the better of her and the storytelling, but ultimately, this is a well-made and important account of an overlooked atrocity.

Our staff rating: 7.3/10
Genre: Documentary
Rating: TV-MA
8.

Quiet on Set: The Dark Side of Kids TV

It’s not news that child actors don’t have it easy in an industry that’s more interested in exploiting than protecting them. Theirs is a story of trauma and difficult adulthoods, but it’s also often told in a sensationalist way that dehumanizes them. “Child Actor Goes Rogue” continues to be a headline favorite in tabloids, but maybe all that is set to change with the release of Quiet on the Set. This four-part documentary is by no means revolutionary—in fact, it’s as straightforward as any true-crime series out there. But it importantly lets the now-grown-up victims (or their loved ones) tell their story on their own terms. The misdeeds covered here range from degradingly misogynistic behavior in the writers’ room to outright child pedophilia and rape. Though it sometimes feels like the directors could have handled these issues more delicately, instead of jamming them all in bite-sized episodes, you still come away from it knowing and wanting to do so much more.

Our staff rating: 7.3/10
Genre: Crime, Documentary
Director: Emma Schwartz, Mary Robertson
Rating: TV-14
7.

STEVE! (martin) a documentary in 2 pieces

Directed by Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom, Won’t You Be My Neighbor), Steve! is an appropriately fun and artistic documentary capturing its subject matter’s fun and artistic spirit. It’s a delight to see Martin's other personas, such as his early magician self, his philosophy major self, and his quietly humorous cartoonist self. We're so used to seeing his fast-paced zaniness that these parts of the documentary are almost shocking to see. But maybe the most illuminating role Martin plays is that of his current self. In equal measure, he cracks jokes and offers wise words about aging which, at 75, he takes in enviously great stride.

Our staff rating: 7.3/10
Genre: Documentary
Actor: Steve Martin
Rating: TV-MA
6.

God Save Texas

Sometimes thinking about your home state can feel complicated, because while it’s your home, the events and issues and controversies of the state can make people think differently of it. With plenty of controversies but also having the most residents, Texas does have a distinct cultural identity, and Texan native director Richard Linklater explores its different sides, including the sides unheard of, through the three-part God Save Texas. Teaming up with Alex Stapleton and Iliana Sosa, they tackle the Huntsville prison complex, the Houston oil industry, and the borders of El Paso, but they do so through a compassionate, personal perspective that simply and subtly shifts our understanding of the Lone Star State, and America as a whole.

Our staff rating: 7.5/10
Genre: Documentary
5.

Stax: Soulsville USA

Stax’s existence may have been short-lived, but its impact continues to be felt in every R&B record produced to this day. That’s one of the points this four-part documentary from HBO successfully makes so that by the end, you’re convinced Stax should be just as recognizable and appreciated as Motown, Atlantic, and other influential record labels. For the most part, the series resembles the typical documentary in that it’s propelled by animated talking heads and complementary archival footage, but the performances of Stax stars, including and most especially Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes, inject the documentary with an energy and electricity that pushes you to move and groove. The old-school editing feels thoughtful, too, while the additional animation adds a delightfully nostalgic touch. The documentary itself may not be as revolutionary as the events it captures, but it is just as enlightening, electrifying, and enjoyable.

Our staff rating: 7.5/10
Genre: Documentary
Rating: TV-MA
4.

Ren Faire

The inherent drama of succession stories has always made for great, entertaining TV. You only have to look at Game of Thrones, Dynasty, Yellowstone, and, well, Succession to know that. With Ren Faire, director Lance Oppenheim (Some Kind of Heaven, Spermworld) ups the ante by following the real and ongoing power struggle between the Renaissance fair employees clawing and scratching their way to the top. They’re so animated and dead-set on inheriting a literal kingdom that Oppenheim and his team hardly have to do anything to color this tale. And yet, color it they do, to wonderfully cinematic and comedic effect. The employees are (willingly) dubbed “Lord of Corn” and “The Fairy Godmother,” while Coulam is of course the longstanding King. You get the sense that their feuds are heightened in the presence of the cameras, but feel entertained nonetheless. To cap things off, the documentary is shot using grainy unfocused film, sometimes edited in the trippy way low-budget 60’s films used to look so that it matches the surreal reality of the fair. The story could’ve been interesting on its own, but the artful and intentional way it’s told elevates it.

Our staff rating: 7.5/10
Genre: Documentary
3.

Dancing for the Devil: The 7M TikTok Cult

The hook of the first episode is a very effective jumping off point, placing us in the middle of the past bond between 2 sisters. Then it immediately occurs to you how wild this premise is, and that in some ways it's still ongoing. A lot of 7M/Shekinah church members and their distraught family members are interviewed to paint the clearest possible picture, and it’s clear that a lot of care and detail was put into this project to sway a viewer away from easy victim-blaming. It’s really tense and generally sad, but the pace definitely dips after episode 1, but it’s also a 3-parter, so you might as well finish the whole thing.

Our staff rating: 7.5/10
Genre: Documentary
Rating: TV-MA
2.

The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst

Anyone tired of the same old cliches found in true crime shows (and there are a lot of them) will feel reinvigorated watching The Jinx. Director Andrew Jarecki goes one step further from the usual fare by interrogating the subject, himself an unnerving character, and unearthing evidence that changes the trajectory of his story. The Jinx is a great true crime documentary in that it’s gripping and well-researched, but it’s also great television, point blank. It’s thought-provoking, unsettling, and strives to always keep the viewer at the edge of their seat.

Our staff rating: 8/10
Genre: Crime, Documentary
Actor: Andrew Jarecki, Robert Durst
Rating: TV-MA
1.

Conan O’Brien Must Go

In an interview, Conan compared Conan O’Brien Must Go to a travel documentary, except, he said, you don’t learn anything new or interesting. After watching the show, I can safely say that that couldn’t be further from the truth, though it is indicative of the kind of self-deprecating humor he employs throughout the show. What you learn from watching Conan hop from one country to another, improvising and befriending people from different parts of the world, is that it is possible to be both ridiculously funny and genuinely kind. Many comedians joke at the expense of other people—they’re willing to humiliate them, not themselves—but Conan is the opposite. He is always the butt of a joke. Even when he’s pointing out something inane, it’s his incredulity that we’re laughing at. Upon watching this four-parter, you also learn that no one can match, much less top, what Conan does.

Our staff rating: 8.4/10
Genre: Comedy, Documentary
Actor: Conan O'Brien

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