We spent most of the year inside. But the best documentaries of the year brought the world to us.
They allowed us to attend virtual dinner parties with powerful women, invited us to observe the intimate moments of a forbidden love, let us sit in on the strategic meetings that changed the course of American history, and brought us behind the “trespassers will be shot” lines at tiger enclosures. Through documentary films, we travelled between nazi trials, cheerleader bootcamps, and deadly waterparks. Through them, we encountered other people and other ways of living with rare curiosity.
The boundaries between reality TV and traditional documentary thinned, as impossibly juicy docuseries vied for viewers’ attention. And as the news cycle pummeled up with relentless information, documentaries slowed down, zeroed in, and exposed us to different kinds of truths.
Dubbed the “reality-TV version of Grey’s Anatomy,” Lenox Hill follows four real-life doctors—two brain surgeons, an OBGYN resident, and an ER doctor—who work at Manhattan’s Lenox Hill Hospital. “Right now you deserve to watch this show,” Glamour entertainment writer Christopher Rosa recommended in June, writing, “It’s the catharsis your heart needs.”
80% of Americans don’t know a transgender person. Their greatest chance of meeting a trans person is through TV and movies, and so Disclosure undertakes to examine the media that explained trans-ness to Americans. It takes viewers from the hateful, violent narratives that have dominated depictions of trans people in the media, to the glorious rise of trans creators telling their own stories.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark
On the face of it, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is about the Golden State Killer, who, in the 1970s and 80s, raped an estimated 50 women and murdered 13 people in Northern California. But really, it’s about Michelle McNamara, the writer who tracked the killer until her own death in 2016. McNamara described herself as a “stay-at-home mom with a sensible haircut and Goldfish crackers lining my purse” but she wrote the book I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer, which contributed to the arrest and eventual sentencing of the killer, former police officer Joseph DeAngelo. McNamara said she was drawn to the story from a place of obligation to the women who were targeted by the killer. The documentary, based on her book, does that justice. “This is about the survivors and their stories” wrote Paulina Jayne Isaac of the documentary this June in Glamour. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark unspools a story within a story within a story—focusing on wronged women, and the woman who helped bring the killer to justice.
The robot takeover will be racist—it already is. Coded Bias, by Shalini Kantayya, exposes the fact that artificial intelligence, from its usage by social media giants to powerful police forces, is not a neutral, perfect arbiter, but rather is programmed to be biased against people of color and women.
The Devil Next Door
Was John Demjanjuk a sweet midwestern grandfather? Or was he the vicious Nazi concentration camp guard, Ivan the Terrible? You can just Google it if you want to know the answer. But this docuseries puts more on trial than Demjanjuk’s guilt or innocence, asking—how do we seek justice in the aftermath of a horror like the Holocaust?
All In: The Fight for Democracy
Since the day that Joe Biden’s victory was announced, the biggest questions haven’t been about Biden or Kamala Harris, but this: How did Stacey Abrams do it? How did she lead the organization of her state, Georgia, to register so many voters that the state went to the Democrats for the first time since 1992? All In: The Fight for Democracy is produced by Abrams and features her, while telling a broader story about voter suppression in the US and the longterm fight to take it out.
Hundreds of women survived sexual abuse by Larry Nassar—the former doctor for USA Gymnastics who is now a convicted pedophile. It took an army of those women to bring him down, but the first to come forward was Maggie Nichols. Known as the “Jordan of college gymnastics,” she’s also “Athlete A,” the first athlete who reported Nassar’s abuse to USA Gymnastics. The documentary, which Glamour wellness editor Macaela Mackenzie calls “required viewing,” follows the way the women—and reporters at The Indianapolis Star, who broke the story about the accusations against Nassar—brought Nassar to justice, in spite of shocking institutional failures.
Class Action Park
A good rollercoaster will scare you almost to death—a bad roller coaster will kill you. Action Park, the notorious New Jersey waterpark of the 70s and 80s, was a giant slip ‘n slide that over time gave way to half a dozen deaths. Called Action Park, it gained the nickname “Class Action Park” and “Accident Park,” while the wave pool was nicknamed “the grave pool.” Like the waterpark itself, the documentary starts funny, and gets horrifying.
It’s the docuseries that started it all. ”It all” here meaning: brief, vivid, collective quarantine phases. Tiger King, a look into the exotic pet trade—particularly the epic journey of a man named Joe Exotic—captivated the nation and also left us feeling a little bit bought and sold. Joe Exotic caged tigers, and the justice system caged Joe Exotic. Soon after Tiger King became a giant hit, its star was diagnosed with coronavirus in prison. In some ways, the culture that grew up around Tiger King is bigger than Tiger King itself. Yes, the docuseries is fascinating, but once we implicated ourselves in the story by treating its sordidness as entertainment, we became worthy subjects of study as well.
How To with John Wilson
Is How To with John Wilson a docuseries? An alt-comedy special? A poetic meditation on city life? Yes! Wilson’s hit show—it earned a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes—follows New Yorkers through their funny, dirty, and creative lives. Watch, and find yourself oddly mesmerized, as New Yorkers attempt all the gory details of daily life—splitting checks, covering furniture, making risotto.
Remember when life was normal, we could see the bottom half of each other’s faces, and Cheer was the hot new show on Netflix? That was, in fact, 2020! The hit docuseries followed the mighty cheerleaders of Navarro College in Texas, on their road to the National Cheerleading Championships, with the fierce Coach Monica at the helm. Between Cheer and “WAP,” we’d like to see stats on how many people in 2020 went to the hospital after trying to do the splits.
The Social Dilemma
Looking to have one of those little breakdowns where you delete your apps, slash your screen time, and trade in your smartphone for a scuffed flip phone? Try The Social Dilemma, which explains the waking nightmare that is our dependence on social media in a way that feels impressively hopeless and absolutely fascinating.
Mucho Mucho Amor
Oh, you haven’t heard of Walter Mercado, the Puerto Rican gender non-conforming dancing astrologer, who maintained a fandom of millions? You can rectify that with Mucho Mucho Amor, which was made in the last months of his life, when Mercado was 87 and beguiling as ever.
Nanette Burstein’s four-part Hillary Clinton documentary follows America’s most loved-and-loathed woman politician throughout her career, through her climactic 2016 presidential loss and beyond. Burstein told Glamour, of making the doc, “The biggest thing for me was that, if you look at all the details of her life and you can do it in an intimate and personal way, you could see the arc of women’s history in a way that I hadn’t seen through one person’s life before.”
NXIVM wasn’t the only well-documented cult in 2020—this docuseries explores what the filmmakers call “the cult of cults,” Heaven’s Gate, a religious cult that worshipped UFOs and ended when 39 cult members participated in a mass suicide, which they intended as a means to gain access to what they believed was a UFO. It’s an upsetting, almost unbelievable story, and therefore perfectly primed to be an HBO docuseries.
A Secret Love
Produced by Ryan Murphy, A Secret Love tells the story of Terry Donahue, an alum of the iconic All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, and her partner Pat Henschel, who kept their romantic relationship a secret for over 60 years. It was made with obvious love over the course of seven years by Chris Bolan, who is Donahue’s great-nephew.
You didn’t think we’d forget Miss Americana herself, Taylor Alison Swift, did you? While some Glamour staffers are split on whether or not this genre of movie—loving biographical portraits of mega-pop stars, à la Bieber’s Seasons and Gaga’s Five Foot Two—qualifies as “documentary,” we agree that the Swiftian narrative is an addictive one, in whatever format it reaches us.
Every year, thousands of teen actors compete for the chance to perform a monologue by the legendary playwright August Wilson on a real Broadway stage. In this stirring doc, executive produced by Viola Davis and John Legend, we follow young Black actors who, in 2018, compete to take the words recited in rundown auditoriums and high school classrooms to the Broadway stage.
Jenny Singer is a staff writer for Glamour. You can follow her on Twitter.