Joyce Dignam interrogates the Netflix Docu-Series and asks if the often sensationalist genre can be considered “documentary”
The Netflix docu-series has become a staple method of viewing for many over the past few years, all similarly packaged - bingeable with multiple episodes and most importantly, shocking subject matter. These docu-series are often sensationalist and highly edited in a way that increases the show's likelihood of going viral. When it seems that every few weeks we are given a new docu-series that we simply must binge on, we must question whether these series can be classed as documentaries at all and whether documentary makers have a responsibility in presenting information in an ethical way.
Documentaries are often defined by the ways in which their research is found and presented. In their docu-series, Netflix relies on this definition loosely. The line between drama, reality TV and documentary seems to be thin. Even on the platform’s own website, there seems to be confusion when it comes to classification. Love on the Spectrum, a show following young adults on the autism spectrum and their dating lives is classified by Netflix as both docu-series and wedding and romance reality. To many, these classifications would seem conflicting, but this means of categorisation brings to light the light-hearted and commercialised nature of these series. Cheer, a show following a texas cheerleading squad follows a similar format. Yes, there are interviews with academics and business-people who are knowledgeable about the industry as a whole but overall, the show focuses more so on the lives of the teenagers on the team, leaning more towards reality TV than documentary. There is no larger question that the makers are seeking answers to, it is simply following a group of people in the run-up to a big competition. This doesn’t necessarily mean that these shows have no value but rather it calls into question the goals of the company - to document facts and investigate a situation or to create drama.
The ethics of these docu-series have been questioned in the past. One of the more recent examples is the series Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer which caused some viewers to complain about its graphic nature as it shows bloody crime photos. This is not the first time that troubling, real-life murder and abuse has been sensationalised in order to shock viewers. The 2018 series, Afflicted which follows a group of people with controversial and often unexplained chronic illnesses is another example of Netflix’s questionable morals. After the show aired, participants took to Medium to explain their discomfort with how they were portrayed, saying that the show was cleverly edited “all to craft the most sensationalist narrative possible”. This depiction had real effects for the participants who received ridicule online as a result. When dealing with real people’s stories, it can seem that Netflix is willing to put ethics aside in order to gain maximum viewership.
This was no different for one of 2020’s pop culture highlights, Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness where from the tagline alone we can see sensationalism. The juxtaposition between the show's content and how it is presented is jarring. Depicting murderers and abusers across the board, the show does little to interrogate these issues but rather chooses to focus on more trivial matters with dark subjects thrown in to shock, summed up by The Atlantic who said: “the point is virality—content so outlandish that people can’t help but talk about it”. The central character, Joe Exotic, is the face of the show, featuring on all promotional material. Exotic, who is now serving a 22-year prison sentence, is clearly driven by fame and attention. We must ask then, who really benefits from this show? Victims or abusers?
While there is definitely value to a lot of these series, it is important to remain aware of what Netflix’s goal here is - to generate revenue, to make headlines and to get people talking by seemingly any means necessary.