The SHOCKING TRUTH about documentaries

Have you watched a TV documentary lately? I mean, one produced within the last three or four years? Were you able to stay awake for the whole thing?

It seems to me that documentaries have taken a horrible turn for the worse over the past few years, and not just the overhyped ones on the History Channel. Everyone has succumbed to the same problem: dumbing down, repetition, building a false “suspense,” substituting fancy graphics or reenactments for the genuine objects of study.

Whether it’s Nova or the National Geographic Channel, every documentary I’ve watched recently seems to follow the same pattern.

1. Introduce “mysterious” or “controversial” element
2. Bring in a tiny bit of factually relevant material
3. Interview a sexy or “culturally diverse” expert. There are no ugly experts any more
4. Present either (a) a cheesy dramatic reenactment of the tiny bit of factual material or (b) a crappy computer-animated rendering of the tiny bit of factual material
5. Sum up what’s been presented before
6. Remind viewers that we’ll soon hear about the mysterious or controversial element
7. (if on commercial TV) break for a commercial. On public TV, you have no choice but to move directly to step 8
8. Sum up what’s been presented before AGAIN
9. Remind viewers that we’ll soon hear about the mysterious or controversial element AGAIN
10. Repeat the above nine steps, ad nauseum, making sure to use the EXACT SAME reenactment or animation at least five times
11. At the end of the episode, when the mysterious or controversial element is finally addressed, it will inevitably be either untrue or have a completely boring explanation

If the program has a larger budget, the pattern is the same, though then they might spring for a few extra reenactments or animations, and they’ll stretch the usual 30 minutes’ worth of information being presented into two hours. Such was the case with the recent National Geographic special on The Gospel of Judas. If I see one more ancient shred of papyrus being painstakingly moved across a glass plate, I’m going to have to scream. They had actual pictures of actual experts puzzling together the actual papyrus, but they STILL used digital animations to show how the papyrus was painstakingly moved across glass plates to reassemble the text.

And the great mystery that was revealed about Judas? Judas didn’t think he was such a bad guy, after all. Who’d a thunk it?

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3 Responses to The SHOCKING TRUTH about documentaries

  1. Yeah, I agree entirely. But I think another element is tha attack of he talking heads. Every five minutes or so they cut away to another supposed expert to tell us the significance of what we have just seen.

    I watched one of those 10 Days That Changed America docs on the battle of Antietam and instead of
    one on camera expert they must have had six. It disrupts the flow of the narrative. Too much telling, not enough showing.

  2. Anne says:

    yes, yes, yes.

    I tried to watch the always abysmal “Dateline NBC”: the thing is, the story is usually pretty interesting–if gruesome–but the slow, slow, slow unfurling of information, the constant ebb and flow of tease and repeat is excruciating.

    I had to turn back to cooking shows. At least they move forward towards a meal…

  3. Ben says:

    I have to agree. In the time I have to spend to watch Dateline NBC tell me a story, if I were really curious about it, I could just look it up on the Internet, get the 5-10 minute version, and flip the channel to something else, like Law and Order (I’m one of those people who watches TV purely for the sake of having something to watch).

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