The Guide #5: why podcasts now rule the documentary roost

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Jack Thonell/AP</span>
Photograph: Jack Thonell/AP

My favourite documentary of the past decade – by some margin – is OJ: Made in America, Ezra Edelman’s epic account of the rise and fall of OJ Simpson. Those who haven’t seen it (and you really, really should see it – the whole thing is available on the iPlayer right now) will primarily remember it as the longest ever “film”, at nearly eight hours, to win an Academy Award. Its best documentary victory – though hugely well-deserved on one level – was in another way a bit iffy: made as a five-part series for ESPN, it received a tiny theatrical release in the US that qualified it for Oscars consideration.

The Academy have since tightened up their rules to bar multipart documentaries from the best documentary category and, well, fair enough, really! Made in America is clearly a TV series, and a really great example of what you can do with that format. It is sprawling and comprehensive, bouncing between styles – at one minute a sport documentary, the next a forensic true crime series, then a rumination on racial politics in late 20th-century America – and using its initially narrow focus as a means of exploring a whole host of other topics: race, fame, misogyny, police brutality, the media, professional sport, even the flow of information itself. It felt like a thrilling new update of the documentary, timed perfectly to the rise of streaming.

Why am I banging on about a 2016 doc in a newsletter supposedly about up-to-the-second popular culture? Well, half a decade on, I’m still waiting for a TV series quite like Made in America. That isn’t to say there haven’t been exemplary documentaries in film (Honeyland) or TV (Steve McQueen’s New Cross fire series Uprising). There have been great sports docs (The Last Dance, while a bit hagiographical, certainly falls into that bracket), great current affairs docs (The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty) and great docs on popular culture (Jade: the Reality Star Who Changed Britain), and many, many others that there isn’t space to list here. But I’ve not encountered anything that has the same epic, state-of-the-nation, streaming-friendly quality of Edelman’s series. The two that have perhaps come closest are Ken Burns’s The Vietnam War and Adam Curtis’s Can’t Get You Out of My Head, but Burns’s series, though brilliant, is a continuation of the same stately and narratively focused work he has been making for decades, while Curtis’s fantastic, hallucinatory video essay is arguably not a documentary at all.

Instead, I think the true heirs to Made in America can be found in the world of podcasts. Recently, I have been catching up with the latest run of Leon Neyfakh’s narrative pod Fiasco. Each season takes on a famous saga in fairly recent US history – Iran-Contra, say, or most recently the Benghazi attacks – and finds an entirely fresh way of retelling it, often by focusing on seemingly overlooked characters who turn out to have been central to the whole thing. (Fiasco is, slightly unusually for a podcast, behind a paywall: you can hear it by signing up to subscription service Luminary, though the first season, on the 2000 Bush/Gore election, is free-to-listen.)

Before Fiasco, Neyfakh had created a similar series for Slate called Slow Burn, which has kept powering on without him. Its most recent series ambitiously tackled the US’s invasion of Iraq, heading all the way back to the 1958 coup to foretell a conflict half a century in the making. Yet, Slow Burn’s real brilliance is in its wide remit: the season before its Iraq one was all about KKK Grand Wizard David Duke’s election to the Louisiana House of Representatives, a story that I had scarcely any knowledge of before listening to the series, but which has so much to educate us on more recent political realignments. And the season before that sidestepped politics altogether to reassess the deaths of Tupac and the Notorious BIG.

These two shows represent just the tip of the iceberg: there are so many engrossing narrative documentary podcasts out there both big (NPR’s Blindspot: Tulsa Burning podcast on the 1921 race massacre) and small (Nick Grinstead’s The Town that Didn’t Stare and The Town that Knew too Much, on the dark underbellies of British town East Grinstead and Cheltenham, respectively). And there are so many podcasts finding unusual ways into big topics: I enjoyed Adam McKay’s Death at the Wing, which looked at various 80s issues in the US – crack cocaine, gun violence, the cold war – through the death of a series of prominent basketball players.

The advantages these series and many others have over screen documentaries is that they don’t have to adhere to the same constrictive rules and regs. (It’s telling that when the first season of Slow Burn, on Watergate, was adapted into a TV documentary in 2020, it lacked the same surprising spark as the podcast.) Without the visual element to worry about – which stock footage is going to be used to illustrate which anecdote – the story can be diverted into whatever direction its creator thinks is best. The results so far have been really exciting, and I can’t wait to see where the medium goes next – even if an Oscar statuette is looking unlikely.

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