5 Of The Greatest TV Documentaries Ever Made

It’s no surprise that the documentary thrives on television. With dedicated platforms like non-fiction news channels and the ability to give a story the amount of time it deserves through serialization, there is little debate that when it comes to true-to-life film-making, TV documentaries are as good as they come.


5. Victory at Sea (1952-1953)

Less than a decade after the struggles of World War II, Victory at Sea brought the realities of war home. Victory at Sea not only established the place of the documentary on television but also revealed the potential of television itself as a medium. Using archival footage of battles to tell the story of Allied success, Victory at Sea remains a potent and visceral account of what war is really like. And like many great documentaries it proves once again that the greatest stories are the ones happening all around us.


4. The Civil War (1990)

You know that you’ve made it as a filmmaker when a particular technique is named after you. As one might expect, the careful pan and zoom of a still image called the “Ken Burns Effect” is put to great use in his five-part PBS documentary exploring the American Civil War. Burns does a masterful job using the mundane to achieve a sense of excitement and elevation. While other filmmakers might be tempted to spice things up, Burns is content to let the artifacts speak for themselves. In doing so, he preserves the integrity of the photographs and letters that resulted from the individuals living in one of America’s most tumultuous and fascinating periods.


3. Civilisation (1969)

The one that started them all. Well, no, Kenneth Clark’s BBC exploration of the development of Western society was not the first television documentary ever made, but in providing a common format and the standard to which all other documentaries must adhere it might as well have been. Committing some of the world’s most beautiful art and architecture to film, Civilisation would have to try hard to be a failure. But more than just present the articles of our past, it contextualizes them, breathing life into history and making us realize our place in it.  


2. Cosmos: A Personal Voyage (1980)

There’s nothing quite so bold as choosing the universe as your subject. But if there’s one mind that can tackle such a (literally) infinite task, it’s Carl Sagan. In 1980, Sagan presented this thirteen-part series on PBS that moved effortlessly from the Big Bang to the intelligence of computers to lives of Heike crabs, in terms that were accessible without condescending. All the while, Sagan instills in the viewer his own sense of awe and a feeling that life really is something to be wondered at.  


1. The Up Series (1964-present)


“Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man.” The simple premise that a child’s future is predictable at such a young age is the experimental hypothesis of Seven Up!, commissioned for the UK World in Action series. Subsequently, every seven years filmmaker Michael Apted has checked in with the children who are still willing to participate-most recently in 2012 when at the age of 56. In the span of the years since the original, the children have become men and women, experienced loss and love, and simply lived. What began as a straightforward question about the nature of class in British society has quietly become one of the greatest stories of humanity ever told.



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Now read the top 5 documentaries made for the big screen.

About Kale Hills

Kale Hills lives and works in Los Angeles, California. When he is not narrowing down lists of five things, he enjoys performing improv comedy and consuming unhealthy amounts of film and television.
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