Power Rankings! Must-Watch Non-Fiction TV

6:00 AM 9/22/2017

by Tim Goodman

THR's chief TV critic ranks the non-fiction TV you should prioritize above all other viewing right now.

Planet Earth 2_Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown_Split - Publicity - H 2017
Elizabeth White; David Scott Holloway

The first thing you need to know about this edition of the Power Rankings! is a quintessential bit of information that will absolutely taint the whole thing, which is, if you think about it, delightfully fun.

And that is this: A great many TV critics don't watch unscripted or, for our purposes here, non-fiction programming. There are several reasons for that, so let's start with the obvious one: There are too many scripted programming options and more people like to talk about Game of Thrones than about rednecks shooting ducks, if that show is even still on anymore (and don't pretend like you don't know what I'm talking about).

Furthermore, there are very nearly 500 scripted series in the world and about five times that much non-fiction programming — so we're talking not just about an alarming number of choices that one person could not watch nor even track, but a truly disgraceful number of choices. It feels egregious. It feels dirty. Who wants a part of that?

Lastly, even though I've watched all of the shows that made the list below, based on the information above it would be utterly impossible to watch your particular favorite, and so this is the one time — and one time only — you can be truly annoying and write "you forgot" in the comments section (which I won't read anyway, but at least you'll be right).

So this non-fiction Power Rankings! list is the most flawed, and I like those flaws because I think scripted is superior anyway, but I'm hoping to find a good excuse to branch out to non-fiction choices — broaden the mind and all that — and the inevitable follow-up rankings that will occur, so this list represents said chance.

Also, just so you know, by not choosing "reality" programming or even "unscripted" programming, and instead choosing "non-fiction" as a descriptor, that opened the door a lot wider for documentaries — and the brutal truth is that this entire list (and well past the number 10) could have been filled with great documentaries. But that seemed exclusive, or an idea for another list entirely. And at this point — with the rebirth of six different Power Rankings! — the time has come to swing back around to see how much the other ones will have changed.

One quick note on these non-fiction choices: Because I don't watch nearly as much of these as I do scripted fare, I tried to pick the bulk of my favorites and watch others that people have raved about before narrowing it down. Because of that, some of them technically won't have appeared within a year of publication, but most have.

OK, let's do this.

All hail the series that can hold down the No. 1 slot the longest. As you'll see below, there are two numbers associated with each entry. The number on the left is the current ranking; the number on the right was its last ranking. They will of course match on this inaugural list.

  • 1/1 — Planet Earth II

    These days with brilliance abounding, it's hard for anyone paying attention to be surprised at what comes out of their TV. Platinum Age, indeed. But there is something so jaw-dropping about what Planet Earth II accomplished it's almost hard to find the words. A decade early, the gold standard in nature documentaries was the original Planet Earth, which was a revelation and an HD dream come true. Now, Planet Earth II — shot in Ultra HD over the course of three years and 40 countries — raises the bar unimaginably higher.

  • 2/2 — Soundbreaking: Stories From the Cutting Edge of Recorded Music

    You can put Soundbreaking right up there with the greatest music documentaries of all time. The interviews and footage are riveting, the joyful and illuminating connections across genres and generations is the magic that elevates it beyond. Everybody of any age who loves music should watch this with an open mind and eager ears.

  • 3/3 — The Vietnam War

    This is a moving and insightful (and horrifying) new documentary, just as you would expect from Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, who have teamed up for a 10-part, 18-hour look back at The Vietnam War, stepping into and redefining well-trod territory (just as Burns did previously with World War II in The War). The documentary series' great strength is simply its delivery of a story better-told than those before (with new footage, an incredible soundtrack and stirring interviews from both sides) with an often sorrowful remembering of bad decisions and misdeeds. Modern connections abound, which makes it even more chilling, important and relevant.

  • 4/4 — Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown

    No matter what the title was through the years, there is a recipe that works every single time, with wondrous results: Take Anthony Bourdain and put him somewhere in the world with a camera while he talks about food (and travel and culture and people). Parts Unknown works for those reasons exactly. It doesn't need to be fussed with or improved upon. As long as Bourdain is the main ingredient, this show will be riveting and thoughtfully revealing, like a moveable and unfiltered My Dinner With Andre for the modern age.

  • 5/5 — The Grand Tour

    While Top Gear was, for my money, one of the great joys of non-fiction television during its heyday, cynics will no doubt say that altering the name and moving it to Amazon changed the magical construct of it, causing it to lose a bit of that early, manic, weird sheen (that was bound to be dulled a bit by repetition and time anyway). I would simply counter that this new iteration of The Grand Tour is absolutely enough of an echo to satisfy.

  • 6/6 — The Defiant Ones

    Not long after Soundbreaking had set the high water mark, The Defiant Ones arrived and not only managed to leap over its first and highest hurdle — overcoming the notion that it was some glossy commercial for Apple and Beats — but also was surprising and smart in the connections that it made, musically, as well. So, two excellent music docs in a very short time frame.

  • 7/7 — RuPaul's Drag Race

    It's a testament to the power and importance of this series to the LGBTQ community (and beyond) that its crossover success and shift to VH1 (though it still repeats on Logo) sparked so much debate, including about the appropriation of queer culture. Beyond that, loyalty won out as the show remains as popular and influential as ever.

  • 8/8 — StarTalk

    I confess to loving Neil deGrasse Tyson best when he's 100 percent focused on science and baffling minds with theories and ideas, but if there has to be a pop culture element tossed in as well (because Tyson adores pop culture) then so be it. It's like he gets in a conversation with another science nerd and then stops to talk to pop culture folks as a way to de-geek some of the hard stuff or, perhaps, goose ratings. Hey, if it keeps Tyson going, that's fine (and I'm breaking my long-held hatred of shows with uncomfortable and unnecessary director's chairs to tout this one).

  • 9/9 — Carpool Karaoke

    It worked as a skit, it works as a show. And though it draws a fair amount of fire from people who would rather it be less of one thing and more of another, it succeeds perfectly fine mixing a bunch of different people in a car and letting them sing, just as millions of people do every day. Wonderful, disposable, upbeat fun; in 2017 that's a godsend.

  • 10/10 — The Great British Bake Off/Baking Show

    I went back and watched a lot of this series because A) everybody who talks about it seems like they've been kidnapped and are suffering Stockholm Syndrome with their feverish support and B) I'm on record as being far more interested in eating than making food. I do not have the cooking gene. I don't get the joy others get from shopping and preparing a meal (in what seems like super complicated tiny tasks that I know in real life take forever and are boring), but I will reluctantly agree that watching others compete, especially British people, is a lot of fun. I will leave you to your fretting about changes the show has gone through and just say I quite enjoyed all of it and was often very hungry afterward. This series made me like a genre I've never much liked before, in any iteration.

  • Out, In Peril and In the Mix

    Out: None.

    In Peril: Well, I don't know how long I can watch others bake, I'll be honest. I could easily see a certain wine show replace this, but really through no fault of its own. Also, I've lined up a bunch of great documentaries to watch, so change is coming.

    In the Mix: Whose Line Is It Anyway, Street Outlaws, Fixer Upper, The Gong Show, Tower, 13th, Casting JonBenet, Tiny House Nation, Born This Way, Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath, Tiny House Nation, The New Yorker Presents, various other documentaries too numerous to mention.