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Three eye-opening documentaries you can stream right now

From the HBO documentary <em>Brandy Hellville & The Cult of Fast Fashion.</em>
From the HBO documentary Brandy Hellville & The Cult of Fast Fashion.

True crime docs, scammer docs, serious docs ... one of the most notable developments of the streaming era of television is that there are new documentary films and series coming out constantly. The difficulty for someone who might want to check some of them out is that they go by in a blur, and a lot of them have similar-looking titles and promotion. There are still big-ticket entries — on April 21, HBO will premiere a follow-up series to its huge true-crime hit The Jinx — but there are also a lot of lower-profile projects flying by, so let's take a moment to check in with a few current ones.

What Jennifer Did

A feature-length film about a 2010 home invasion that killed a woman and left her husband in a coma, What Jennifer Did is mostly told from the point of view of the police who gradually zeroed in on the couple's daughter, who was home at the time. Police-side crime documentaries tend to be the least interesting to me, and in this case, it feels like there's a tremendous amount of context missing about the family in favor of a fairly simple "she wanted to be with her boyfriend" narrative. But I say that in part because I have read the 2015 piece by Karen Ho in Toronto Life that considers more broadly what led to this bizarre act. Netflix, available now.

Brandy Hellville & the Cult of Fast Fashion

I can honestly tell you I was not very familiar with the Brandy Melville brand before I watched this film, which tells the story of how social media helped make a juggernaut out of a whole lot of nondescript tiny shirts. (It's more complicated than that, and ... also not.) The story of the gross in-store culture (which reminded me a lot of parts of the Netflix film White Hot, about Abercrombie & Fitch) is interesting and pretty lively, but I would have preferred a little more time spent on the fast-fashion element, which I do think is ripe for more documentary work. Max, available now.

The Synanon Fix

Sometimes, it feels like documentaries are their own expanded universe. I was just watching an entirely different show about the "troubled teen" industry and its dark history, and it mentioned how Synanon, which began in California as a program to treat addiction, influenced much of what became the "we will grab your badly behaved teenager from their bed, take them to some secluded location, allow them no contact with anybody, and turn them around" model. And now, Synanon has its own docuseries, which considers whether and when Synanon turned into what you would call a cult. (Was it the head-shaving? The mass weddings? The dictates about reproduction?) But what stands out the most is the consideration of how a program and a community can change shape, and it takes a while for people inside and outside it to register those changes. HBO, airing now.

We're only scratching the surface of what's out there — Netflix's #1 show as I write this is their Unlocked: A Jail Experiment, about a "program" that gives incarcerated men more freedom. And I am 100% committed to finding time before it expires on April 20 to watch Menus-Plaisirs — Les Troisgros, the latest from the great documentarian Frederick Wiseman, which is available on PBS.

This piece also appeared in NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter so you don't miss the next one, plus get weekly recommendations about what's making us happy.

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Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes
Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.