12 Documentaries That Spawned TV Series

'Catfish' is the most famous, but it's not the only one.

tv shows based on documentaries the cove

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Private detective Charlie Parker, who appears in the documentary The Imposter, tweeted last week that he’s working with Storyville Entertainment on a potential TV show. I asked him if it was about his work, and he said yes. I didn’t want to press or pry too much at such an early stage, so it’s not clear yet if this would be a reality series starring him and following along with his investigations or if it would be a dramatic program based on or inspired by past stories from his career. Either way, it could be great. Parker really stole the show in the last act of The Imposter, and a number of fans have called for a spin-off documentary feature solely focused on him. A documentary series would be even better.

It’s surprising that more documentary subjects don’t break out and become stars of their own reality series. I’m just waiting for Jackie Siegel of The Queen of Versailles to get a show on Bravo. And I would definitely watch the continued adventures of the couple (and their son) from Cutie and the Boxer. We can look to any list of the greatest documentary characters of all time to see who else could be worthy, though many of the truly best (the Beales; Timothy Treadwell) are unfortunately no longer living.

There have actually been a number of docs that spawned TV series or miniseries, but not all involve the same people. Some are just about the same topic or premise. And, just as is planned for 2011’s Knuckle, some turn into fictionalized shows. I’m sure I’m missing some of those.

Woodstock (1970)

TV series: Sha Na Na (1977–1980)

Many books about the Woodstock music festival credit the event with boosting the career of Sha Na Na. The Fifties-style rock and roll group hadn’t even recorded a single before they showed up in front of 400,000 people as the penultimate act ahead of Jimi Hendrix. But through the concert and then the live album and then the film, they became huge stars. Life magazine even held them accountable for the oldies nostalgia trend of the 1970s. As a screen presence, their very brief appearance in Woodstock (nearly missed by the sleeping film crew, apparently), is said to have been the main reason they eventually got their own show in 1977. It was a variety show, so not quite reality-based, but it did feature “live” performances by them and guests.

That’s Entertainment! (1974)

TV series: That’s Hollywood (1976–1982)

Championed by Roger Ebert and very successful at the box office ($19m!), That’s Entertainment! is MGM’s celebration of its own history with the musical genre. It featured old clips intertwined with new interviews with the stars talking about those classic movies. Thanks to its popularity, the doc was followed by That’s Entertainment, Part II in 1976 and two decades later by That’s Entertainment III in 1994. There was also the related film That’s Dancing, released in 1985. Less officially linked was the TV show That’s Hollywood, which dealt more in general film history rather than just musicals. Jack Haley Jr., who directed the original film and That’s Dancing, was an executive producer for the TV version, which was made at 20th Century Fox.

Scared Straight! (1978)

TV series: Beyond Scared Straight (2011- )

The Oscar-winning documentary about juvenile delinquents being “scared straight” by prison inmates has become such a part of pop culture that it’s shocking there wasn’t at least a copycat TV series in the subsequent 35 years (maybe there has and I’m unaware of it). Like That’s Entertainment!, this was one of the rare cases of an early documentary film franchise, though its sequels were all made-for-TV specials. Only two years ago the idea was officially revisited by original creator/director Arnold Shapiro for A&E. The fourth season of the high-rated program began early this month. Hopefully it’s doing some good with the majority of kids. At least one of the subjects from the original film was rather recently sent away to prison for a 1982 rape and murder.

Streetwise (1984)

TV series: The Killing, specifically season 3 (2013)

Martin Bell’s Oscar-nominated doc about homeless youth in Seattle has taken from and spawned different media forms. It was itself based on a Life magazine article by Cheryl McCall (credited as writer and producer of the film) and photographer Mary Ellen Mark, who published a companion book in 1988. And in 1992, Bell helmed American Heart, a sort-of narrative remake/prequel focused on one of the doc’s characters (Dewayne), played in the movie by Edward Furlong (renamed Nick). Now, while not directly credited as being based on the 29-year-old film, the latest (and final) season of AMC’s The Killing, which aired over the summer, was heavily inspired by the book. On top of that, a character on death row played by Peter Sarsgaard in this season is said to be inspired by the documentary Into the Abyss. Clearly showrunner Veena Sud likes and knows her docs.

Roger and Me (1989)

TV series: TV Nation (1994–1995)

Not exactly a spin-off, Michael Moore’s TV Nation does at least fit into the category of a TV series starring a character from a documentary. Sure, he’s the director of Roger and Me as well as the show, but he was also their star. That was a relatively novel situation at the time, and so it’s obvious the idea to have Moore both produce and appear in a series came about from seeing him lead the action in the successful Roger and Me. It took a while for TV Nation to come about, though, because the filmmaker wanted to direct his fictional comedy Canadian Bacon first. Since then, though the style of Roger and Me and TV Nation has been his bread and butter. He’s also done another show, The Awful Truth.

Super Size Me (2004)

TV series: 30 Days (2005–2008)

Morgan Spurlock is another documentary filmmaker who stars in his films as the central character/subject/personality. But his first TV series was actually a lot similar in concept to his Oscar-nominated breakout. In Super Size Me, he tracked his life over the course of 30 days as he ate nothing but McDonald’s. In each episode of the show, he again followed someone (occasionally himself ) over the course of 30 days as they immersed themselves in some sort of life-altering stunt. Examples included living on minimum wage for a month, staying in a jail for a month and, for homophobic subjects, living with gays.

Breaking Vegas: The True Story of the MIT Blackjack Team (2004)

TV series: Breaking Vegas (2005)

Four years before the movie 21 came out (and only months following the publication of its literary source, Bringing Down the House), there was Breaking Vegas, a heavily dramatized History Channel doc told the story of the card-counting MIT students who beat Las Vegas casinos at the blackjack table. It was successful enough for the cable network to continue use of the main title for a single-season show on various subjects who’ve scammed gambling establishments.

Street Fight (2005)

TV series: Brick City (2009–2011)

When Marshall Curry followed the 2002 mayoral race in Newark, specifically focusing on underdog candidate Cory Booker, he definitely didn’t know where it would lead. Spoiler alert: it concluded with Booker losing to incumbent Sharpe James. But the year after the film came out and went all the way to the Academy Awards (spoiler alert: it too lost), Booker did become the city’s mayor. And someone got the brilliant idea to follow the charismatic politician in office. Surprisingly, nobody associated with the prior project (as far as I know), but rather filmmakers Marc Levin and Mark Benjamin (previously collaborators on The Last Party, Slam, and The Protocols of Zion). Hopefully, whether by any of them or someone new, another film or TV series is being made about his current United States Senate bid, the general election for which is today. And then another about his eventual run for president. Etc.

Life After People (2008)

TV series: Life After People (2009–2010)

Another History Channel example, this sci-fi doc speculating what the planet would be like if humans suddenly disappeared was the cable network’s most-watched program up to that time. So what was intended as a single television event logically had to be cashed in on, and a year later the series came out with the same title. Obviously the concept was being stretched thin the longer it went, but the series lasted two seasons. Even long after the point is made, considering specific examples and looking at existing scenarios remains fascinating. And destruction and decay porn is appealing whether there’s thinking involved or not.

The Cove (2009)

TV series: Blood Dolphin$ (2010)

The Oscar-winning film about dolphin slaughter in Japan stars Ric O’Barry, former animal trainer turned activist who co-led the mission to expose what was going on in Taiji. A year later, he joined producing son Lincoln (credited as Ric’s assistant in the film) for a follow-up miniseries for Animal Planet. There were only three episodes, the first of which, “Return to Taiji,” premiered a couple of days before the doc made its debut on the cable channel. The subsequent two installments took the father and son to the Solomon Islands, where dolphins are hunted for their teeth and meat. Another three years have gone by and a lot of people are probably wondering about the continued yearly slaughters in Japan as well as what other missions the O’Barrys have gone on. Maybe it’s time for another miniseries if not full series?

Catfish (2010)

TV series: Catfish: The TV Show (2012- )

The most well-known example on this list, MTV’s Catfish series is currently on the air and continues to be a pop culture phenomenon. It probably initially became a hit because of the Manti Te’o girlfriend hoax, attracting audiences who weren’t even familiar with the documentary. It’s a case that’s really very much a continuation from the movie, retaining the original filmmakers as producers and starring its subject (Nev Schulman), but it’s also a branching off, where the subject is now a host to new subjects with similar scenarios of online dating mysteries. The show has pretty much diluted the significance of the doc, while also probably ruining the suspense for anyone seeing it after familiarity with the many episodes involving deception, but it’s also been giving us reason to keep talking about the movie. Which is great, because I’ll still argue that it’s a legitimate doc any day.

Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life (2011)

TV series: On Death Row (2012)

In addition to partly inspiring The Killing (see above), this final entry has a very direct spin-off, as well. Actually, technically it’s a reverse example. Although the film came out first, the idea of the series came about first. The original plan was for Werner Herzog to do a five-part TV miniseries on death row inmates for the cable channel Investigation Discovery. And then one of those parts wound up turning into a feature film because Herzog wanted to focus more time on Michael Perry. Maybe neither can be said to have spawned the other so much as this is simply a case in which a documentary film is connected to a documentary miniseries and that’s that.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.