‘Cosmos’ and ‘Death Row Stories’ Top This Week’s Nonfics Home Picks

Most people don’t get to see documentaries until they arrive on a home video platform of some kind, whether it’s DVD, Blu-ray, VOD, iTunes, TV, Netflix streaming, etc. So, this may be the most important post of the week for fans of nonfics. Join us every Tuesday for a look at what documentaries and reality programming is recommended by myself and other contributors to the site. As always, if you know of something we missed or should be aware of, drop us an email or a note down below.

Here are our ordered picks for March 11, 2014:

1. Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

[Airing on FOX] — This week’s Home Picks is devoted to high-profile documentary miniseries and tied to something I wrote at Film School Rejects last week on the sudden rise of these longer form works. This is one that made its debut this past Sunday night and is a kind of sequel to the Carl Sagan-led Cosmos: A Personal Voyage with Sagan’s widow/collaborator Ann Dryan and Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane producing and Neil deGrasse Tyson hosting. Here is an excerpt from Neil Miller’s review of the first episode: “impressive with its mix of vast CGI landscapes, the beautifully contoured new ‘Ship of the Imagination’ and the modern world of science’s ability to give us unprecedented access to a bird’s eye view of the Universe…isn’t just a flash in the pan. It would be easy to have flashy visuals and no substance, but the creators have spent almost a decade working on this reboot to the extent that it oozes the same passion that made Sagan’s original so popular. As Dr. Tyson explains where we are on ‘The Cosmic Calendar’ in relation to the Big Bang, it’s simple and insightful to the point that anyone should be able to comprehend. That’s Sagan’s great legacy reborn, as a master communicator of the complexities of science to the masses. Tyson more than fits the bill, as his legions of fans no doubt already know.”

The first episode is now streaming on the FOX website and on Hulu. Episode two debuts on Sunday night at 9pm ET.

2. Death Row Stories

[Airing on CNN] — Prolific, Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side; The Armstrong Lie) has teamed up with Robert Redford to produce this eight-part series about flaws in the justice system and the death penalty. Susan Sarandon narrates the episodes, each of which deals with a different case. The first episode focuses on the case of alleged rapist and murderer Edward Lee Elmore, who was finally exonerated in 2012. I’m not sure if this hopeful sort of conclusion will be consistent with the series, but the next two episodes also appear to be about former Death Row inmates who’ve been cleared and freed.

The first episode will re-air on CNN Saturday night at 10pm ET. New installments debut on Sundays at 9pm ET.

3. The System With Joe Berlinger

[Airing on Al Jazeera America] — Another Oscar-caliber filmmaker is behind this other series on the flaws of the justice system. Joe Berlinger (Paradise Lost trilogy) is much more present than Gibney is in his, however. In fact, Berlinger is more present than we’re used to seeing him, as each episode features the filmmaker on screen as he conducts queries into cases relevant to that installment’s focus. So far, having seen just the first episode, which is on flawed forensics, this series has less of a conclusive outcome to present because it mainly aims for the informative purpose and because the cases looked at are ongoing. The character-driven side may not satisfy some viewers, but that may be a positive point, that it will stir them up.

Premieres on Al Jazeera America Sunday night at 9pm ET.

4. On Death Row

[Available on Netflix Watch Instantly] — Before Gibney and Berlinger, another Oscar-nominated filmmaker took on Death Row: Werner Herzog. Two seasons, each consisting of four episodes, aired in 2012 and 2013, and far more upsetting than the new series’ stories is the fact that some of On Death Row’s subjects have already been executed. Or maybe it’s not that upsetting if you do support the death penalty, because unlike the new series’ stories, those that Herzog focused on were not innocent people with hope of exoneration. At the moment only the first season is streaming on Netflix, but so is Herzog’s feature-length spin-off, Into the Abyss.

5. The Staircase

[On DVD] — Arguably the greatest documentary miniseries ever made (sorry Ken Burns fans). Or at least the greatest of the 2000s, as I claimed in a best of decade list for Cinematical. Here’s what I wrote then: “Jean-Xavier de Lestrade followed up his terrific Oscar-winning courtroom documentary Murder on a Sunday Morning with the six-hour masterpiece The Staircase (2004), which follows the murder trial of Michael Peterson from his indictment to his… The story is so full of twists and surprises, usually timed in the editing to be made cliff hangers, that no Hollywood scripted legal thriller could ever compete with it. And the length of the film allows for more intimacy and investment by the viewer than does a feature-length doc. I can’t imagine watching it non-successively on television, as it’s the cinematic equivalent of a page-turner.”

Currently The Staircase is only on DVD, but it’s totally worth buying. You can also find it on YouTube if you search and want to give it a taste first.

6. The Dust Bowl

[Available on Netflix Watch Instantly and Amazon Instant Video] — As I noted in that FSR piece, Ken Burns did put out one of the best documentary miniseries in recent years, a smaller than normal work lasting only two episodes. Here’s what I wrote on it in a piece for Movies.com celebrating Burns as the best documentarian of 2012: “The Dust Bowl has finally, after 75 years, given us a comprehensive documentary to put on the shelf next to Pare Lorentz’s classic The Plow That Broke the Plains (which is discussed in the new film). It’s a little-known and terribly tragic history — especially for all the kids who died as a result of the perpetual “black blizzard” dust storms — and needed this excellent treatment…The Dust Bowl couldn’t have been produced so perfectly any later than now. Yet that’s not the only reason it’s such a pertinent film for this moment in time. It’s difficult to watch Burns’ miniseries and not draw connections to our present, as the history of the Dust Bowl is a history of a man-made ecological catastrophe not unlike the climate change contributing to disasters such as Hurricane Sandy. It’s also set during the Great Depression, providing us relevance through our own era of economic decline.”

7. Cosmos: A Personal Journey

[On DVD] — Finally, we can’t fully recommend the new Cosmos without encouraging a viewing of the old Cosmos. Some of Carl Sagan’s 13-part series may be dated after 24 years, but it’s still fascinating. While National Geographic recently aired a marathon in anticipation of the follow-up, this is currently only officially available on DVD it seems. Of course, it’s all over YouTube and other video sites if you want to dip in before buying.

New to DVD [and/or Blu-ray]:

Beyonce & Jay-Z: The Super Couple

Dirty Jobs Down Under

Eric Clapton: The 1970s Review

Exploring Space

Gods Greatest Hits: Abide With Me

Gods Greatest Hits: Ava Maria

Gods Greatest Hits: Songs of Freedom

Great Cathedral Mystery

JFK: The Smoking Gun

The Legend of Cool Disco Dan

Miley Cyrus: The Way I See It

Miley Cyrus: Teenstar Shocker

Mystery of the Sacred Shroud

One Direction: We Love One Direction

Punk in Africa

Sensation: The Story of The Who’s Tommy [Also on Blu-ray]

The Story of Eric Clapton

The Story of Thin Lizzy

Talks About Nothing

Vangelis: Journey to Ithaka


New to Netflix Watch Instantly:

The Improv: 50 Years Behind the Brick Wall [Stream now]

Stand [Stream now]

New to iTunes/Amazon Instant/VOD:

Karsu [Amazon Instant Video]

The Man Who Stopped the Desert [Amazon Instant Video]

Men at Lunch: The Untold Story of a City’s Legend [Amazon Instant Video]

Soap Life

Must-See Nonfiction TV:


Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston [3/11 on Showcase, 12:05am ET]

Lenny Cooke [3/11 on Showtime Extreme, 8:30pm ET]


Waste Land [3/12 on Showtime Women, 1:30am ET]

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer [3/12 on HBO Signature, 3:30am ET]


Lenny Cooke [3/13 on Showtime East, 12am ET, and Showtime West, 3am ET]

Last Days Here [3/13 on The Movie Channel, 2:05am ET]

Paul Williams Still Alive [3/13 on Showtime East, 4:20am ET, Showtime West, 7:30am ET, and Showcase, 1:30pm ET]

Dogtown and Z-Boys [3/13 on El Rey, 8pm ET]


Dogtown and Z-Boys [3/14 on El Rey, 1am ET]


Chimpanzee [3/15 on Encore Family, 3:50am ET]

Redemption [3/15 on HBO Signature, 6:05am ET]


Microcosmos [3/16 on HDNET, 6am and 11:15am ET]

Into the Deep 3D [3/16 on 3net, 7am and 2pm ET]

Make Believe [3/16 on Showtime Next, 7am ET]

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey Episode 2 [3/16 on Fox, 9pm ET]

Death Row Stories Episode 2 [3/16 on CNN, 9pm ET]

The System with Joe Berlinger [3/16 on Al Jazeera America, 9pm ET]

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.