• Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

From Brittany Murphy to Britney Spears, TV documentaries are turning trashy. It has to stop.

·5 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

What happened, TV documentaries?

It's the question I find myself asking as a litany of exploitative, unethical and just plain bad documentary series have premiered on TV over the past few years. The latest offender is HBO Max's "What Happened, Brittany Murphy?", a two-part documentary (now streaming) that rehashes the starlet's troubled life and devastating death at a young age. It follows on the heels of two unsavory documentaries about Britney Spears and her conservatorship battle, Netflix's "Britney vs. Spears" and FX on Hulu's "Controlling Britney Spears," which both aimed to capitalize on the singer's latest court date.

And it's not just documentaries about celebrities named Britney or Brittany that are turning tasteless. Netflix's 2020 quarantine hit "Tiger King" was more reality show than journalistic outing; HBO's 2020 docuseries about the NXIVM cult, "The Vow" stretched its story from vital to boring; and Netflix's "Operation Varsity Blues," which premiered in March, was a hacky mess that relied on corny recreations to justify its existence.

A 2006 image of Brittany Murphy used in the HBO Max documentary series, "What Happened, Brittany Murphy?"
A 2006 image of Brittany Murphy used in the HBO Max documentary series, "What Happened, Brittany Murphy?"

It's a troubling, depressing trend for a TV genre that has exploded in popularity and volume in recent years, especially since Netflix's true crime phenom "Making a Murderer" debuted in 2015. The documentaries about Spears and Murphy are just recent floats in a parade of poor documentary programming on TV that skirt the lines between nonfiction and tabloid sensationalism. They are on broadcast, cable and all of your streaming services, mostly true crime and mostly long, drawn-out series that traffic in horrifying imagery and human suffering.

"What Happened" feels designed less to illuminate the actress's life and death than to generate tabloid headlines that will entice viewers. And as demonstrated by a People magazine cover ahead of the series' release, it's working. The documentary is not enlightening; it doesn't say anything about our culture or Murphy's life that hasn't already been said. It simply brings a deeply tragic moment back to life, makes wild accusations about her husband and mother and exploits Murphy for the sake of (maybe) adding a few HBO Max subscribers. The documentary frequently, and irresponsibly, gives airtime to YouTube users and others on social media spinning conspiracy theories about Murphy's death, which was officially ruled to be the result of pneumonia. But true-crime theorists suggest she was murdered by her husband or mother.

The poster for HBO Max's documentary series, "What Happened, Brittany Murphy?"
The poster for HBO Max's documentary series, "What Happened, Brittany Murphy?"

Similar problems were found in both recent Spears documentaries, which felt tired and exploitative. Especially compared to a much better Spears documentary, FX on Hulu's "Framing Britney Spears" earlier this year, they were flaccid attempts to horn in on the cultural conversation before the September hearing in which Spears' conservatorship radically changed.

Netflix's "Britney vs. Spears" is premiered on Sept. 28.
Netflix's "Britney vs. Spears" is premiered on Sept. 28.

Compare "What Happened" or "Britney vs. Spears" to another docuseries that brings an infamous woman back into the spotlight: Amazon's "Lorena" (2019), about Lorena Bobbitt, the woman who was convicted of cutting off her husband's penis in the 1990s. That series, produced by Jordan Peele, is also about a tragic event widely covered by the media and full of conspiracy theories and misconceptions. But what makes "Lorena" different, and infinitely more admirable, is the concerted effort of the filmmakers not just to retell Bobbitt's story but to clarify the misinformation and assumptions that were rampant during her arrest and trial. "Lorena" aims to separate the Howard Stern jokes from the facts of the case and Bobbitt's emotions. It helps, of course, that Bobbitt was a participant and producer of the documentary, and thus uniquely suited to keep herself from being taken advantage of.

It's not just documentaries that use the story of famous people (usually women) that verge into tabloid journalism. "Tiger King," which is bafflingly coming back for a second season, is structured like a Bravo-style reality show, relying on shock and awe and making the real-life villain sympathetic. Dozens of true-crime documentaries on Investigation Discovery and Discovery+ stretch the genre to its very limits. Netflix's "Conversations with A Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes" literally gives voice to a serial killer.

The Tiger King Joseph "Joe Exotic" Maldonado-Passage with one of his tigers.
The Tiger King Joseph "Joe Exotic" Maldonado-Passage with one of his tigers.

This isn't to say that all documentaries are badly made and harmful to the world at large. In the best cases, a TV doc, much like one that premieres in theaters, can illuminate an issue, educate an audience and make incredible art with nonfiction. It's a genre that's well-trodden by networks like PBS, which has aired documentaries for decades including Ken Burns' "Civil War" and "The Vietnam War," epic histories that reveal something about the heart of the country. Nature documentaries including BBC America's "Planet Earth" open viewers' eyes to the world around us. ESPN has an award-winning franchise about sports history, "30 for 30," and its profound and stunning "O.J.: Made in America" won an Emmy and an Oscar. Lifetime's "Surviving R. Kelly" was part of the impetus for charges brought against the disgraced rapper, who was recently convicted of sex trafficking in a New York trial.

Sarah Edmondson, a former NXIVM member featured in "The Vow," holds up her sash to the camera.
Sarah Edmondson, a former NXIVM member featured in "The Vow," holds up her sash to the camera.

But the flood of mediocre to terrible documentaries in the past few years is an example of Hollywood's worst impulse to run a successful genre into the ground. Superheroes are fun? Let's make so many superhero shows you can't possibly watch them all. Audiences like crime dramas with forensics teams? Expand "CSI" until it can't handle any more spinoffs. This over saturation of the market is happening with documentaries, but it has more far-reaching consequences than that "CSI: Cyber" only lasted one season. Ostensibly, nonfiction programming has the power to influence audiences: Fueled by the internet, it can convince people that Joe Exotic is innocent or that someone murdered Brittany Murphy. It can make light of something serious, like the college admissions scandal, and exploit victims of crimes.

Reality TV and documentaries are different for a reason. Fiction and nonfiction are different for a reason. When the lines start to blur, it's a problem for everyone involved. Trashy documentaries aren't just bad TV; they're potentially dangerous. And Hollywood executives should think carefully before greenlighting another one.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'What Happened, Brittany Murphy': TV documentaries are turning trashy