The 10 Best Docuseries of 2023, Ranked


While documentaries can be great for learning about a particular subject, a film is rarely long enough to encapsulate the complexities of history and culture. This is where the docuseries comes in, allowing documentarians to tell their stories in greater detail and with the nuance some subjects deserve. 2023 saw several docuseries that covered a wide swath of topics — from cults to cuisine — all with one key similarity.


Regardless of subject, docuseries in 2023 clearly shifted more toward celebrating the humanity behind the stories, whether that be through centering victims of tragedy or highlighting a documentarian’s personal connection to the matter at hand. In a year that has seen increased persecution of minorities, the docuseries that stood out in 2023 are the ones that highlight the invisible, unsung others who have traditionally been sidelined in their own stories. Celebrate these oft-overlooked heroes below with 10 of the best docuseries of 2023.


10 Emergency: NYC

A spin-off of the 2020 Netflix docuseries Lenox Hill, Emergency: NYC follows the intense, unforgiving lives of New York City’s physicians, from trauma doctors to first responders. The series follows doctors from several hospitals in NYC’s Northwell Health hospitals — including Dr. David Langer, Dr. Mirtha Macri, and Dr. John Boockvar from Lenox Hill — exploring specifically how the healthcare system has evolved in the wake of COVID-19.

Emergency: NYC Preserves Hope in the Face of Despair

Emergency: NYC exposes the realistic, brutal work life that the city’s emergency physicians must endure to save the most lives possible. In highlighting the effects of COVID on the healthcare system, the show orients its audience to the startlingly bleak “new normal:” more gunshots, ODs, delayed care, anxiety, depression, etc. And yet, despite that, the many heroes at the heart of Emergency: NYC maintain a sense of hope, inspiring audiences to recognize its power in the face of an uncertain future. Stream Emergency: NYC on Netflix.

9 Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence

Hulu

The word “cult” is often associated with a larger structure of systematic abuse, a la Scientology or even NXIVM, but that isn’t always the case. Take, for instance, the group at the center of the Hulu docuseries, Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence. Made up of just seven fresh-faced college kids, this cult was a hotbed of lies and abuse all at the hands of their “leader,” Larry Ray. Through the testimony of his victims, Stolen Youth exposes the origins of Ray’s cult at Sarah Lawrence College and explores the survivors’ path to freedom.

Stolen Youth Lets the Survivors Tell Their Story

The Hulu docuseries is gripping enough by recounting the nightmare that Larry Ray put his victims through, but Stolen Youth is more than a lurid retelling. The series centers on the cult’s survivors, telling the stories of how they got there and what they had to go through for their freedom. It’s all too common in the true crime genre that victims are sidelined in the quest for sensational storytelling, making director Zach Heinzerling’s respect toward his subject a refreshing change that will hopefully inspire other creators to do the same. Stream Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence on Hulu.

8 The 1619 Project

Based on the groundbreaking and controversial series of essays, The 1619 Project explores American history through the lens of Black experience. Host and project creator Nicole Hannah-Jones guides audiences through the legacy of slavery in modern America, arguing that varying aspects of contemporary life, from music to justice, are inextricably linked to and shaped by the country’s dark past.

A Condensed Argument for a New Historical Perspective

Like the book that came before it, The 1619 Project complicates aspects of American history that have historically been viewed as “settled” by most. The docuseries condenses many of the book’s arguments into shorter, more digestible episodes that might draw in viewers who otherwise wouldn’t have encountered The 1619 Project beyond the controversy it sparked in 2019. The addition of a more personal touch from Hannah-Jones is also welcome, as it realizes and illuminates many of the arguments the series makes about the connection between past and present. Stream The 1619 Project on Hulu.

Related: 10 Lesser-Known Docuseries Worth Checking Out

7 Wrestlers

Netflix’s Wrestlers follows former WWE-training ground Ohio Valley Wrestling, a professional wrestling promotion that has developed such future stars as Dave Bautista, John Cena, and Brock Lesnar. The docuseries reveals the promotion’s recent financial struggles and documents owner Al Snow’s attempt to revive the OVW to its former glory as well as the clash between himself and new co-owners Matt Jones and Craig Greenberg. As rising debts threaten to shut down the promotion entirely, it’s up to Snow and his cast of wrestling talent to put on an awesome show and secure OVW’s financial future.

An Intimate Look at the Human Drama Behind Wrestler

Wrestlers isn’t just for wrestling fans; it might, however, make unfamiliar audiences more interested in the spectacular sport. Beyond the “fighting,” Wrestlers emphasizes the incredible creativity, stage presence, and passion that goes into creating a killer show in the ring, demonstrating its performers’ strong independent spirit. What will really draw in newcomers is the engaging human drama at the docuseries’ heart; even though the wrestlers are characters in the ring, their performances are inevitably shaped by their personal lives. While Wrestlers features several performers, the standout star is far and away Hollywood Haley J, whose troubled history with her mother informs one of the series’ most entertaining matches. Stream Wrestlers on Netflix.

6 High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America

high on the hog satterfield harris
Netflix

The critically acclaimed docuseries High on the Hog came back in 2023 for a second season that continues the culinary journey of hosts Dr. Jessica Harris and Stephen Satterfield’s through the origins of African American cuisine. The four-episode follow-up continues where season one left off, emphasizing food’s role from the Reconstruction era to the struggle for civil rights in the 1960s and beyond. High on the Hog covers broad swaths of history through meals with prominent Black chefs and luminaries, demonstrating along the way just how integral African American food is to the nation’s history.

Looking at Food and History Through the Experiences of Others

In a year that continues to see lawmakers attempting to erase Black history, it’s incredibly poignant and affirming to see a series celebrate that history through something that connects us all: food. High on the Hog highlights the humans behind the history by interviewing those who lived through it — including a former Pullman porter and an early member of the Black Panther Party — and exploring how their struggles continue to influence the country to this day. Stream High on the Hog Season Two on Netflix.

5 Ladies First: A Story of Women in Hip Hop

Rapper Rapsody is just one of many female rappers featured in the Netflix docuseries Ladies First: A Story of Women in Hop-Hop. 
Netflix

It should come as no surprise at this point that women’s roles in history are often forgotten, and none more so than women of color. In Ladies First: A Story of Women in Hip-Hop, these roles are put front and center. The Netflix docuseries situates the rightful place of women of color in the story of hip-hop, arguing that they have always been the driving force behind one of the most popular and beloved musical genres. Through interviews with some of hip hop’s best female voices from the past and present — including Queen Latifah, Tierra Whack, and Saweetie — Ladies First highlights the intense double standard women have historically faced in the hip-hop community and elsewhere.

Shining a Light on an Overlooked Side of Music

The male voices that have made up the hip-hop genre since its inception are well known; even people who aren’t fans of the genre know names like Tupac and Will Smith. Ladies First is a vindicating look at a past that elevated these innovative men’s voices at the expense of the women who were equally innovating in this musical space. The docuseries explores the work of several lesser known and yet influential women, arguing that their influence goes beyond just music. In bringing together artists like Sha-Rock and Roxanne Shante with modern stars like Kash Doll and Saweetie, Ladies First highlights the intergenerational solidarity necessary to understanding how integral these often-unsung women shape American culture. Stream Ladies First: A Story of Women in Hip-Hop on Netflix.

4 Love Has Won: The Cult of Mother God

Let’s face it, cults make the perfect subject for docuseries. The stories of their origins and inevitable fall ultimately positing the question: how did these people get here? Yet another cult to arise out of conspiracy theory and new age spirituality was Love Has Won, led by “Mother God,” a former McDonald’s manager named Amy Carlson. Hannah Olsen’s HBO docuseries Love Has Won: The Cult of Mother God tells the tragic tale of this new age cult, how one woman who claimed to be the reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe, Joan of Arc, and Jesus, among others, used the internet to draw in members who would be abused and brainwashed into believing in dangerous conspiracy theories about COVID-19, the Holocaust, and so on.

An Empathetic Look at the Human Vulnerability to Bad Ideas

There are a lot of documentaries about cults, but Olsen’s Love Has Won demonstrates something that is often missing from this formula: empathy. Despite the atrocious beliefs Carlson propagated, Olson tells her story and the story of her followers as a tragedy, showing how a confluence of real-world horrors and made-up boogeymen spell disaster for isolated people searching for answers.

Olson critically leaves out some of the worst parts of Love Has Won’s dogma — their allegiance to Qanon, Carlson’s beliefs about Hitler, etc. — but in doing so, she cuts to the humanity that these people still have. Instead of turning a judgmental eye towards these people, Olson and her docuseries remind us that, no matter how crazy a belief might sound from the outside, anyone can be susceptible to a charismatic stranger who seems to have all the answers. Stream Love Has Won: The Cult of Mother God on Max.

Related: 15 Disturbing Documentaries That Aren’t True Crime

3 Last Call: When a Serial Killer Stalked Queer New York

Despite its flaws, one of the most important aspects of true crime as a genre is its ability to expose audiences to the “invisible” victims of some of the world’s worst monsters. Sex workers and LGBTQ+ communities have historically been targeted at higher rates by serial killers, in large part because of the knowledge that the police and society at large won’t care. Last Call: When a Serial Killer Stalked Queer New York tells just one of these countless stories. In the ‘90s, four gay men were murdered by serial killer Richard Rogers, otherwise known as the Last Call Killer. Through the series’ four episodes, Last Call explores the lives of Rogers’ four victims and the fight it took to get them justice.

It’s no secret that the true crime genre has a problem of glorifying murderers and ignoring their victims. Last Call takes a clear detour from this true crime formula in favor of exploring who Rogers’ victims were in their lives, as well as documenting the struggle to actually bring the killer to justice. In each of the docuseries’ four episodes, space is given for friends and family members to reflect on these victims as people; we find out who they were and the secrets they kept.

Space in Last Call is also given to the members of New York’s LGBTQ+ community whose work — in spite of the NYPD — eventually lead to Rogers’ arrest. Last Call isn’t groundbreaking in terms of its style or form, but it is a welcome and compassionate rejoinder in a genre beset by pain porn and valorized killers. Stream Last Call: When a Serial Killer Stalked Queer New York on Max.

2 Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland

once upon a time in northern ireland
BBC

From James Bluemel, director of the critically acclaimed Once Upon a Time in Iraq, comes Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland. The five-part docuseries tells the story of the Troubles, the bloody, three-decade-long civil rights conflict in Northern Ireland between the nationalist Catholics and the unionist Protestants. Combining archival footage with personal testimonies from the individuals who lived and fought through the Troubles, Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland explores not only what happened during the conflict, but also the legacy it’s left behind.

A History of Violence

There’s no shortage of ink spilled or film captured about the Troubles, but Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland stands out. Bluemel set out to truly show both sides of the conflict, not in a way that launders or justifies the heinous violence, but rather as a means of understanding how that violence got to the point that it did. The docuseries’ strength lies in the respect it has for its subjects; the individuals telling their stories and reflecting on the past 25 years after the conflict ostensibly ended are supremely human, reminding audiences of the people behind the terrible violence we continue to see around the world. Stream Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland on PBS Passport.

1 Telemarketers

Lauded as one of the best shows of 2023 by the likes of Time and Slate, Telemarketers investigates the seedy underbelly of call center scams. The series spawned from the experience of two telemarketers — filmmakers Sam Lipman-Stern and Pat Pespas — working for the innocuously-named Civic Development Group. The telemarketers working for this massive company were soliciting donations for nonprofit organizations, with the majority of funds going directly into the pockets of CDG’s higher-ups. Though CDG has long been shut down and ordered to pay $18.8 million to the FTC, their methods have inspired countless other scams. Produced by the Safdie brothers of Uncut Gems fame, Telemarketers not only follows Lipman-Stern and Pespas documenting CDG’s crimes, but also takes a deep dive into the modern world of call-center scams.

What Makes Telemarketers One of the Best Docuseries of 2023?

Though Telemarketers starts as a look specifically at the chaos within Civic Development Group, by the third and final episode, the docuseries widens its scope not just to other telemarketers and their latest tools, but also to the corruption that makes it all possible. There’s an allure to filmmakers Lipman-Stern and Pespas, whose disinterest in “documentarian” status makes them relatable. These aren’t professionals, but normal guys whose obscure and less-than-glamorous backgrounds give them a needed everyman credibility in the unending fight against corporate greed; the fact they went on Chapo Trap House is only further evidence. Infused with a scuzzy charm and abrasive realism, Telemarketers is a real David and Goliath story, showing that the Goliath of scams and grifts never truly dies, it just changes its shape. Stream Telemarketers on Max.



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