Best documentaries on Netflix: 15 eye-opening shows everyone should watch

Broaden your mind with the best documentaries on Netflix... grown-up home schooling at its best

Sky sale: Netflix on TV in bedroom with couple on bed watching
(Image credit: Netflix)

The best documentaries on Netflix could be the best way to get out into the world right now. If you're feeling like your brain is tired of looking at the same four walls all day every. single. day, we can very much assure you that you're not alone. But, we've found something to stretch your mind and keep you learning. 

The good old-fashioned documentary brings an insight into the pre-Coronavirus world, and all the wild and crazy, sad and beautiful things us humans from all over the planet get up to. So why not use this time to learn about that horrendous murder case you know nothing about, the cultural history of what you eat, distant countries that one day you'll be able to explore, or what it's really like to be a cheer leader... go team!

We've rounded up the best documentaries on Netflix. The variety of shows is amazing, from gripping true crime, to the wonder of wildlife, and from celebrity stories to exploring human nature, now's the time to delve right in and embrace the very best kind of grown-up home schooling.

Netflix does a good combination of licensing the best from your favourite channels and producing their own documentaries, so we consider it one of the best streaming services around. Don't believe us? Just check out ANY of these brilliant documentaries...

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1. Planet Earth

  • Rating: PG
  • Seasons: 1
  • Genre: Nature documentary

Escape humanity for a while and get back to nature with the legend that is David Attenborough. His soothing voice takes you to the parts of the world that remain untouched by humans, a true insight into the wildernesses we rarely get to see. Gaze in awe at the most amazing animal and landscape visuals, achieved by the power of camera, gaining footage that even the human eye couldn't capture. You'll 'awww' at the cute polar bears and 'wooooow' at the stunning scenery – and maybe leave with a fountain of knowledge that you didn't know you needed. Just watch it. 

2. Making a Murderer

  • Rating: 15
  • Seasons: 2
  • Genre: True crime documentary

Imagine being sent to prison for 20 years for a crime you didn't commit. That's exactly what happened to Steven Avery, but what happened to him once he was released is perhaps even more shocking. The Avery family are from Wisconsin, living on the outskirts of society – does that make Steven an easy scapegoat? This compelling documentary is not only a fascinating watch, but has even prompted the long-term case to be reviewed. 

3. Cheer

  • Rating: 15
  • Seasons: 1
  • Genre: Teen sport documentary

Forget everything you think about cheerleading and be prepared to be amazed (and addicted) to the gravity-defying exploits of the cheer team from Navarro College in Texas. The six episodes follow the college students and their coach (and mother figure) Monica as they prepare for the biggest competition of the year in Daytona, Florida. Combine troubled but fearless teens, plenty of painful injuries,  heartwarming stories and jaw-dropping gymnastic routines, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for a feelgood series. We guarantee you’ll be on the edge of your sofa as their final routine gets underway, and there won’t be a dry eye in the house either...

4. Tiger King 

  • Rating: 15
  • Seasons: 1
  • Genre: True crime documentary

What happens when you mix sequins, tigers and a murder-for-hire plot? You get Netflix hit show Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness. The brand-new seven part true-crime documentary tells the surreal story of big cat collector and Oklahoma exotic-animal park owner Joe Exotic. Over the coming episodes you get to witness the crazy roller coaster of events that lead up to Joe's arrest for the murder-for-hire plot against cat-print lover and owner of Big Cat Rescue Carole Baskin. It's not every Netflix show that can promise a journey of revenge, a presidential campaign and a missing husband… oh and did we forget to mention Joe Exotic is also a country-western singer… we told you it was crazy.

5. The Staircase

  • Rating: 15
  • Seasons: 1
  • Genre: True crime documentary 

The death of a mother is always going to be harrowing, but when the police begin to accuse the father of murder, that's just a whole different level. This documentary follows the investigation of novelist Michael Peterson's wife's death. He says she fell down the staircase, but the evidence suggests otherwise. The children are loyal to their Dad, but should they be? An intriguing courtroom thriller which examines the American justice system, too.

6. Ugly Delicious

  • Rating: 15
  • Seasons: 2
  • Genre: Social and cultural documentary

Ugly Delicious sounds like a Heston Blumenthal culinary experiment gone horribly wrong, but it is David Chang’s description for home-cooked food that lacks restaurant-style prettifying, yet tastes great. The American-born Korean chef explores emotional and cultural connections to food in this gritty travelogue style documentary that focuses on one dish at a time, whether that be tacos, fried chicken or, in the first episode, pizza. 

David and his friends – including other chefs and food writers – head off in different directions on little gastronomic tours, poking at the pretentions and snobbery which can surround food and who makes it best – the Italians who created it or David’s beloved Domino’s pizza delivery. While it’s not Nigella-style food porn, it is rated 15 for sweariness. You may not learn new recipes through it, but you will be hungry.

7. Louis Theroux

  • Rating: 15
  • Seasons: 1
  • Genre: Science and cultural documentary 

Documentary-maker, author and ultimate journalist goals Louis Theroux, has created some of the most eye-opening, all-revealing, heart-wrenching documentaries ever, and they are all ready and waiting for you on the lockdown saviour that is Netflix. With ten documentaries on offer, we just couldn't whittle it down to one. So whether you fancy a close-up insight into Dementia, behind the scenes of pornography, or modern-day Nazis, tap into the lives of people with wildly different perspectives for a broader understanding of humanity. 

8. Pandemic 

  • Rating: 12
  • Seasons: 1
  • Genre: Science and culture documentary

The timing of this is unbelievable. Released on January 22, Pandemic is about, ironically, how to prevent a pandemic such as Spanish flu and Ebola from happening again. It explains how a viral outbreak begins and spreads across the world, taps into the importance of vaccinations and how doctors are trying to develop these. Filmed in 2019, it's obviously not specifically about Coronavirus, but it does go a long way in helping you understand what goes on behind the scenes, and what you can do to help. If escapism is what you want, this isn't the one for you, but we wouldn't say no to a better understanding of this weird situation we've found ourselves in. 

9. Babies

  • Rating: PG
  • Seasons: 1
  • Genre: Social and cultural documentary

We challenge you not to tear up at this one. Following 15 babies over the first year of their life, 36 scientists examine their behavior, on the premise that what it means to be human can be found in our babies. They look at how social interaction, stress, food and sleep can impact both babies and their parents. Did you know when a woman gives birth a part of her brain physically and permanently changes too? This documentary is full of fascinating new scientific findings like that,  so whether or not you've actually got a baby, it's a mind-enriching, eye-opening documentary (plus you can coo at all the cute tiny babies awww!) .

10. Don't F*ck With Cats

  • Rating: 18
  • Seasons: 1
  • Genre: True crime documentary

When someone posts videos of kittens being murdered online, you know there's a problem. The world-wide hunt was on to locate this man before he did something even worse. Things did get worse. Luka Magnotta was an incredibly troubled man from Toronto, and this recount of his barbaric actions will have you hiding behind a cushion for sure. A shocking documentary of a twisted real crime and global man-hunt. 

11. Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened

  • Rating: 15
  • Seasons: 1
  • Genre: Investigative documentary

If anything shows the power of good marketing, it's this. Fyre was set to be the best festival in the world. But while money was thrown into endorsements, influencers and clever advertising techniques, the key practicalities, such as, you know, having food and beds at this glamorous celebrity-targeted festival, were way overlooked. You'll be shocked at every bad decision, and amazed at what happens when the money and power is in the wrong hands. Stunning scenery and swimwear aplenty, it's an interesting insight into how the quest for pride can defy reason. 

12. Whitney 'Can I be me'

  • Rating: Teen
  • Seasons: 1
  • Genre: Biographical documentary

If Whitney Housten makes you think of karaoke, wedding dances, and generally just freaking out on the dance floor with your gal pals, whilst we're right there with you, there's so much more behind the iconic voice. If you don't know about the life behind the legend, you've got to watch this. It explores the life of the pop singer, right from her early start in music as a gospel singer, to her battle with addiction and untimely death. Examining her relationships with her family and friends, using archive footage from her 1999 World Tour and more recent interviews, the documentary touches on the danger of fame and being under constant scrutiny – a theme which we're all too aware of. So discover the person behind the voice and you're sure to love her absolute tunes even more. 

13. Jack Whitehall: Travels With my Father

  • Rating: 15
  • Seasons: 3
  • Genre: Travel comedy documentary

This one will cheer you right up in no time. Comedian Jack Whitehall decides to take an over-due gap yah, with the slight difference being that he brings his not-very-well-travelled father along with him. Imagine roughing it in a shared hostel room in Thailand, over night trains and risky adventures, all with your middle-class, slightly snobby father in tow. It really is a laugh a minute. And with shiny temples, beautiful views, hidden gems and of course Jack Whitehall himself to look at, it's an easy, happy watch. The father-son bonding time is pretty cute, too. 

14. Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes

  • Rating: 15
  • Seasons: 1
  • Genre: True crime documentary

Most of us couldn't bare the thought of murder, so why do some people do it over and over again? In case you didn't know, Ted Bundy is one of America's most notorious serial killers. Having killed more than 30 women and been executed in 1989, this documentary shares archival footage, audio recordings made on death row and present-day interviews, to get a glimpse into his mind. An insight into the psychology of a murderer and the mental process required to commit such an atrocious crime, repeatedly. It's fascinating and scary, but it seems murder really can be an addiction...

15. Dirty Money 

  • Rating: 15
  • Seasons: 2
  • Genre: True crime documentary

If corporate corruption, fraud and creative accounting sound right up your street, Dirty Money is the documentary for you. Each episode focusses on a different kind of corruption,  from the Volkswagen emissions scandal, to the HSBC money laundering scandal. Interviews with the perpetrators bring a human side to the different levels of corruption and leave you shocked by the great lengths people go to to get rich. 

How to get Netflix:

Netflix | From £5.99 per month
Try Netflix now for just £5.99 per month to watch the best films, TV shows and documentaries around. Oh, and Netflix Originals such as Stranger Things, You, The Stranger, Don't F**ck With Cats, Sex Education and more.View Deal

Netflix is available as an app on most Smart TVs, tablets and your can access the Netflix site on your computer. You can also get the app on a number of streaming devices which you plug into your TV – see the best deals on these below.

One you have accessed Netflix, you will need to subscribe. Plans start from £5.99 and you can have family accounts for multiple users.

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