Can Netflix Make Documentaries Cool Again?

Laurence Cendrowicz/Netflix
Pictured: Es Devlin in "Abstract: The Art of Design"
In the past, I used to watch documentaries out of a sense of duty. While Game of Thrones may have been more appealing, I accepted documentaries as necessary brain vitamins. At the film’s end, I would have paid my dues to intellectualism, and then could resume the blood, sex, and gore that characterize my TV consumption. Blame HBO!
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Well, all that changed when I discovered Netflix’s new documentary series, Abstract: The Art of Design and Chef’s Table. Charging through hourlong episode after hourlong episode, I came to the realization that Netflix had done the impossible. It had made documentaries bingeable.
The gist of these series is deceptively simple. Each one revolves around a united theme. Chef’s Table tracks the careers of some famous chefs and the ethos behind their restaurants. Abstract devotes an episode to eight global designers, from Es Devlin, a British stage designer known for designing Beyoncé's world tours and the 2012 Olympics closing ceremony, to Platon, a photographer known for his intimate portraits of public figures.
Kase Film/Netflix
Abstract, the series which dropped in January 2017, is especially inventive, perhaps because of its creative subject matter. Take the series’ first episode, which features German illustrator Christoph Niemann as its subject.
The documentary seamlessly weaves in animated versions of Niemann’s art with footage of his daily life. With endearing figurines interspersed with scenes of modern Berlin, the documentary brings the artist’s half-real, half-imagined world to life. And, since Niemann is reluctant to show too much of his personal life on screen, his professional creations become the focal point in an innovative way.
But not every episode of Abstract proceeds like Niemann’s animation bonanza. The series' manner of storytelling is tailored to the subject. The second episode centers on Tinker Hatfield, the shoe designer who brought Air Jordans to fame. Since his extraverted, laid-back Oregonian personality so greatly contrasts with Mr. Niemann’s serious Berliner aura, his episode proceeds far differently. His graphs come to life; he socializes with Michael Jordan; he surfs.
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Bruce Ely/Netflix
Each Abstract episode embodies the designers’ moods and processes, leading to a varied and enjoyable viewing experience.
Chef’s Table is an equally addictive docu-series. After all, what’s almost as good as eating at a Michelin-starred restaurant? Getting to know the creative mind behind it. So, if your starving artist status doesn’t allow for expensive dinners, we’ve found your entry into the culinary world.
With shows like Chef’s Table and Abstract, Netflix is producing bite-size documentaries that bring viewers up close and personal with some of the leaders in their field. It’s worth tuning in for an episode or two — you’ll leave with a greater appreciation for what people are capable of producing, be it gourmet feasts or reproductions of the shoes from Back to the Future.
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