Last weekend, much of the world became obsessed with Netflix’s new series “Tiger King,” about the sinister but colorful world of big cat breeding. Real-life characters like Joe Exotic and Doc Antle fall into the “you can’t make this stuff” up category of personalities that would be unbelievable if they didn’t actually exist.
With people around the U.S. and much of the world staying home in self-quarantine, “Tiger King” provided the perfect distraction of engrossing storytelling and unforgettable subjects.
Part of the fun of watching these larger-than-life figures is imagining who could play them in the inevitable narrative adaptation. (For “Tiger King,” we suggest Danny McBride for Joe Exotic, Julianne Moore as Carol and Tim Robbins as Bhagavan Doc Antle.)
In the past few years, Netflix has pioneered the concept of the entertaining docu-series with “Making a Murderer” and “Wild Wild Country.” But don’t forget to look beyond Netflix — HBO has a decades-long track record of making top quality documentaries, and more can be found on Hulu and CNN.
Here are 10 docu-series and feature-length documentaries about unforgettable characters and stories that are truly stranger than fiction.
“Don’t F**k With Cats”
Just before Christmas in 2019, Netflix audiences got a creepy present: This three-episode limited series subtitled “Hunting an Internet Killer” about a group of amateur internet sleuths who start out to investigate a man who posts gross videos of animal abuse, but goes on to kill a man. Don’t worry too much about the title — the animal abuse is kept largely off-screen, and the series is as much about getting to know the people who become obsessed with discovering the truth about the case than with, you know, hurting cats.
The totally-botched Fyre Festival became the instantly recognizable synonym for a disaster after the planned music festival imploded in 2017, with major acts like Blink 182 and Lil Yachty all pulling out. Promoter Billy McFarland and rapper Ja Rule got in way, way over their heads with the pricey event that was hyped by influencers, but only offered disaster relief tents and pasty cheese sandwiches to guests.
Directed by Chris Smith, this Netflix documentary — not to be confused with Hulu’s also fascinating “Fyre Fraud” — offers up a cast of hucksters and promoters who weren’t going to let their total lack of experience stand in the way of charging thousands of dollars for a weekend of music. One of the standout characters is event producer Andy King, who became famous for agreeing to offer oral sex if it was necessary to get the festival’s shipment of Evian water out of customs.
HBO’s six-episode series delves into the McDonald’s Monopoly game of the early 2000s. When a Florida FBI agent gets a tip that there’s something not quite right about the way the game is run, his investigation leads him to a colorful group of grifters including the two Jerrys and a group of dubious “winners.” There’s no murder or abuse here — just a long con that reveals a lot about greed and the mob as it unravels.
“Three Identical Strangers”
“Three Identical Strangers” revolves around adopted triplets from New York who were reunited in the early 1980s when friends recognized them as being identical. It’s hard to say much more without spoiling what led to their adoptions and what happened after they found each other, but the documentary — available to watch on Hulu — is a wild ride that’s livened up by the trio’s personalities.
The award-winning doc is being adapted into a feature film, but it’s unclear whether it will cast one person as all three triplets or go with three young men who can be made to resemble each other through their trademark curly hairstyles (too bad Andy Samberg might have aged out of this part!).
After his 22-year old son was shot when a crack deal went wrong, Louisiana pharmacist Dan Schneider decided to investigate why so many young people were coming to his pharmacy with prescriptions for opiates. Not only does he end up solving his son’s murder, which the police seemed uninterested in pursuing, he takes on a doctor running a pill mill and vows to put her out of business. The four-part series is available on Netflix.
If murder and sexual assault seem a little too heavy right now, check out “Shirkers,” the strange and charming story of a 19-year old woman in Singapore who dreams of making a feature film. Sandi Tan loves Jim Jarmusch, Patti Smith and the French New Wave, and she writes a script and convinces her friends to help out with her first feature film effort, a candy-colored mystery shot on the streets of Singapore.
Her film teacher offers to direct, but her dreams of making her mark on indie film are dashed when he runs off with all the footage. Years later, she retraces what happened and how a troubled older man ended up hijacking her future.
“Making a Murderer”
“Making a Murderer” was one of Netflix’s first documentary series to make a splash, and it’s less about kooky characters and more of a straight-forward legal investigation. But the case of Steven Avery, who was convicted of murdering a young woman in Wisconsin in 1985, is riveting in its portrayal of the justice system and the preconceived notions of the detectives and courts. The investigation of the questionable arrest of Avery’s nephew Brendan Dassey is particularly troubling. A second season delved into the numerous appeals that took place after the two were jailed.
“The Wolfpack” is the ultimate self-quarantine movie and a fascinating story in its own right. A New York family with seven children almost never lets the kids leave the house, so the boys create their own world based on thousands of DVDs and VHS tapes they would watch over and over including “Reservoir Dogs” and “The Dark Knight.”
Homeschooled by their mother and controlled by a mentally ill father, they create costumes and shoot remakes of some of their favorites films to pass the time in the small apartment. Though their situation raises undeniable questions of child abuse and, like many of the works on this list, skirts the line of documentary ethics, the ending is relatively uplifting. It’s available for rental in iTunes, Amazon Prime and more services.
The seven-episode Netflix series is an intense true-crime tale about the investigation into the murder of a 26-year old nun and Catholic high school teacher in 1970 Baltimore. Two former students and other dedicated amateur detective unpack what happened to Sister Cathy Cesnick, uncovering a web of abuse at the high school over the course of many years.
“Wild Wild Country”
Netflix’s 2018 docu-series sensation told the story of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and the followers he gathered on an Oregon ranch. Wearing red and orange garments and practicing an indefinable blend of Indian mysticism, the cult and its charismatic leaders like Ma Anand Sheela got progressively stranger and more dangerous before sputtering out in the 1980s. Priyanka Chopra is set to play Sheela in a movie about her life to be directed by Barry Levinson for Amazon.