HBO’s most dramatic new shows aren’t dramas—they’re documentaries

“The Case Against Adnan Syed” continues HBO’s streak of controversial documentaries.
“The Case Against Adnan Syed” continues HBO’s streak of controversial documentaries.
Image: HBO
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While the world anxiously waits for the final season of Game of Thrones to premiere in April, HBO is still managing to dominate the cultural conversation with a very different kind of content: documentaries.

Earlier this week, HBO aired the two-part documentary Leaving Neverland, which detailed credible allegations of child sexual abuse against pop star Michael Jackson. It drew the third-biggest audience for an HBO documentary since 2010. Initial airings of documentaries on HBO average only about 187,000 viewers, according to the Hollywood Reporter, while the four-hour Leaving Neverland was watched by an average of 1.5 million people over the two nights it was on. Countless more took to social media to express their impassioned opinions.

Now HBO is about to air its second controversial documentary in as many weeks. The Case Against Adnan Syed picks up where the Serial podcast left off, re-examining the 1999 murder of Baltimore high school student Hae Min Lee and the conviction of her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed. The docuseries, which debuts Sunday (March 10) and will air over four weeks, promises to provide “new discoveries” in the case that captured the world’s attention when journalist Sarah Koenig first investigated it in 2014.

And that’s not the end of HBO’s documentary lineup for the month. On March 18, HBO will broadcast the documentary film The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, about entrepreneur Elizabeth Holmes and her fraudulent blood-testing company, Theranos. Directed by the prolific documentarian Alex Gibney (Going Clear), The Inventor is likely to be HBO’s third hot-button documentary in March alone.

That HBO chose to devote the first quarter of 2019 to documentary programming is more evidence that we’re in the midst of a “golden age” for documentary filmmaking. From Free Solo to Three Identical Strangers to RBG, 2018 was viewed as a great year for the documentary, both critically and commercially. That momentum continued into this year with the dueling Fyre Festival documentaries. HBO is just going where the market tells it to.

Of course, documentaries have been a staple of HBO programming for decades. The network has never been afraid to broach sensitive real-life topics or try to inform viewers in between episodes of The Sopranos and Entourage. Part of HBO’s brand as the most prestigious, curated experience in TV is its ability to incorporate topical documentary series and films into its regular slate of fictional drug deals, battles, and sex scenes.

But three major, zeitgeist-y documentaries in a single month is new, and it could be a sign of where the network is headed now that its corporate owner, AT&T, wants it to start producing more content to keep up with Netflix. The final season of Game of Thrones and the premieres of new shows like Watchmen made it obvious that HBO was poised for a big 2019; We just didn’t know that documentaries would be one of the reasons why.