1. Generation Kill (HBO, 2008)
It’s no coincidence that this intense, impressive seven-episode look at the early days of the Iraq War was the work of the men who made The Wire; the two projects share the same love of internal argot, the same sensitivity to men doing a dangerous job that some of them don’t really believe in, and most of all, the same cutting perspective on how those at the bottom of a broken system are perpetually frustrated by the bad decisions of those at the top. Embedded reporter Evan Wright was the perfect choice for Ed Burns and David Simon’s source material; his slightly skewed but perfectly sound journalistic approach mirrors their own, and helps imbue Generation Kill with humor and humanity.
2. Planet Earth (BBC, 2006)
It’s a testament to how successful Planet Earth has been that it’s spawned so many imitators, look-alikes, and spin-off products. In 2002, the BBC’s Natural History Unit set out to reinvent the nature documentary. Equipping their crews with unprecedented resources—including a full range of high-definition cameras and experimental filming methods—they spent more money making Planet Earth than had ever been imagined for such a project. Money doesn’t always equal artistic success, but in this case, the end product is breathtaking. Planet Earth visits every conceivable climate and environment, never forcing nature to conform to its agenda, and comes back with footage of animals and habitats that left viewers spellbound. The resources, personnel, and time involved resulted in film of events that had never been seen before by human eyes, and the excitement of everyone involved is tangible. Planet Earth is not only the filmed evidence of dedicated, skilled scientists at work, but the most successful nature documentary ever made.
3. Recount (HBO, 2008)
The ’00s began with the fallout from the most bizarre presidential race in American history. But the inevitable movie about the 2000 election—and the subsequent Bush Vs. Gore Supreme Court decision that settled it—almost didn’t happen. Director Sydney Pollack, who was slated to film it, died before he could complete any work, but veteran Jay Roach stepped in and delivered a stand-up job, thanks largely to an engaging script by Danny Strong and a powerhouse cast that included Laura Dern, John Hurt, Tom Wilkinson, and Bob Balaban. Predictably, when Recount aired, both ends of the political spectrum complained that it was a Hollywood fable that didn’t accurately reflect the events of the election. But then again, looking back, the election itself seems more unreal as the years go by.
4. Angels In America (HBO, 2003)
HBO had a real job of work on its hands when it decided to give over seven hours of programming to an adaptation of Tony Kushner’s award-winning play Angels In America. There were those who thought that Kushner, adapting his own work, would get overindulgent, and others who thought the play—written a dozen years previous and set at the height of the AIDS panic—was past its sell-by date. HBO disagreed, and went all-out with the production. They hired Mike Nichols to direct, populated the cast with heavy hitters like Al Pacino and Meryl Streep, and commissioned Thomas Newman to provide a memorable score. Angels cost a fortune, and though not every one of its 352 minutes works, it’s rightly remembered as a masterful miniseries, and home to one of Pacino’s finest latter-day performances.
5. Band Of Brothers (HBO, 2001)
Unlike Generation Kill, HBO’s World War II miniseries Band Of Brothers dealt with more traditional “men on a mission” stories, letting audiences get to know a group of soldiers as they journeyed from basic training to the European theater, before ending at Hitler’s abandoned “Eagle’s Nest.” But though this Steven Spielberg/Tom Hanks-produced event is more about the grand bonding adventure of war than about murderous psychopaths and dangerous incompetents, Band Of Brothers doesn’t shy away from the real-world effects of combat, such as shell shock, alcoholism, a general hardening of the heart, and—not incidentally—death. The series has a narrative sweep and some emotional swells, but it never feels less than truthful.
6. Torchwood: Children Of Earth (BBC, 2009)
For the third season of the popular Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood, Russell T. Davies cut back to a single five-hour, five-episode story, and created the science-fiction equivalent of a pulse-pounding policier. When a powerful, grotesque alien race descends on Earth and orders humanity to give up 10 percent of its children, the demand exposes past corruption, festering class divisions, and the limits of capitulation. By the end of Children Of Earth, major characters have died, and the show’s ever-mercurial hero Captain Jack Harkness has shown more personal weakness than he can abide. All this plus cool gadgets, shocking deathtraps, humorous asides, and quietly moving conversations. Children Of Earth is a full-service miniseries.
7. Life With Judy Garland: Me & My Shadows (ABC, 2001)
This two-part, three-hour biopic covers an entertainer as troubled as she was gifted, and does so with an eye for detail and sense of scope that some Oscar-bait biopics can’t summon. But the reason it belongs on this list is simple: As Garland, actress Judy Davis gives the best performance of her formidable career, conveying the singer’s vulnerability and vitality in equal measure. Life With Judy Garland isn’t one long wallow in booze, pills, and self-destructive love affairs; it finds plenty of room for Garland’s creative triumphs, and the personal warmth that endeared her to her fans and co-workers. Davis sells the prickly parts—as she’s done often in movies—but she also shows enough of Garland’s spark that it’s easier to understand why we should care.
8. Broken Trail (AMC, 2006)
The Western may be out of fashion at the multiplex, but the genre has thrived on television over the past decade, thanks to agreeably old-fashioned projects like Walter Hill’s Broken Trail. Robert Duvall plays an aging loner (very Randolph Scott-like) who tries to raise the money to buy a ranch by driving 500 horses to Wyoming, but gets sidetracked when he and his nephew Thomas Haden Church discover a human trafficking ring. A well-balanced mix of classic Western heroism and harsh historical lessons, Broken Trail feels like the past and the future of a quintessential American form.
9. John Adams (HBO, 2008)
Like the best historical dramas, HBO’s eight-hour study of America’s second president succeeds at making the past look curious and alien, while making the people and their interactions with each other look familiar. Credit the performances of Paul Giamatti as the cranky, idealistic-yet-oft-traditionalist John Adams, and Laura Linney as his wife, who was frequently abandoned on the front lines. Their lifelong romance—through brutal political maneuvering, troubles with their kids, and more travel than nearly any other couple of their generation had to endure—grounds A Tale Of Important Figures in something clear and common.
10. When The Levees Broke (HBO, 2006)
Spike Lee’s exhaustive, essential documentary lines up what must be a hundred interview subjects to talk about the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, the flood that ensued, and—the most underreported part of the whole tragedy—the nightmare of trying to rebuild the city. The flood footage is as startling as ever, right down to the bloated bodies floating in submerged streets. But even more disturbing is the exhausted unanimity of the people Lee talks with. Whether they’re black or white, rich or poor, they’re all victims of a presumption that became more widely vocalized in the months after Katrina: that they were somehow asking for it. When The Levees Broke focuses on the frustrations of people who were stranded in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, facing gun-toting government agents telling them where they could and couldn’t go. Just for recording their descriptions of being herded into pens and scattered across the country, When The Levees Broke is as significant a piece of documentary reporting as The Sorrow And The Pity.
And can’t forget… The Corner (HBO, 2000)
A precursor to The Wire, this six-part HBO miniseries looks at one inner-city Baltimore family’s attempts to get clean, get straight, and get their piece of the American dream. Co-written by David Simon, Ed Burns, and David Mills and directed by Charles S. Dutton, The Corner takes the bleak realism that Simon brought to Homicide: Life On The Street and drains it of nearly any trace of levity, telling a story that plays more like a documentary than a scripted drama. Yes, it’s based on a true story, but in the hands of Simon, Burns, Mills, and Dutton (as well as stars Khandi Alexander, T.K. Carter, and Sean Nelson), The Corner feels truer than true. It’s like an unsparing dissection of how the world really works.