Documentaries offer an important window into the world around us. They can help us understand difficult topics or meet people who help us think differently. The most powerful films can even change public policy or push back against powerful corporations. No matter what style of documentary you prefer, there’s a streaming service sure to keep you entertained and educated.
Best for Documentaries
The Streamable’s Choice
HBO Max benefits from many years of excellent documentaries created specifically for the cable channel. A recent survey of all the major streaming services ranked it as the best service for these true-life tales, and The Streamable agrees.
Some great titles worth checking out include “Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind,” “Hoop Dreams,” “Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals,” and “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief.”
- Deep documentary library
- Quality is uniformly high
- Tackles challenging, adult topics
- Wide variety
- Offline viewing
- Documentaries added more slowly than some other services
- Higher price point
- Not many Academy Award-winning docs
Netflix has a truly incredible documentary lineup, including several Oscar-winners. You’ll see great docs like “Icarus,” “American Factory,” “13th,” “Fyre,” and “Quincy.” Fans of mountain climbing will get a kick out of “The Dawn Wall.”
Netflix is also making sure it owns many of these documentaries, so they’ll never leave the service. This a strong, strong choice for any documentary lover.
- Exclusive titles
- New documentaries arrive regularly
- Wide variety of topics
- Includes many recent Best Documentary winners
- Netflix docs often become “water cooler” favorites
- Can be hard to identify quality
- Some high-profile docs rotate out of library
While Disney+ may be saddled with content restrictions, its sister service is free to tackle more daunting subjects. Hulu offers a wide variety of documentaries including “Far From The Tree,” “Born to Play,” “Collective,” “Minding the Gap,” “I Am Not Your Negro,” and “Honeyland.” “Fyre Fraud” is a necessary companion piece if you’ve seen Netflix’s “Fyre.”
A special treat is “Too Funny to Fail: The Life & Death of The Dana Carvey Show.” Another high-profile winner is “WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn.”
Hulu appears to be gaining traction with its original, exclusive documentaries, which suggests they’ll be a strong competitor in years to come.
- Interesting topics too hot for Disney+
- Exclusive films on buzzy topics
- Can bundle with Disney+ and ESPN+ for discount
- Library automatically blunted with some titles over at Disney+
- Often plays “catch-up” with documentaries on topics previously made famous by Netflix
Disney’s documentary section tends to fall into two main categories: those films about Disney-related topics, and nature films.
The Disney-focused docs are truly special if you’re a fan of the source material.
“Waking Sleeping Beauty” shows how the studio pulled out of its 1980s funk to produce blockbusters like “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty & The Beast” and “The Lion King.”
“Howard” gives an inside look at the life of Howard Ashman, a lyricist behind many of Disney’s most beloved songs.
“The Boys” is a surprisingly funny, touching portrait of the Sherman brothers - two bickering songwriters who gave us the great music of “Mary Poppins,” “The Jungle Book,” and “Bedknobs and Broomsticks.”
When it comes to nature, Disney has a rich library of high quality films, and that’s bolstered by the impressive National Geographic collection. Whether you feel like staring at monkeys or dolphins or penguins, you can spend hours traveling the world from your couch.
If you must see one Disney+ documentary, check out “Free Solo,” the Best Documentary Academy Award winner about Alex Honnold, who scaled the 3,200-foot El Capitán in Yosemite National Park without a rope.
You won’t find many Disney+ documentaries about adult topics, however. That somewhat blunts the service’s effectiveness.
- Family-friendly library
- Great for fans of Disney
- Excellent nature films
- Exclusive films will remain on service
- Adult topics not featured
- Limited library outside its two primary topics
True to its premium cable roots, Showtime isn’t afraid to tackle documentary subjects that skew more adult. You’ll find titles like “When We Were Kings,” “Kobe Bryant’s Muse,” “Marley,” “Amy,” “Belushi,” and “Mad Hot Ballroom.” The titles do change, but the service always keeps a solid roster.
Many of the documentaries you’ll see here do have a harder edge, so be warned that this isn’t a very kid-friendly group.
- Strong library of documentaries about controversial figures and difficult topics
- Original, exclusive titles
- Library not as robust as others
- Slow to add new titles
Peacock’s rotating library does include some A+ documentaries, like “Murderball,” “I Am Big Bird,” “Spellbound,” “Perfect Bid: The Contestant Who Knew Too Much,” and “Good Hair” with Chris Rock. There are lots and lots of musical documentaries as well.
As a bonus, almost every documentary here is available on the ad-supported free tier.
The library isn’t especially deep, but the selection is solid.
- Rotating library features some excellent films
- Most docs available on free tier
- Frustrating user interface
- Films do rotate out of library
- Almost no exclusives
With Apple TV+, you can expect high production value and solid storytelling. There are some really excellent documentaries here, including “The Year Earth Changed,” “Beastie Boys Story,” “The Elephant Queen,” “Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry,” and “Who Are You, Charlie Brown?”
Many of the service’s documentaries focus on music or nature, showing off the technical abilities you’d expect from Apple.
- Extremely high quality
- Disciplined storytelling
- Low price point
- Thinnest library of any service
- New films slow to arrive
The free Tubi service has a surprisingly strong roster of docs, although you do have to sit through ads.
Standout films include these titles that score over 9/10 on IMDB:
- The Curators of Dixon School
- The Day I Had to Grow Up
- Wild & Woolly: An Elephant And His Sheep
- Blood Line: The Life and Times of Brian Deegan
- Between the Shades
- Everything Is Forever
- Very highly rated films
- Interesting niche topics that may not be covered by bigger services
- Have to watch ads
- Documentaries are lower-profile
- Hard to discern quality
Amazon Prime Video is the equivalent of a documentary garage sale. Though you will find some diamonds in the rough, they are surrounded by mounds of garbage.
One major negative is Amazon’s very low bar for content, which means the quality varies wildly. You may suddenly find yourself watching a documentary from a far-right political organization or a religious institution. Users who tread carefully can find some decent options, however.
Some standouts include “Never Surrender” (about the legacy of “Galaxy Quest”), “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” and “Dear Zachary: A Letter To A Son About His Father” (often cited as the most heartbreaking film you’ll ever see).
It is frustrating that Prime Video’s library rotates on a regular basis, so you’ll have to dig anew every so often.
- Huge library
- Wide variety of topics
- Almost no original/exclusive documentaries
- Quality films rotate off the service
- “Documentaries” sometimes turn out to be outright political propaganda
- Terrible UI mixes the good movies with the bad