Power Rankings! Must-Watch Non-Fiction TV

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‘Planet Earth II’ and ‘Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown’

Elizabeth White; David Scott Holloway

The first thing you need to know about this edition of the Power Rankings! is a quintessential bit of information that will absolutely taint the whole thing, which is, if you think about it, delightfully fun.

And that is this: A great many TV critics don’t watch unscripted or, for our purposes here, non-fiction programming. There are several reasons for that, so let’s start with the obvious one: There are too many scripted programming options and more people like to talk about Game of Thrones than about rednecks shooting ducks, if that show is even still on anymore (and don’t pretend like you don’t know what I’m talking about).

Furthermore, there are very nearly 500 scripted series in the world and about five times that much non-fiction programming — so we’re talking not just about an alarming number of choices that one person could not watch nor even track, but a truly disgraceful number of choices. It feels egregious. It feels dirty. Who wants a part of that?

Lastly, even though I’ve watched all of the shows that made the list below, based on the information above it would be utterly impossible to watch your particular favorite, and so this is the one time — and one time only — you can be truly annoying and write “you forgot” in the comments section (which I won’t read anyway, but at least you’ll be right).

So this non-fiction Power Rankings! list is the most flawed, and I like those flaws because I think scripted is superior anyway, but I’m hoping to find a good excuse to branch out to non-fiction choices — broaden the mind and all that — and the inevitable follow-up rankings that will occur, so this list represents said chance.

Also, just so you know, by not choosing “reality” programming or even “unscripted” programming, and instead choosing “non-fiction” as a descriptor, that opened the door a lot wider for documentaries — and the brutal truth is that this entire list (and well past the number 10) could have been filled with great documentaries. But that seemed exclusive, or an idea for another list entirely. And at this point — with the rebirth of six different Power Rankings! — the time has come to swing back around to see how much the other ones will have changed.

One quick note on these non-fiction choices: Because I don’t watch nearly as much of these as I do scripted fare, I tried to pick the bulk of my favorites and watch others that people have raved about before narrowing it down. Because of that, some of them technically won’t have appeared within a year of publication, but most have.

OK, let’s do this.

All hail the series that can hold down the No. 1 slot the longest. As you’ll see below, there are two numbers associated with each entry. The number on the left is the current ranking; the number on the right was its last ranking. They will of course match on this inaugural list.

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