Best Documentaries On Netflix, On The Installment Plan

By Mickey Jhonny

When you're looking for the best documentaries on Netflix, you really do need to give some consideration to the 7 Up Series. It may not be to everyone's taste, but you'd be robbing yourself of the opportunity to experience something quite remarkable if you don't at least give it a try.

This series of films manages to be simultaneously a great achievement in documentary entertainment and a genuine contribution to sociological insight. It wasn't included on our list of the top 5 of the best documentaries on Netflix only because it really is in a different category.

It's the difference between a great gangster film, like The Godfather or Goodfellas, and a great long arch TV gangster series, like the Sopranos or Boardwalk Empire. It's a totally different kind of experience. The latter is slower, much more nuanced, and requires patience to allow it to unfold.

The 7 Up series began in 1964, when British TV producers brought together 14 children from what they perceived at the time as a representative sampling of British society. Their diversity was in their gender, race and economic condition.

There was an overt premise underlying this 1964 program: the expectation was that the show was providing a glimpse of Britain in the year 2000. The less obvious but equally vital assumption was that these kids' backgrounds would direct the course of their lives into the future. The conclusion of the 1964 installment promised to drop in on these 14 sometime in the 21st century, to see how things had turned out.

However, director Michael Apted, who had worked as a researcher on that original installment, had another idea. Seven years later, he took the cameras back, to record what had transpired in the children's second seven years of life. And he's been going back every seven years ever since.

At the time of writing, the most recent installment was released in the U.S. in January 2013. The children were then 56 years old. This is a strange journey for those with the patience and curiosity to stick with it.

It's true that not everyone finds it engaging TV. The less than enthusiastic have criticized it for being too slow and also too mundane. The protest is often along the lines: these people are no more interesting than my friends and acquaintances. Why bother with a TV show about people I already know and whose lives I can watch without the telly, thanks?

Fair enough; however, for those who relate to the show, such criticism seems to miss the whole point. The magic of the 7 Up series is the way that it transform the banal into the sublime. Simply turning the camera upon it elevates in a sense the daily heroism, humor and tragedy of all our lives into something worthy of narrative.

This is in a sense the original reality TV show. Except, unlike the circuses that go by that name, today, this reality, really does touch something profoundly, movingly and at times heartbreakingly real. When you watch the entire series, it is difficult not to develop a sense of personal relationship with the characters: to have favorites that you cheer for.

There is though another level to all this that I think makes the series even that much more fascinating. An odd irony seems to me to run through the entire enterprise. The core idea that real lives are being documented; the original premise about socio-economic origins unfolding more or less directly into later life outcomes, all seems premised on overlooking the effect of the observer principle.

The observer principle is often, and I might add mistakenly, attributed to the physicist Heisenberg. There's no need though of a confused idea about sub-atomic physics to recognize that knowing their being watched will have an effect on how people act.

Though it's less trendy as a pop reference, the appropriate comparison is to the Hawthorne experiments. These were a series of studies conducted by sociologists at a Western Electric plant in the 1920-30s. The point was to observe the behavior of the workers in the plant. It eventually became clear, though, that the very experience of being studied actually changed the behavior of the workers.

Being observed, and more importantly, awareness of being observed, changed the actions of the observed and so the results of the observation. It is of course impossible to know how the lives of these 14 people might have been different if they weren't (and didn't expect to be) visited every 7 years by television crews. It hardly seems far fetched, though, to imagine that some choices might have been different.

Pondering that conundrum may well be the most intriguing thought to reflect upon while watching those 14 youngsters making their way through life in this remarkable documentary.

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