Amidst a topsy turvy time for Netflix and TV show makers in general, one genre has proved remarkably resilient: the true crime documentary.
With subscriber numbers faltering due to an oversaturated streaming market and the ongoing cost of living crisis, true crime documentaries have remained extremely popular with subscribers. You’ll generally find at least one true crime doc in the Netflix top 10 at any one time, and so it’s no surprise dozens of the things are released every year.
Of course, quantity doesn’t necessarily equate to quality, and there are plenty of dull, shallow, or poorly judged true crime documentaries that should be dismissed out of hand. But the very best examples cast a revealing light on society’s dark underbelly, managing to entertain and inform in equal measure.
Here are 20 of the best true crime documentaries on Netflix right now. Which one is the best? You can help to decide that by voting below.
The very best true crime shows on Netflix
1. The StaircaseStream now on Netflix
The Staircase can be seen as a formative text in the development of the modern true crime documentary series. This 2004 French production shines a light on the case of Michael Peterson, who in 2001 was convicted of the murder of his wife, which Peterson maintained was entirely accidental. As part of the prosecution’s case, attention was drawn to an eerily similar ‘accident’ that occurred in Peterson’s past. This reworked documentary also includes three subsequent episodes that pick up the story a decade on from the event, with Avery freed and awaiting retrial.
2. Tiger KingStream now on Netflix
The first season of Tiger King attracted phenomenal viewership numbers, undoubtedly helped by the global lockdown of 2020. However, let’s not take away from the extraordinary story that it told. Its larger than life cast of characters and their eyebrow-raising actions and proclamations would stretch credibility were they not all firmly documented in film and print. Eccentric zoo owner Joe Exotic finds himself in conflict with self-appointed big cat conservationist Carole Baskin, resulting in claims of murder – both attempted and actual – and a federal conviction.
3. Long ShotStream now on Netflix
We mention the old cliche that truth is stranger than fiction a few times in this feature – it’s key to the appeal of the true crime genre after all – but in Long Shot, truth and fiction are tightly intertwined. When a 16-year-old girl was tragically shot dead in Los Angeles back in 2003, 24-year-old Juan Catalan was charged with her murder. Catalan’s alibi that he was at a baseball game initially proved difficult to verify, until comedian Larry David unwittingly came to his aid in the most bizarre way imaginable.
4. Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial KillerStream now on Netflix
Richard Ramirez was an infamous serial killer who stalked the streets of LA in the mid–1980s, earning him the Night Stalker moniker. By the time of his capture and conviction at the end of the decade, he faced a rap sheet of 13 murders, 11 sexual assaults, five attempted murders and 14 burglaries. The Hunt for a Serial Killer doesn’t benefit from the pivotal twist that so many of the best true crime documentaries have – Ramirez quite clearly dunnit – but it does offer a fascinating look into the investigation that led to his incarceration.
5. Making a MurdererStream now on Netflix
Landing on Netflix towards the end of 2015, the first series of Making a Murderer arguably kicked off the whole true crime documentary craze. Painstakingly put together by Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, it recounts the story of Stephen Avery, an American man who served 18 years in prison for an assault and attempted murder he didn’t commit. After finally being exonerated in 2005, Avery was then convicted of a completely separate murder in 2007, prompting accusations of a cover-up by local authorities.
6. Wild Wild CountryStream now on Netflix
Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (aka Osho) was an Indian mystic and guru who founded a controversial spiritual movement in the ’70s. In the early ’80s, sinister elements of Osho’s then Oregon-based cult begin to manifest themselves, including coercion, political corruption, arson, assault, and wire tapping. This all culminated in the attempted assassination of an attorney in the first recorded case of bioterrorism on US soil. All in all, it’s another fine example of truth often being far stranger than fiction.
7. Evil GeniusStream now on Netflix
Evil Genius investigates a crime so dastardly, it appears to have been lifted from a Hollywood thriller. It’s 2003, and pizza delivery driver Brian Wells walks into a bank with a bomb collar around his neck. If he doesn’t pick up $250,000 and follow a torturous trail of clues, the bomb will explode. His grizzly demise made the news at the time, and the culprit was soon found to be one Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, a deeply intelligent yet disturbed woman. Just as fascinating as the case itself is the subsequent correspondence between Diehl-Armstrong and the film makers.
8. The Devil Next DoorStream now on Netflix
The Devil Next Door raises the true crime stakes by dealing with arguably the ultimate felony. In 1985, Ukrainian citizen John Demjanjuk was arrested under the suspicion that he was actually “Ivan the Terrible”, the sadistic Nazi guard who worked in the Treblinka death camp during the Second World War. This documentary follows the subsequent trial that took place in Israel, of which there was already a mountain of film, and adds witness testimony and contextual archival footage. It also focuses on Demjanjuk’s attorney, who became “the most hated man in Israel” during the trial.
9. The Sons of Sam: A Descent Into DarknessStream now on Netflix
The spate of murders committed by the self-proclaimed “Son of Sam” in late-’70s New York attracted huge attention at the time. Indeed, the killer’s tendency to leave sinister letters mocking efforts to capture him were enthusiastically published by the press, granting him a morbid form of celebrity. Ultimately, 24-year-old postal worker David Berkowitz was arrested and convicted of eight shootings after a full confession. This four-part doc demonstrates how Son of Sam got into a nation’s psyche, not least through the lingering obsession of a reporter who questioned the official verdict.
10. American Manhunt: The Boston Marathon BombingStream now on Netflix
American Manhunt deals with the bombing of the 2013 Boston marathon, which killed three people and injured 200 more. As the name suggests, this three-part documentary tracks the ensuing frenetic four-day search for the two brothers responsible for the atrocity. It also attempts to offer a more holistic view of the event, gaining testimony from victims, emergency services, and even friends of the perpetrators. It also runs through the trial of the lone surviving bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who is currently on death row for his part in the crime.
11. Abducted in Plain SightStream now on Netflix
Years before her rapid-fire trilogy of devastatingly accomplished Netflix documentaries (Girl in the Picture, I Just Killed My Dad, Sins of Our Mother), Skye Borgman directed Abducted in Plain Sight. It covers the abuse and consecutive kidnappings of Jan Broberg by a close family friend, Robert Berchtold, in the 1970s. While much opprobrium is obviously levelled at the abuser, the documentary also raises serious questions about Broberg’s parents, whose naively permissive behaviour seems to stray well past any normal standards of ignorance. It’s genuinely gobsmacking stuff.
12. The FamilyStream now on Netflix
The Family delves into a rightwing conservative Christian organisation that has for decades influenced US politics without much in the way of public scrutiny. It might sound like the mad ravings of a conspiracy theorist, but it’s actually the assertion of this five-part documentary series from Trails Scott. Utilising dramatic reconstructions to paint a picture of sinister indoctrination and cult-like initiation ceremonies, The Family isn’t exactly what you’d call a forensic examination, but it does pose some interesting questions in light of the direction that American politics has gone in recent years.
13. Girl in the PictureStream now on Netflix
True crime maestro Skye Borgman directs this scarcely believable documentary about a young 20-year-old woman, known as Sharon Marshall, who was the apparent victim of a hit-and-run incident in 1990. An investigation unravels a tragic thread of deceit, abuse, murder and suffering that goes back decades – and even extends beyond her death. Given the bleakness of the subject material, not to mention a number of sensational twists and turns, Girl in the Picture handles the story with admirable restraint.
14. I Just Killed My DadStream now on Netflix
Skye Borgman followed up the devastating Girl in the Picture (found elsewhere on this list) with this limited series documentary, and it’s no less hard-hitting. It carefully follows the story of young Anthony Templet who, aged just 17, took two guns and shot his father before calmly reporting the crime to police. The rest of the series deals with the knotty context behind the killing, involving a tragically abusive upbringing that left Anthony barely capable of functioning in normal society.
15. The Innocent ManStream now on Netflix
Based in part on John Grisham’s only non-fiction book, The Innocent Man is a six-part documentary series that tracks two murder cases in early-’80s small town Oklahoma. With confessions obtained for both crimes, they appear to be simple open and shut cases. However, as you might expect (not least from that title), the series then proceeds to forensically take each case apart, with the occasional interjection from the aforementioned star author. If your faith in the justice system isn’t shaken by the end, you might need to find another genre to obsess over.
16. The Confession KillerStream now on Netflix
Henry Lee Lucas came to be known as the most prolific serial killer of the 20th century after admitting to hundreds of murders in the mid-’80s. The only trouble was, he seemingly wasn’t responsible for any of them. Evidence suggests that Lucas was little more than a troubled man with an uncanny ability to eke out incriminating case details from investigators. Lucas’s confessions were then used by unscrupulous or incompetent law enforcement to score easy wins. The media storm that followed reveals as much about our own thirst for scandal as it does the titular serial confessor.
17. Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy RichStream now on Netflix
The case of Jeffrey Epstein has to be one of the most heinous high-profile crimes of recent times. This billionaire financier used his wealth and elite connections to procure and sexually abuse women and children across a period of decades, somehow dodging accountability with a 2005 plea deal before his (deeply suspicious) death in 2019 while in jail awaiting trial. Filthy Rich concisely runs through the case against Epstein, including testimony from some of his many victims, as well as those in the press and law enforcement who strove to bring him to justice.
18. Madoff: The Monster of Wall StreetStream now on Netflix
In 2008, it was discovered Wall Street financier Bernie Madoff had run a decades-spanning Ponzi scheme that defrauded thousands of investors of some $64.8 billion. He was sentenced to 150 years in prison, where he died in 2021. This four part docuseries pulls together testimonies from employees, investigators, journalists, victims, whistleblowers, and even Madoff himself to determine how he was able to pull the wool over regulators’ eyes for so long. Madoff may have done both the crime and the time, but there are plenty more liable parties to point the finger at.
19. Sins of our MotherStream now on Netflix
If you wanted to make up a story that hit all of the major Netflix true crime beats, it would probably look a lot like Sins of our Mother. It has improbable twists and turns, religious fanaticism, murder, and deeply dysfunctional family dynamics. This three-episode series introduces us to Lori Vallow, an American mother who – along with fifth husband Chad Daybell – stands accused of the murder of four family members. Stir in a strong background note of disturbing apocalyptic beliefs, and you have yourself a grim true crime Bingo.
20. The KeepersStream now on Netflix
This seven-part 2017 documentary tackles the unsolved murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik, a nun serving at a Baltimore high school during the 1960s. Today, Cesnik’s students believe that the Catholic Church itself had a hand in covering up the killing after the nun caught wind of allegations against Anthony Joseph Maskella, a local priest who faced multiple allegations of sexual abuse. The Keepers doesn’t provide the satisfying resolution that these victims deserve, but it does serve as a harrowing insight into institutional corruption and the lasting effects of childhood abuse.
These are the best new Netflix documentaries you need to be watching...