TV shows that I can learn something from?
July 26, 2010 10:38 AM   Subscribe

What are some great, informative TV series? Carl Sagan's Cosmos, Ken Burns's Jazz, Matthew Colling's This Is Modern Art, Robert Winston's The Human Body--what else is in this vein? I'd much rather a recommendation of a series, as opposed to a single one-off documentary. What should I watch that is captivating and teaches me something?
posted by surenoproblem to Media & Arts (70 answers total) 173 users marked this as a favorite
James Burkes' Connections is dated but still super terrific. He links together a bunch of scientific stuff in an interesting timeline and the quirky presentation makes it really engaging.
posted by jessamyn at 10:40 AM on July 26, 2010 [24 favorites]

Discovering Psychology with Phillip Zimbardo

Kind of old, but you can still find it online.
posted by jander03 at 10:41 AM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Secret Life of Machines
posted by Lucinda at 10:42 AM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

30 Days, with Morgan Spurlock. I especially enjoyed the episode when he went to jail for 30 days to see just how hopeless it is.
posted by bondcliff at 10:46 AM on July 26, 2010

A bit more pedestrian than Cosmos, sure, but Dirty Jobs is endlessly informative.
posted by kate blank at 10:46 AM on July 26, 2010 [4 favorites]

Guns, Germs and Steel presented by Jared Diamond. Only three episodes, so not as expansive as Cosmos or Connections, but still quite good.
posted by nathan_teske at 10:46 AM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Life of Mammals with David Attenborough. He also has other series.
posted by TrarNoir at 10:49 AM on July 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

Planet Earth

I'm not a huge Ken Burns fan, but he has done several other series besides Jazz.
posted by box at 10:55 AM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Power of Myth. Joseph Campbell interviewed by Moyers
posted by Some1 at 10:57 AM on July 26, 2010 [3 favorites]

No recommendation for Good Eats yet?

There's a lot of subjective stuff and people don't always agree with Alton's recommendations, but it's a pretty good show.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 10:58 AM on July 26, 2010 [4 favorites]

Sister Wendy has done several series informing her audience on the history of art. She narrates all of it in a delightful South African accent, and when she doesn't like something she not only says so, but she explains why she doesn't like it.
posted by pickypicky at 11:00 AM on July 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

Howard Goodall has done several very good classical music documentary series for Channel Four in the UK. The most recent is How Music Works which is up on YouTube.
posted by smackfu at 11:00 AM on July 26, 2010

Ways of Seeing by John Berger.
It's a critique of western visual art from the 1970s produced by the BBC. You can find it on youtube.
posted by bryghtrose at 11:00 AM on July 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

I don't have a TV anymore, but when I did, I enjoyed Life After People on the History Channel. Sure, it's speculative, but I found it both entertaining and informative.

I'm not sure if it's still on, but you can watch episodes online...

Oh, and I second Dirty Jobs and Good Eats.
posted by patheral at 11:02 AM on July 26, 2010

The History of Rock and Roll. 10 part series. Very long and informative.
posted by Plug1 at 11:04 AM on July 26, 2010

Civilisation by Kenneth Clark and Ascent of Man by Dr. Jacob Bronowski. Sister Wendy is good. There was another one I watched about 10 years ago, something about empires of oil. It documented the complete global history of the petroleum industry.
posted by kookywon at 11:06 AM on July 26, 2010 [3 favorites]

Seconding James Burke (in addition to three seasons of Connections, also check out The Day the Universe Changed.) Also: anything by Simon Schama.
posted by ambrosia at 11:08 AM on July 26, 2010

It was called The Prize
posted by kookywon at 11:08 AM on July 26, 2010

Knowing nothing about the military, Ground War is fascinating. Like someone mentioned, Guns, Germs, and Steel. It contains some very powerful ideas that will change the way you think about civilization. I once tried watching the Power of Myth but became bored. Don't forget about Planet Earth and Life and Earth's Greatest Events .
posted by pinside at 11:10 AM on July 26, 2010

Monsters Inside Me on Animal Planet is pretty great. Good info and disturbing animations of all sorts of parasites. Also nthing Dirty Jobs (I heart Mike Rowe) and Good Eats.
posted by bolognius maximus at 11:12 AM on July 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

Everything Simon Schama has made, the History of Britain, Power of Art and the American Future are all AWESOME, I have such a massive dude-crush on this guy right now. The Universe series on History channel is fun though it's sort of heavily black and neon-y primary in color scheme and leaves me feeling really lonely and weird if I watch a bunch back-to-back. PBS's Empire series is totally essential and chock full of awesomeness. Also (just peeking at the various series I'm working through in my Netflix queue), PBS American Experience, BBC's Planet Earth (best thing ever on television), PBS's Commanding Heights about the rise of globalism, PBS's This Emotional Life about psychology, Slavery and the Making of America, PBS series on Evolution, PBS series on New York, PBS series on Chicago, Liberty! the American Revolution, HBO's Art21 (contemporary artists profiled and speaking on their work), HBO's E-sqaured about sustainability, China: a Century of Revolution, BBC's Oceans.

That's probably enough. As you can tell, this is basically all I do with my life at the moment.
posted by The Straightener at 11:16 AM on July 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

Art in the 21st Century
posted by bgrebs at 11:18 AM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Another good one is 20th Century Battlefields. Eight parts, each one going through the tactics and strategy of a particular battle. It's shown fairly regularly on History Channel International.
posted by smackfu at 11:18 AM on July 26, 2010

I know you said you'd rather have a multi-parter, but Confederate States of America is something every documentary-lover should watch.
posted by griphus at 11:22 AM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

BBC's Genius of Photography
posted by domographer at 11:23 AM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Thirding the wonderful James Burke's Connections and The Day the Universe Changed. The first Connections series was the single most influential and educational documentary series I've ever seen. I first saw it when I was about 11, and still watch them today. I just finished a marathon of all his series', and by the end it had me all fired up to get my Master's in history, and the application stuff is coming to me in a few days. For a few days there, I was drunk on history, information, and the connections, man.

Ah, nothing better the getting my learn on.
posted by chambers at 11:24 AM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

nthing Art21
posted by jardinier at 11:24 AM on July 26, 2010

Ken Burns' Baseball
posted by brand-gnu at 11:25 AM on July 26, 2010

I assume you aren't looking for kids stuff like Sesame Street.

I pretty much learned to cook by watching TV. Good Eats, America's Test Kitchen, old Julia Child stuff, Rick Bayless is good.

Travel is another good genre where you can learn a lot. Rick Steves is great, and Burt Wolfe is informative.

PBS is a good source. Nature and Nova especially. Nova also has a spinoff, Nova Science Now (Neil deGrasse Tyson is awesome).

Discovery and Science channel also have some good series, but you have to wade through their crap sometimes.

You can also catch reruns of older kids shows, like Bill Nye the Science guy.
posted by I am the Walrus at 11:25 AM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Terry Jones has done some entertaining documentaries, including The Crusades and Medieval Lives.

I've also enjoyed the BBC's Rough Science series.
posted by chrisulonic at 11:31 AM on July 26, 2010

There's a lot of great David Attenborough stuff (Planet Earth, etc...), but I somehow learned a lot from Life in the Undergrowth. Perhaps because of the horror of seeing insects that close.
posted by thermogenesis at 11:44 AM on July 26, 2010

Stephen Fry in America. Taught me quite a bit about my own home that I never knew.

Richard Hammond's Invisible Worlds is a short but neat series showing all sorts of ways of looking at the world that you might not have ever seen before.
posted by quin at 11:45 AM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

I also enjoyed Battle 360.
posted by bgrebs at 11:53 AM on July 26, 2010

Seconding the Genius of Photography. For me it was a real jaw dropper (like finding out how old Lartigue actually was). Also, The Wire is a great series if you are looking forward to running a succesful drug operation (which includes getting your MBA). If you can't cook and like to pretend you can, watch some Jamie Oliver and if you can't cook and really want to learn to cook Oriental style food, try yourself some Ken Hom. (he truly is one of my idols, I started watching him, way back when he still had some hair on his head and I hear him speak in my left ear whenever I pull one of my woks from the drawers).
posted by ouke at 12:01 PM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Robert Hughes' The Shock of the New.
posted by Dr.Pill at 12:05 PM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Pretty much any of the Adam Curtis series (nearly all of them available at will give you a different view of history and how modern government and lifestyles came to be. Many many hours of good viewing there.
posted by hippybear at 12:12 PM on July 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

I enjoyed The ascent of man as a child, but by now it may be pretty dated. More recently I was fascinated by The staircase (also known under various other titles) though I understand that it's been criticised for its level of bias regarding the murder and the subsequent trial that are its subject matter.
posted by rjs at 12:20 PM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Mechanical Universe on google videos. A Caltech & Annenberg CPB Project series of almost every thing physics (and it's history) related. From 1985, so a little dated but still excellent and pretty comprehensive.
posted by zengargoyle at 12:27 PM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Adventures in Architecture with Dan Cruickshank.

ymmv - I read some reviews that called it boring, but we found it utterly fascinating.
posted by onell at 12:39 PM on July 26, 2010

Simon Schama's Power of Art, and A History of Britain. Both are fascinating.
posted by kiltedtaco at 12:54 PM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ditto Guns, Germs, & Steel and Stephen Fry in America.

I like Simon Schama's Power of Art a lot. The music consistently awesome although a soundtrack listing is aggravatingly unavailable as far as I can tell.

on preview, a jinx on you kiltedtaco.
posted by juv3nal at 1:00 PM on July 26, 2010

Only a 4-part BBC series but still, I found it both fascinating and entertaining - The Human Face (hosted by John Cleese!!)

(also sorry if it was linked above and I missed it)
posted by mannequito at 1:04 PM on July 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

The power of Nightmares.
posted by jerkfaceirl at 1:17 PM on July 26, 2010

Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe series. It's a tv show about how tv shows work. From Wikipedia: "Srceenwipe is a television programme about television programmes; the cost, the surprising amount of work and bureaucracy involved, how programmes are selected for broadcast and (usually scathing) analysis of specific programmes and genres." It's also really, really funny.

The Blue Planet is a 8 episode BBC documentary about Earth's oceans.

Life is a 10 episode BBC documentary about, well, (mostly animal) life on Earth. "The opening programme gives a general introduction to the series, and the remainder are dedicated to the major animal groups, except the 9th which looks at plants. They aim to show common features that have contributed to the success of each group, and to document intimate and dramatic moments in the lives of selected species chosen for their charisma or their extraordinary behaviour."
posted by nooneyouknow at 1:27 PM on July 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

A couple more warry type ones if you're into that,

The World at War which is a 26 episode British television series about WWII that originally aired in 1973-74. It's the gold standard for WWII stuff, I just watched all 22 hours of it, it's mostly raw newsreel footage with Sir Laurence Olivier narrating.

The First World War, the complete series, which is analogous to the World at War, I just started into this one and so far it's pretty good.

Vietnam, a Television History which uses old news footage. It's part of the aforementioned PBS American Experience Series.

And if war isn't your thing you could go with Pornography: a Secret History of Civilization, which was a British TV series in the late 90s.
posted by The Straightener at 1:40 PM on July 26, 2010

The Universe is a great one that I didn't see mention already.

Also if you like Life (mentioned above by nooneyouknow) then you'll probably like Planet Earth (already mentioned by others a few times). Life is the follow up to Planet Earth so if you like one, you'll probably enjoy the other though I like Planet Earth slightly better.

About The Universe:
From the planets to the stars and out to the edge of the unknown, history and science collide in HISTORY's popular series THE UNIVERSE, now back for its fourth season. With ground-breaking new discoveries and even more stunning high-definition computer animations, it's a wondrous yet deadly adventure through space and time. Fifty years have flown by since man first ventured into outer space, but the heavens are only now yielding their greatest secrets. Like the recent destructive impact on Jupiter reported to be by a comet or asteroid nearly the size of Earth, new phenomena are being discovered almost daily. Scientists are finding new planets and views into the deepest reaches of space, breaking new ground in understanding the universe and its mysteries. In this new season, viewers are transported to new and mysterious places including ones we didn't even know existed a year ago -- some harboring deadly forces that may forever impact life on Earth.

About Planet Earth:
More than five years in the making, Planet Earth redefines blue-chip natural history filmmaking and continues the Discovery Channel's mission to provide the highest-quality programming in the world. The series will amaze viewers with never-before-seen animal behaviors, startling views of locations captured by cameras for the first time, and unprecedented high-definition production techniques. Award-winning actress and conservationist Sigourney Weaver narrates.
posted by ogunther at 1:48 PM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

In addition to many things already mentioned, I'd go for:

The Mark Steel Lectures. Biographies of historical figures, passionately but humorously presented. For example, Lord Byron.

Alain de Botton's TV stuff usually has some content of value, though he winds some people up a bit, I know. Personally I think he's great. For example, Socrates on Self-Confidence from his Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness.
posted by galaksit at 2:07 PM on July 26, 2010

All You Need Is Love is an excellant multipart documentary on the history of rock and roll. Don't be put off that it was first broadcast in 1977; it's a fascinating look at the history of popular music up to that time, including jazz, blues, ragtime, tinpan alley, early rock and so on.
posted by BozoBurgerBonanza at 2:20 PM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Another vote for Sister Wendy.

I also really enjoyed "Triumph of the Nerds" an old (1996) PBS documentary series on the start of the computer industry - worth the price of admission just for the interview with the one person at Xerox PARC who seemed to understand why it might be a bad idea to let Steve Jobs poke around.
posted by Mchelly at 2:30 PM on July 26, 2010

Wonders of the Solar System is the kind of big-budget science spectacular that the BBC does so well.
Modern Masters does the same thing for modern art. The Matisse episode in particular is fantastic.
posted by minifigs at 2:51 PM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Wonders of The Solar System
posted by BinaryApe at 2:51 PM on July 26, 2010

If only I hadn't double-checked that link before posting.
posted by BinaryApe at 2:52 PM on July 26, 2010

Definitely James Burke's "The Day the Universe Changed". I usually just pick an episode and jump in. Great stuff.
posted by Sutekh at 4:40 PM on July 26, 2010

Eyes On The Prize
posted by girlmightlive at 4:51 PM on July 26, 2010

To add more, the full title is Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years 1954-1965. It's terribly interesting.
posted by girlmightlive at 4:54 PM on July 26, 2010

The Ascent of Man
The Day the Universe Changed
Wonders of the Solar System
The Blue Planet
BBC Horizon
The Universe (You might notice the very enthusiastic Alex Fillippenko in The Universe, as well as a few other science shows like Known Universe. He has a Teaching Company course called Understanding the Universe: Introduction to Astronomy, which I wholeheartedly recommend if you don't mind watching lectures.)
The Mechanical Universe

If you liked Cosmos, you should like The Mechanical Universe. To me and a few other people out there, it's the "Cosmos of physics" (but much longer). This series has literally transformed me from an innumerate physics-phobe to someone who wakes up every morning and looks forward to continuing my math/physics self-education. I had a similar life-changing experience with Cosmos years ago.

Other science series I've been watching lately:
Known Universe
Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman
Exodus Earth
Nick Baker's Weird Creatures
posted by Faraday Cage at 6:15 PM on July 26, 2010

Good Eats is the only show on the Food Network I actually enjoy watching.
posted by Faraday Cage at 6:20 PM on July 26, 2010

Just to add a couple that I don't think have been mentioned yet:

David Macaulay did some shows with PBS that were based on his books (Castle, Pyramid, City). I'm not sure how available these are, though. I loved the books and the PBS shows when I was growing up.

PBS also often airs old episodes of Scientific American Frontiers, which I found pretty entertaining and informative.
posted by belau at 7:06 PM on July 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

Nthing Connections...there were three seasons of this although the first is by far the best.

While I won't link it here...there is an organization called MVGroup that posts documentary/educational torrents and they are TOP NOTCH. Seriously...most of my bandwidth goes to them.

Right now I'm hooked on the Ray Mears 'Wild Food' series where he goes around and looks at the history of what our first ancestors ate in various parts of the world. Its like crossing his more survival focused stuff with a great historic documentary.
posted by Elminster24 at 7:09 PM on July 26, 2010

I had two very different and immediate reactions to your post.

One, I learned a ton about World War II from HBO's "Band of Brothers" and "The Pacific." For me, "The Pacific" was especially enlightening; something about my education left out a lot of what went on in that theater and taught me about Europe instead.

Two, and closer to home, I've been endlessly fascinated by the things discovered on the History Channel's "Pawn Stars" and "American Pickers." Neither show is quite what I expected at first, and both have that wonderful quality of showing me that people who know a lot about a few things and a little about a lot of things are awesome. I've seen inventions and technologies I never knew existed, and I never watch "Pawn Stars" without my laptop or iPad handy for followup reading.
posted by kostia at 9:10 PM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh! And "The Story of English." i don't know if it's on DVD but it must be. Man, that was great stuff.
posted by kostia at 9:12 PM on July 26, 2010

David Attenborough's The life of birds
Eureka! "These short programs are designed to present concepts in physics, using comic animation to illustrate the concepts." You can find episodes on youtube
posted by ljesse at 9:40 PM on July 26, 2010

The Ascent of Money is an impressive documentary series with a grand narrative.
posted by sien at 10:00 PM on July 26, 2010

Hmm, no one's mentioned Tony Robinson's The Worst Jobs in History ... I enjoyed that. It's no The Day the Universe Changed or Connections, but then, what is?
posted by mumkin at 10:55 PM on July 26, 2010

I loved the BBC's Chemistry: A Volatile History (three parts), but I'm not sure if they are releasing it on DVD which is a shame. I think bits of it are on youtube.
posted by jzed at 8:31 AM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you've already gone through a detailed particle physics series, there will be a lot of repeat info, but The Eleagant Universe is an entertaining explanation of grand unification theory and string theory.
posted by anotherbrick at 9:33 AM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Genius of Design is another bbc documentary that delves into the history and ontology of an everyday art. I've been watching it on this slightly sketchy Chinese site.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 5:31 AM on July 28, 2010

One of the most (surprisingly) interesting doco I've seen was the Seven Wonders of the Industrial World. I couldn't care less for engineerng or architecture, but it's fascinating how they constructed some of these places.
posted by Saebrial at 8:32 AM on July 30, 2010

When We Left Earth - The NASA Missions. NASA's role in Mankind's greatest adventure. This is exciting and informative with some of the most beautiful space and rocket photography ever.
posted by storybored at 7:29 PM on August 1, 2010

I'd recommend "Inside Nature's Giants". It's not everyone's cup of tea because it involves necropsies (i.e. animal autopsies) but it blew me away. The programs look at the lifestyles and the evolution, and adaptations, that make the animals special. Series one looks at (and in) an Asian elephant, a Fin whale, a crocodile and a Rothschild giraffe. Series two looks at a great white shark, a Burmese python, and a lion and tiger (which were dissected side-by-side). Fascinating.
posted by jonesor at 3:22 PM on October 3, 2010

« Older Should I build a roof to shade my air conditioner?   |   Edible Freezer Archeology Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.