There's nothing like a chilling true crime story to help keep you on the straight and narrow. Netflix has taken notice of our collective interest in real crime stories, and it continuously delivers stellar documentaries and docuseries about incidents that happened in real life. With an ever-expanding list of choices, we know how hard it can be to land on something special. So, to help you choose your next nail-biting venture, here's EW's list of the best true crime documentaries on Netflix.
<i>Abducted in Plain Sight</i> (2017)
The thought of your child being taken from you is every parent's worst nightmare, which makes the lack of intervention in this twisted story all the more upsetting. Abducted in Plain Sight, also known as Forever B, recounts the two different kidnappings of a pre-teen Jan Broberg in the 1970s by her neighbor Robert Berchtold, the way he infiltrated her entire family's lives, and the stranger-than-fiction experiences she was subjected to. (Hint: aliens make an appearance.) While the true crime genre prides itself on keeping you guessing, we seriously doubt you're prepared for the realities of how Berchtold was able to get away with it. Have fun screaming at your television!
Director: Skye Borgman
<i>American Murder: The Family Next Door</i> (2020)
This unusual documentary examines the heart-wrenching true story of what happened to Shanann Watts and her children when they disappeared from their Colorado home in 2018. Playing out as a found-footage film, American Murder: The Family Next Door is unique in that it unravels the details without traditional narration or extra dramatization. Instead, the chilling events unfold through the use of home movies, social media posts, phone calls, text messages, newscasts, and security footage from police officers and interrogation rooms. The result is an eerily intimate view into a terrible tragedy, and the film will leave you pondering the many public theories that have since come to light.
Director: Jenny Popplewell
<i>Athlete A</i> (2020)
This award-winning documentary follows the revelation that USA Gymnastics (USAG) doctor Larry Nassar had been sexually assaulting countless female athletes under his care. The exposé began when reporters at The Indianapolis Star got a tip that they should investigate USAG. As the truth slowly came out, gymnast Maggie Nichols (referred to as "Athlete A" to protect her identity) was key to shedding light on the abuses that had been going on for years, supposedly with a nod from at least one of the organization's higher-ups. One of the rare examples of true crime being inspiring, Athlete A is a valuable record of recent history and a beacon of accountability.
EW grade: A- (read the review)
Director: Bonni Cohen, Jon Shenk
<i>Cocaine Cowboys</i> (2021)
This fast-paced, gritty docuseries dives into the drug wars of the 1980s and how cocaine — and the money that followed it — transformed south Florida. The film describes the heyday of drug trafficking in Miami in particular, exploring how the kingpins held power through scare tactics and keeping the body count sky high. With detailed interviews, crime scene photos, and fascinating stories, Cocaine Cowboys gives us a behind-the-scenes look into a world that seems far away.
Director: Billy Corben
<i>Dirty Money</i> (2018–2020)
Corporate corruption is always entertaining, and Dirty Money carries that torch further. Each episode in its two seasons takes a deep dive into how greed, creative accounting, and outright fraud can cause widespread damage while those in the know make out like bandits. True incidents like the Volkswagen emissions scandal and the underhanded actions behind the growth of Wells Fargo are brought to life through interviews with both victims of these financial crimes and those who committed them. It's as infuriating as it is entertaining, and it's a great way to get a fully fleshed-out true crime story in quick hit episodes.
<i>Evil Genius: The True Story of America's Most Diabolical Bank Heist</i> (2018)
It's not hard to see how the murder of Brian Wells in 2003 — now known as the "collar bomb" or "pizza bomber" case — still piques the curiosity of true crime enthusiasts even two decades later. This four-part docuseries reveals that nothing is as it seems, given that Wells may have actually been under duress himself when he tried to rob a bank in Erie, Pa., in 2003. Tune in for the twisted timeline of events that led to a senseless murder, and stay for the fascinating correspondence the directors maintained with the alleged mastermind behind the robbery-gone-wrong.
Director: Barbara Schroeder, Trey Borzillieri
<i>The Family</i> (2019)
For some people, few things are scarier than a religious cult — unless that cult is also pulling the strings behind a powerful government. That's exactly what The Family claims is going on in Washington, D.C., as an influential group of Christian men called the Fellowship Foundation wields its influence to bring about its favored goals on a global scale. The five-part limited series teases out the few known details about the group, shedding light on the many conspiracy theories that surround its members, practices, and ambitions. If even just some of the criminal activity alleged in the series is true, it's pretty diabolical stuff.
<i>Girl in the Picture</i> (2022)
This one's for the die-hard mystery lovers. When a woman is found dying on a roadside leaving behind a husband (or so he says) and son, it seems like an open-and-shut case of a tragic hit-and-run accident. However, discovering her true identity and what happened to her son after her death was a daunting task for the FBI and other authorities — exposing how a federal fugitive had kidnapped and abused the young woman decades prior. With more twists and turns than a long and winding road, Girl in the Picture offers an unforgettable ride.
Director: Skye Borgman
<i>Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich</i> (2020)
Based on the 2016 book of the same name by James Patterson, this docuseries details the criminal case against convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Over four episodes, Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich explains how the billionaire leveraged his wealth, power, and connections to continue committing these crimes for years. Featuring interviews with victims, including Virginia Giuffre and Maria Farmer, former staff members, and law enforcement, it's a harrowing tale you think you've seen play out in the news, but trust us — this docuseries reveals much more of the story.
Director: Lisa Bryant
<i>The Keepers</i> (2017)
The most affecting cold case docuseries on Netflix is without a doubt the still-unsolved murder of Sister Catherine Cesnik. In 1969, the young nun was an English and drama teacher at a private all-girls high school in Baltimore before she went missing. Her body was found in 1970, and we learn through interviews with former students that she suspected a priest at the school of sexually abusing students. Each episode leaves you with more questions than answers, and by the end, there's still no definite conclusion. But the story leaves its mark nonetheless, with EW's critic praising The Keepers as "synthesized with the compounds that have rejuvenated this very old, often dubious genre and made it a buzzy, conscionable kick."
EW grade: A- (read the review)
Director: Ryan White
<i>Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey</i> (2022)
This isn't just another crazy cult story. Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey documents the meteoric rise and fall of Warren Jeffs, the leader and self-proclaimed prophet in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), and how he manipulated young girls into an abusive polygamous relationship with him. Directors Rachel Dretzin and Grace McNally interviewed survivors to get to the heart of what happened to so many women who thought they were following a holy path — and what it took for them to finally summon the courage to escape.
EW grade: A- (read the review)
Director: Rachel Dretzin, Grace McNally
<i>The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker</i> (2023)
After a video of Caleb "Kai" McGillvary animatedly recounting a crime he witnessed (and stopped with his hatchet) while hitchhiking in California in 2013 went viral, the young man became a national sensation. However, as the overnight spotlight drew cheers from admirers of his heroism across the country, it also caught the attention of authorities in New Jersey who thought Kai may be responsible for a murder on the east coast. This true crime documentary shows how the media's quick obsession with the Canadian fueled his rise to fame and played a major part in his 2019 murder trial. Even if you haven't seen the video, you've probably seen a meme, song, or another piece of pop culture referencing Kai's memorable reenactment of "smash, smash, smash" — and The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker does a great job of telling the much larger, darker story.
Director: Colette Camden
<i>Madoff: The Monster of Wall Street</i> (2023)
Chronicling the crimes of disgraced financier Bernie Madoff, the four-part docuseries details how he pulled off one of the biggest Ponzi schemes in history, taking Wall Street for a ride we'll be referencing for decades to come. Using interviews with victims, former employees, whistleblowers, investigators, and never-before-seen footage of depositions given by Madoff himself, it's clear that he's a master of manipulation, though the filmmakers point to the failure of regulators to act on the many red flags they saw along the way.
Director: Joe Berlinger
Related content: Kevin Bacon lost 'most' of his money in Bernie Madoff ponzi scheme
<i>Making a Murderer</i> (2015–2018)
Over two seasons, viewers are walked through the events that landed Steven Avery in prison for nearly 20 years before he was eventually exonerated, only to end up back behind bars once accused of murdering a young photographer on his property. However, things are not as straightforward as they seem, with the docuseries generating plenty of publicity and calls to release Avery, all while Wisconsin officials cry foul over its depiction of their work. The show became a sensation, with EW's A-rated review declaring, "It's not only a gripping true-crime story, it's also the most moral one I've seen in a long time."
EW grade: A (read the review)
Director: Moira Demos, Laura Ricciardi
Related content: New documentary series will follow up on Making a Murderer
<i>Our Father</i> (2022)
As far as true crime documentaries go, this one shows how dreams can actually become the stuff of nightmares without any murder or gory mayhem. Our Father details the shock and horror several people experienced when they learned they are in fact half-siblings fathered by Donald Cline, a popular fertility doctor in Indianapolis who used his own sperm to impregnate dozens of patients without their knowledge. The film takes us through the families' discoveries and reveals the most unsettling truth of all: There's little, if any, accountability for this kind of fertility fraud.
Director: Lucie Jourdan
Related content: What to Watch: Our Father is a harrowing fertility horror story
<i>Sins of Our Mother</i> (2022)
Sins of Our Mother is not for the faint of heart. Through firsthand accounts, viewers are introduced to Lori Vallow and her descent into intense religious fanaticism, with beliefs that people are filled with either "dark" or "light" spirits (or worse, spiritless "zombies" she and her fifth husband were tasked with killing off), that she could communicate with angels, and that the world would end in 2020. Soon, people started to turn up dead or missing, including two of Vallow's children — and this limited docuseries examines the build-up and aftermath of the troubled mother's alleged crimes. Even those who are only mildly interested in true crime stories won't be able to turn away from this one.
Director: Skye Borgman
<i>The Staircase</i> (2004–2018)
This 13-episode true crime miniseries covers the murder trial of Michael Peterson, a novelist who was accused of killing his wife, Kathleen, in their home after police found her bloody body at the bottom of a staircase. The question facing law enforcement seems straightforward enough: Was Kathleen's death a cold-blooded murder or an honest accident? But when Michael's secrets and a bit of international intrigue get thrown into the mix, everything starts to get hazy. The family at the center is left questioning everything as a documentary crew films their journey right from the start. With universal acclaim and real footage from the courtroom and family interviews over several years, The Staircase is one of the most intriguing true crime series on Netflix.
Director: Jean-Xavier de Lestrade
<i>Tiger King</i> (2020)
The drama that erupted between feuding big cat keepers "Joe Exotic" and Carole Baskin captivated audiences just as the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a standstill. Viewers were drawn into the world of the tiger trade in the heart of the nation, the bizarre characters that run the industry, and the various crimes they commit in their power struggle. With accusations of everything from animal abuse to attempted murder (plus a weird sex cult), Tiger King is one wildly entertaining true crime series.
Director: Eric Goode, Rebecca Chaiklin
<i>Wild Wild Country</i> (2018)
Wild Wild Country tells the story of the controversial Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, who set out to build his utopia in rural Oregon, much to the chagrin of local residents and ranchers. As tensions escalate, so does the growing cult, leaving the surrounding community cornered both physically and bureaucratically until their jaw-dropping last resort. The universally acclaimed docuseries is wildly devourable, and goes one step further by calling the audience's own values into question, testing the separation between church and state by turning the entire ideal on its head.
Director: Maxclain Way, Chapman Way
This creative docudrama examines the life and aftermath following the mysterious death of Frank Olson, a biological warfare scientist who worked for the CIA. Frank's son walks viewers through the strange events that led to his father's demise in 1953, including how the government's story about it evolved over time. And once sources start talking about Project MKUltra, viewers are in for quite the trip.
Director: Errol Morris