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 is simultaneously a work of entertainment and sociological research. 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.
If you're a fan of the gangster story, you can appreciate the difficulty in attempting to compare a great, one off, film like The Godfather or Goodfellas, with an equally great long arch TV serial like the Sopranos or Boardwalk Empire. There is a completely different experience involved. The long story arch reveals itself more slowly, with more detail and nuance. This is the nature of the difference between this series and your standard documentary.
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, there was a young researcher on that original installment who was to go on to have an extremely successful career as a film director, working on a range of material stretching from the Gorillas in the Mist to 007. Michael Apted had a different idea about the potential of that project begun in 1964. Instead of waiting for the 21st century, he took his cameras back to catch up with the kids seven years later, when they where 14. And he's gone back every seven years ever since. The result has been one of the most extraordinary cinematic documents of all time.
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.
Whether it is compelling television is of course a matter of opinion. Some viewers complain either that nothing happens or that it's all simply too mundane. These people are no more interesting than me and my friends. Why would we want to watch a TV show about ourselves when we can just be ourselves and see it live, as it were?
For the fans of the series, however, such criticism seems to be entirely missing the whole point. What is remarkable about this series is the transformation of the mundane into the sublime by turning the spotlight upon it. The heroism and humor, the small personal triumphs and tragedies of all our lives, are somehow dignified and ennobled as we watch these 14 people struggle through their own lives.
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.
At the heart of the whole enterprise, though, is a bit of a paradox, which I'm never quite clear about how aware of it the documentarians are. The notion that it captures real lives; the original assumption that socio-economic origins would be charted through the years as determining life choices, this whole founding fabric seems peculiarly blind to the impact 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.
The less famous, but more apt comparison here would be the Hawthorne experiments, conducted at a Western Electric plant in the 1920-30s. Sociologists studied the practices of the workers, but the former eventually came to the conclusion that the very experience of being studied actually changed the practices 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.
In some ways, even more that the genuinely moving story of the 14, coming of age, it is that conundrum which most intrigues me as I watch the series. It is a remarkable document that reveals almost as much about the hubris of the filmmakers as the lives of their subjects.