Onion ring scandals to deadly water parks: Watch these 5 docs when you need a break from true crime

As we're more hopeful about the state of the world, here are some viewing choices that are a little less grim

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published April 11, 2021 8:00AM (EDT)

Class Action Park (HBO Max)
Class Action Park (HBO Max)

I'm a huge fan of true crime, and while there were some great new additions to the genre  – my personal 2020 frontrunners are "Murder on Middle Beach" and "Heaven's Gate: Cult of Cults"  – this last year has also felt especially grim.

Now, as vaccination rates are up and much of the country is experiencing something that feels like normalcy and hope, many (including myself) are in the mood for viewing that's a little more uplifting. Think less gruesome murders and more onion ring scandals and Blockbuster nostalgia.

As such, I've gathered some of the must-watch documentaries from the last couple years — some of which you may have missed amid the pandemic — that are the perfect antidote for too many true crime binges. 

"The Mole Agent" (Hulu)

In a Chilean town outside of Santiago, Sergio Chamy answers an unusual newspaper ad: "ELDERLY MALE NEEDED. Retired, between 80 and 90 years old. Independent, discrete and competent with technology." He arrives at the office of a private investigator named Rómulo, who explains that a client is concerned that her mother, who has dementia, is perhaps being neglected — or even abused — in the nursing home facility where she resides. 

To prove or disprove these accusations, Rómulo needs someone to go undercover. That's where Sergio comes in. 

Sergio is a 83-year-old recent widower and has both the time to take the three-month case and the inclination to learn some new tricks to keep his mind occupied; he masters using FaceTime to signal Rómulo of suspicious activity at the nursing home, as well as a pair of straight-out-of-a-spy-flick glasses that actually double as a video camera. 

As soon as he hits the nursing home, a tidy facility with green space and gardens, Sergio makes a splash. He's stylish (I found myself envious of his blazer and sneaker combos!), polite and sharp. And, it should be noted, there are four men for every 40 women in the home. He spends his days snooping around, taking notes, advocating for his fellow residents — and occasionally, unintentionally breaking hearts. 

"The Mole Agent," which is directed by Maite Alberdi, is a really fun subversion of true crime; at certain points, its stylistic flourishes are almost reminiscent of the tongue-in-cheek neo-noir of "Bored to Death." But it is also an achingly poignant contemplation on aging, end-of-life care and autonomy. Alberdi straddles the line between the two tones quite deftly. It's no wonder that "The Mole Agent" has also been nominated in the best documentary category for this year's Oscars.

"The Ringmaster" (Amazon Prime)

I'm a sucker for documentaries that are displays of culinary mastery of a single dish or style of cooking, like "Jiro Dreams of Sushi" or "Funke." At the outset of "The Ringmaster," I assumed it would be another addition to the genre, though with decidedly more midwestern sensibilities (which my fried food- and county fair-loving heart would have adored). 

The film, after all, centers on Larry Lang, a Minnesota native, and his locally famous onion rings. However, the story that emerges from "The Ringmaster" is decidedly wilder and darker, as it becomes a documentary inside another documentary. 

It begins with amateur filmmaker Zachary Capp's desire to make a documentary or television show pilot about Lang's onion rings. He funnels a massive amount of his inheritance into filming Lang – a humble man of few words — but the drama needed for a blockbuster project isn't quite there, so Capp decides to intervene through a series of increasingly splashy setups. 

Capp arranges for Lang to make his onion rings at the Badlands Motor Speedway for the band KISS, which could result in a big-bucks deal with the track's concessions team. Larry bristles at both the pressure and the prospect of leaving his job at a local saloon. Later, Capp tries to convince Larry to work for the Las Vegas Raiders' concessions, which doesn't go as planned either. 

That's when crewmembers Molly Dworsky and Dave Newberg turn the cameras on Capp, chronicling how his addictive personality and drive for a bigger and better project impacted Lang's life. After watching the documentary, check out Salon's interview with Capp himself to get his side of the story.

"The Last Blockbuster" (Netflix)

It's admittedly kind of strange to watch a documentary about the decimation of Blockbuster on the platform that had a hand in its demise (though not as large of one as you might have thought). It's truly a twisted "Video Killed the Radio Star" moment, though the nostalgia trip is absolutely worth it. 

Directed by Taylor Morden and narrated by comedian Lauren Lapkus, "The Last Blockbuster'' centers on the lone, remaining location of the bankrupt video rental chain clinging to survival in Bend, Oregon. It's run by Sandi Harding, an upbeat local who refers to herself as "The Blockbuster Mom" because she estimates that she's given every teen in town a job at some point. She explains that while Blockbuster used to edge out local competitors by getting cheap movie copies though revenue-share deals with studios, she now turns to Target's discount aisle for many of the films she rents. 

There's some explanation of Blockbuster's initial rise and fall, blessedly acted out by puppets in suits sitting around a boardroom table rather than corporate talking heads, but the bulk of "The Last Blockbuster" is reminiscing from a smattering of celebrities — Kevin Smith, Jamie Kennedy, Adam Brody and members of the band Smashmouth — over the feelings Blockbuster inspired. 

There was something freeing about being turned loose before a slumber party to pick a movie or two and testing the limits to see if you could get the chaperoning parent to acquiesce to a PG-13 flick. Interviewees wax poetic about the "Blockbuster smell," which was a heady mix of plastic and popcorn, 

To borrow a phrase from the chain, be kind (to yourself) and rewind with this playful, occasionally bittersweet, documentary. 

"Class Action Park" (HBO Max)

In Vernon, New Jersey, a town that, as one resident described it, was once "poised to be the next Orlando," there was "a place where death was tolerated." It was called Action Park, a chaotic water park opened in 1978 without much oversight, too much alcohol and slides and rides designed by the engineers whom Disney wanted nothing to do with. 

"Class Action Park," which is directed by Seth Porges, explores the urban legends behind the park — which had rides with names like "Cannonball Loop" and was bifurcated by a busy highway — and the shady legal dealings that helped the park open and keep it operating, even when all common sense would say that it should have had the water turned off years prior. 

Action Park was primarily run by 14- to 16-year-olds, often employed with flagrant disregard for the state's labor laws, who weren't really equipped to handle the onslaught of broken bones, knocked-out teeth, gnarly cuts and friction burn. Besides, they were too busy smoking weed and having sex in the employees-only hut at the top of the Alpine slope-themed slide. 

Overseeing it all was "Uncle Gene" Mulvihill, a slimy ex-Wall Streeter whose liability insurance was handled by a company he set up for himself in the Cayman Islands. "Class Action Park" is, at least in part, a dark story about engaging in gross negligence just for profit as multiple people died on the grounds. One was thrown from a ride onto rocks, one was electrocuted after falling into water that held machinery, and three drowned in the wave pool. 

That's the obvious dark side of "Class Action Park," but there are legions of former park guests and employees who talk, with an almost breathless enthusiasm, about their memories of the park, which are saturated with a certain sun-soaked, "I can't believe we survived that" nostalgia. 

What keeps the documentary from becoming too glib in its treatment of the absolutely wild realities of the park is the introduction of comedian Chris Gethard, who was an avid attendee during his youth. He's the voice of reason in "Class Action Park," consistently reiterating the point — which is really the heart of the film — that just because something was fun when we were kids, doesn't mean that it was without fault. 

"Some Kind of Heaven," (Available digital and VOD)

The Villages in Florida, a swanky and expansive retirement community with over 130,000 residents, has nicknames like "God's waiting room" and "the velvet casket" because of the way its residents prioritize comfort during their golden years. 

The buildings in the town center are like functional set pieces, almost like the corridors in Disney World parks, that look like they were built during turn-of-the-century America, with fake patina and fabricated wear. There are water ballet and margarita-soaked Parrothead clubs. It's a kind of fantasy that extends even to the community's newspaper, which buries the actual news of the day behind articles about the Golf Cart Precision Drill Team and interviews detailing the residents' views about the new cafe opening. 

But "Some Kind of Heaven," a documentary by Darren Aronofsky ("Mother!") and Lance Oppenheim and co-produced by The New York Times, tells the story of a few individuals for whom The Villages' artifice has been cracked. There's 81-year-old Dennis, a charming hustler who illegally parks his van on the community grounds and spends his afternoons at the pool, looking for a 70-something widow eager for companionship to reel in. There's Barbara, a recent widow who is looking to start dating again, but feels like her life in The Villages is like living "in a bubble." 

And then there's Anne and Reggie, a couple whose 47-year marriage is on the rocks as Reggie's recreational drug use takes a sharp turn towards dangerous. She copes by spending more time on the pickleball court as he rambles to the filmmakers about his hallucinated fantasies. 

It's a fascinating, darkly humorous series of portraits about the relationships we make, discard and keep as time goes on. 

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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