NEW YORK - There's a gaping void between the genres TV designates as "reality" and "documentary."
A reality show can be anything but, with action staged and footage tailored to fit a preconceived narrative. By contrast, a documentary maker points the camera and hopes, then tells whatever story reveals itself.
Two brilliant examples of the "docuseries" premiered last weekend. Displaying the range of the form, they are quite different from each other.
Or maybe not so different: Both are about towns.
Planet Green's "Boomtown" is about the people of Parshall, N.D. (population: 1,073), and the oil discovered deep beneath their feet.
Sundance Channel's "Brick City," picking up with its second season, returns us to Newark, N.J., and back into the world of its charismatic mayor, Cory Booker, still consumed with turning the city around.
Both series deliver big tales as dramatically as any scripted show.
For example, "Boomtown" is plausibly billed as "Fargo" meets "There Will Be Blood." The five half-hour series began airing on
It tracks the transformative effect of oil on a town in economic distress when, almost overnight, some of the citizens strike it rich - but others don't.
According to the show's production notes, before the oil boom, the median household income in Parshall was $24,500 and half of its families fell below the poverty line. Then, when oil derricks began rising across the landscape, Parshall residents began crossing their fingers that they might become millionaires.
One of them is Richard, the town's mayor and the owner of its only grocery store. He struggles to keep his business afloat and provide for his family.
He has signed a lease with an oil company, and as he watches fellow citizens get lucky with their land, he says, "Maybe something will eventually happen on mine, too."
But Donny, a third-generation rancher whose grazing land is scarred with oil wells and drilling rigs, must put up with the inconvenience with no chance for reward. A party to a so-called split estate, he owns the property's surface rights but not the mineral rights. He can never profit from the drilling.
"As a surface owner," he says, "you really have no rights."
Larry, an oil rig welder, can clear $11,000 for his labors in nine days. But the drilling company is late paying. In turn, he may not be able to hold onto the crew he hired to help.
For the moment, Parshall's only motel is booked solid thanks to the oil crews. But the owner, Jeanette, fears that Larry, her boyfriend, will be forced to leave and head overseas to find work. Meanwhile, the motel's housekeeper, Shari, didn't even know she owned the mineral rights to her land when oil is found. Soon Shari could be rich.
When Christmas arrives, the holidays are distinctly merrier for some - collecting their checks in their post office boxes - than for others. As certain citizens flourish and others remain stuck, can the community survive?
From the producers of the TV version of "This American Life," "Boomtown" has no heroes or villains. Instead, there are winners and losers decided with breathtaking arbitrariness. It's impossible not to get swept up in this saga of haves and have-nots, and not to root for them all.
Two new episodes of "Boomtown" will be shown on Saturday at 9 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. The last part of the series will priemere on Feb. 12 at 9 p.m.
The Peabody Award-winning "Brick City" began airing the first of its six one-hour episodes on Jan. 30. It airs on Sundays at 7 p.m. CST.
Last season ended hopefully with crime down in Newark and the 2008 presidential election signaling a new age.
But as the current season begins in October 2009, there are signs the city's hard-won progress is stalled, or even coming unglued, with fiscal woes pressing and murders on the rise.
"I'm not the kind of guy who wants to have my ship rot in the harbor," declares Mayor Booker as his city's challenges mount. "I'd rather be sunk at sea than be timid and meek."
But the intertwining stories of "Brick City" highlight many other Newark residents.
A key character is Dashuan "Jiwe" Morris, who is an author, gang member and father of three who's been charged with attempted murder. Professing innocence, he must choose whether to take a six-year plea sentence or risk trial, with a possible conviction and 81 years behind bars.
He doesn't know what to do, as he confides to his aunt.
"Sometimes I feel like I deserve this, to a degree," he says, acknowledging unredressed misdeeds in his past. "If you believe in karma, you have to believe at some point you have to pay for your crime."
"Brick City" (whose title speaks to the unyielding spirit of this city of 280,000) remains a rich and engrossing series that makes good on its claim as a nonfiction blend of "The Wire" and "The West Wing."
It's the vision of collaborating filmmakers Marc Levin ("Gang War: Bangin' in Little Rock" and the Showtime cop series "Street Time") and Mark Benjamin ("The Last Party," "Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop"), with Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker a fellow executive producer.
Like "Boomtown," "Brick City" is planted squarely in the real world, and draws you in dramatically. Just please don't call this "reality TV."