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Emmy Predictions 2019: Best Documentary or Nonfiction Special

Can any documentary take down the doc that took down Michael Jackson? [Updated September 5]

Leaving Neverland HBO

“Leaving Neverland”

Sundance / HBO

Last Year’s Winner: “The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling”
Still Eligible: No.
Hot Streak: Prior to the Netflix disruption, this category was a three-horse race from 2003 – 2016. During those 13 years, only HBO, History, and PBS earned victories in the category, and aside from one win each from Discovery and CBS, these were the only networks to win in the history of Best Documentary or Nonfiction Special category.
Fun Fact: One of the Big Four broadcast networks hasn’t been nominated in this category since 2011 — just two years before the TV Academy renamed Outstanding Nonfiction Series as Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special. Prior to the shift toward including feature-length documentaries, ABC, CBS, NBC, and/or Fox had been in the running nine of the 11 years prior.
Notable Ineligible Series: Docuseries have their own category, so don’t expect the likes of “America to Me” or “Our Planet” here.

At the bottom of this page are IndieWire TV Critic Ben Travers’ predictions for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special. This article will be updated throughout the season, so make sure to keep checking IndieWire for all the latest buzz from the 2019 race, and read predictions in the rest of the categories, as well. The Creative Arts Emmy Awards will be given out Saturday, September 14 and Sunday, September 15. The 71st Annual Primetime Emmy Awards will take place at the Microsoft Theater in downtown Los Angeles, CA on Sunday, September 22. Fox is broadcasting the ceremony.

The State of the Race

With a win for Outstanding Achievement in News and Information at the 2019 TCA Awards, “Leaving Neverland” looks to keep its hot streak going on an even grander stage: the Emmys’. Wins can double as industry support, and thus reputable validation, for a controversial documentary like this one, and given the Michael Jackson truthers are still hot for a fight, there’s clear need for more voices to back the two victims at the center of this critical doc. As much as they’d deny this, too, all of those impudent MJ defenders might actually help get HBO’s documentary into the winners’ circle.

That being said, there are plenty of other meritorious candidates. Bing Liu’s documentary “Minding the Gap” dominated the festival circuit on its way to an Oscar nomination earlier this year, and now the Hulu entry has a shot at adding one more trophy to its overflowing case. The skateboarding doc examines race, class, and more with incredible resonance, so it may just be a matter of timing when it comes to the Emmys — do voters feel the film got its due already, or do they still want to honor it here?

On a similar note, no nominee was buzzier at its peak than “FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Happened.” Social media and summer conversation was guided by Ja Rule jokes and beach party references, as Netflix’s music fest doc sparked in the mainstream. While perhaps not as substantial as some of the other entries, voters could pay tribute to the special that was easily the most fun to talk about. “Jane Fonda in Five Acts” and “Love, Gilda,” meanwhile, feel like the nominations are their prizes, as the well-crafted biographical documentaries never really crossed over beyond the Hollywood bubble of fans and admirers.

The same cannot be said for “The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley.” Alex Gibney chronicled the mind-boggling rise and fall of Theranos, a private tech company, along with its enigmatic founder, Elizabeth Holmes. The feature pushed the already popular story to a broader cultural level, with more and more people becoming fascinated by the deceitful and confounding practices of a mad scientist-turned-entrepreneur. “The Inventor” has a prestigious filmmaker behind it, an absorbing topic at its center, and a high entertainment factor — that could be enough to get it a win, but only if voters shy away from controversy instead of tackling it head-on.

Power Ranking the Nominees:

  1. “Leaving Neverland”
  2. “The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley”
  3. “FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Happened”
  4. “Minding the Gap”
  5. “Jane Fonda in Five Acts”
  6. “Love, Gilda”

Will Win: “Leaving Neverland”
Could Win: “FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Happened”
Should Win: “Leaving Neverland”

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