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 (listed in alphabetical order). 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
Perhaps the most talked about TV documentaries of the past year are two dueling docs on the same subject, but not all of the category’s Emmy contenders circle around Ja Rule and misspelling the word “fire.” Yes, Netflix’s “Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened” and Hulu’s “Fyre Fraud” should both be eligible, and the buzz around each of them — as well as the festival’s aftermath — will help them stand out against an onslaught of competition. But hey, if the extreme antics of the 1 percent aren’t your cup of tea, there are also a few big-ticket options about politicians looking to spread the wealth.
Netflix’s Sundance debut “Knock Down the House” focuses on four candidates who mounted grassroots campaigns after Trump’s election to make a positive difference in our tumultuous political landscape, and one just happens to be Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the U.S. Representative of New York’s 14th district and buzzy breath-of-fresh-air on and off social media. Meanwhile, HBO has “Running with Beto,” another festival premiere (SXSW), this one chronicling Beto O’Rourke’s 2018 campaign to unseat Ted Cruz in the U.S. Senate. Politics also play a part in John Maggio’s “Korea: The Never-Ending War,” which examines the myth of the “Forgotten War” and documents the post-1953 conflict and its global consequences.
In other realms of fame, there are the movie stars, sports stars, musicians, and star stand-ups to consider. Most prominently, “Leaving Neverland” forever tarnished the former King of Pop, Michael Jackson, and voters who could stomach director Dan Reed’s four-hour special will likely want to make sure its honored. The premium cabler also has Alex Gibney’s “The Inventor,” which chronicled the strange habits and practices of Theranos inventor Elizabeth Holmes.
“I Am Richard Pryor” could snag a nod for Paramount Network, while “What’s My Name: Muhammed Ali” is angling for a little extra attention during its Tribeca Film Festival premiere. HBO also has “Jane Fonda in Five Acts” and “Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind,” which both earned solid reviews when they dropped on HBO in 2018, while “Quincy” caused quite a stir after rolling out on Netflix (and Jones did a few interviews). Showtime has a few sports docs in the running, but “Quiet Storm: The Ron Artest Story” may have the most juice and definitely the best timing. (It drops May 31, just in time for eligibility.)
Rounding out the race are Netflix entries like “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead,” a doc from Oscar-winner Morgan Neville on Oscar-winner Orson Welles, and “Shirkers,” which earned rave reviews out of Sundance. HBO also has “It’s a Hard Truth Ain’t It,” co-directed by Madeleine Sackler and 13 inmates of an Indiana state prison, while Nat Geo is hoping Rachel Brosnahan’s Emmy luck applies to narration, too — she’s the voice of “Paris to Pittsburgh.” Will any of it be enough to spark a fire? The race is just beginning, and there’s time for anything to spark.
- “Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened” (Netflix)
- “The Inventor: Out For Blood in Silicon Valley” (HBO)
- “Knock Down the House” (Netflix)
- “Leaving Neverland” (HBO)
- “Running with Beto” (HBO)
- “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead” (Netflix)
Spoilers: “Fyre Fraud,” “Quiet Storm: The Ron Artest Story,” “Jane Fonda in Five Acts,” “Quincy,” “Game of Thrones: The Last Watch,” “Paris to Pittsburgh,” “Korea: The Never-Ending War,” “The Resurgence: DeMarcus Cousins,” “I Am Richard Pryor,” “Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind,” “What’s My Name: Muhammed Ali”
In a Perfect World: “It’s a Hard Truth Ain’t It,” “Shirkers”