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Emmy Predictions: Best Documentary or Nonfiction Series — Plenty of Great Choices for Only a Few Slots

With 73 titles on the ballot, the documentary series race is about as crowded as it can get for a category with only five nominees.

City So Real Nat Geo Hulu Police stand outside of Wrigley Field. (Chicago Story Film, LLC)

Police stand outside of Wrigley Field in “City So Real”

Chicago Story Film, LLC

Last Year’s Winner: “The Last Dance”
Still Eligible: No.
Hot Streak: Netflix saw its two-year hot streak interrupted when ESPN’s “The Last Dance” docuseries took home the Emmy in 2020 — however, Jason Hehir’s documentary series was released by Netflix internationally, as well as in the U.S. prior to the Emmys, so the streamer can take some credit for its viewership, and thus, its victory. Call it a “two-and-a-half year hot streak.”
Fun Fact: Since receiving its first two nominations (and first win, for “Making a Murderer”) in 2016, Netflix has been nominated every year since, including two nominations in every Emmy cycle save for 2020, and winning three of the last five competitions. The streamer’s heavy investment in docuseries, as well as the service’s general ubiquity, has certainly helped it make an immediate impact on the documentary world at large.
Notable Ineligible Series: “The Crime of the Century” (HBO’s two-part documentary is eligible in the Documentary or Nonfiction Special category); “The New York Times Presents” (FX’s documentary series is submitting individual entries, like “Framing Britney Spears,” in the Documentary Special category); “Biography” (the Emmy-winning A&E docuseries is also submitting individual entries, like “I Want My MTV,” in the Documentary Special category)

At the bottom of this page are IndieWire Deputy TV Editor Ben Travers’ predictions for Best Documentary or Nonfiction Series. This article will be updated throughout the season, along with all our predictions, so make sure to keep checking IndieWire for the latest news from the 2020 race. Voting for the 2021 Emmys will be held from Thursday, June 17 through Monday, June 28 (with polls closing at 10 p.m. PT). Emmy nominations will be announced Tuesday, July 13. The Creative Arts Emmy Awards will be given out in September, at a date (or dates) to be announced. The 73rd Annual Primetime Emmy Awards will take place Sunday, September 19. CBS is broadcasting the ceremony.

The State of the Race

As documentaries and documentary series continue to grow in popularity, the competition at the Emmys continues to build. Though not enough docs submitted in 2021 to expand the category’s total nominees beyond five — it’s only eight shy of adding another slot — at least 10 (if not more) are worthy, widely seen, and well-reviewed, which makes the selection process that much harder for Emmy voters.

Near the top of the list is “Allen v. Farrow,” HBO’s four-part series examining the sexual abuse allegations lobbied against Woody Allen. Though far from a one-to-one comparison, the network did win an Emmy for Best Documentary Special with 2019’s “Leaving Neverland,” another documentary about sexual abuse allegations that elicited strong reactions as well as strong reviews. “Allen v. Farrow” won’t soon be forgotten, and Emmy voters have shown their eagerness to support programs elevating previously squashed voices.

Also on the ballot from HBO are “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark,” an adaptation of Michelle McNamara’s investigation into the Golden State Killer; “The Vow,” which follows a range of people who joined the NXIVM cult; “Q: Into the Storm,” a six-episode series on the forces behind QAnon; “Murder on Middle Beach,” which follows a son trying to rebuild family trust after the murder of his mother goes unsolved; “Exterminate All the Brutes,” Raoul Peck’s acclaimed four-part documentary that explores the exploitative and genocidal aspects of European colonialism, from America to Africa, and its impact on society today; and finally, there’s also “The Lady and the Dale,” which tells the story of transgender entrepreneur Liz Carmichael, who marketed a fuel-efficient, three-wheeled car in the 1970s before succumbing to media scrutiny.

Though HBO has more than enough offerings on its own to fill the ballot, there are obviously far more contenders to consider. PBS has category favorite “American Masters,” which has more wins (10) and nominations (19) than any other program in the category, as well as “Hemingway,” from the prolific documentary Ken Burns, and “Philly D.A.,” one of the critics’ favorite docuseries in recent memory. Nat Geo (and Hulu) are supporting Steve James’ masterful portrait of a quintessential American city in “City So Real,” while Apple TV+ will be backing “1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything.”

FX has a number of contenders itself, including: “Pride,” a decades-spanning documentary covering the queer legacy of the Civil Rights movement; “Hip Hop Uncovered,” which also covers 40-plus years of history (just focused on the impact of a single musical genre); and “A Wilderness of Error,” an Errol Morris investigation into a man serving 30 years in prison before a judge agrees to hear new evidence in his case.

That still leaves Netflix and its half-dozen or so docs. Perhaps most prominent is “Lenox Hill,” which follows four doctors working in a New York hospital, but there’s also “Immigration Nation” — a series that combines ICE access with immigrants’ stories to present a full picture of U.S. immigration policy — and “Pretend It’s a City,” Martin Scorsese’s latest doc on Fran Lebowitz, the writer and humorist tied to NYC. Netflix also has an exciting podcast adaptation in “Song Exploder,” as well as “Night Stalker” for the true crime fans out there, making it a tough call to see which of the streaming giant’s bevy of docs make the final cut.

Predicted Nominees:

  1. “Allen v. Farrow” (HBO)
  2. “American Masters” (PBS)
  3. “Lenox Hill” (Netflix)
  4. “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” (HBO)
  5. “City So Real” (Nat Geo)

Contenders: “Immigration Nation,” “Pride,” “Hemingway,” “The Vow,” “Philly D.A.,” “Love Fraud,” “Pretend It’s a City,” “The Event,” “Q: Into the Storm,” “1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything,” “John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise,” “A Wilderness of Error,” “High on the Hog,” “Hip Hop Uncovered,” “Moment of Truth”

In a Perfect World: “Exterminate All the Brutes,” “Song Exploder,” “The Lady and the Dale,” “30 for 30”

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