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Emmy Predictions: Best Documentary or Nonfiction Series — A Wide Array of Docs, but Only One Can Win

A long-running PBS series, a nature doc, two intimate portraits — one of a person, the other a city — and "Allen v. Farrow" give Emmy voters a disparate field for their final decision.

Woody Allen Soon-Yi Previn Dylan Farrow HBO Allen v Farrow documentary

Moses Farrow, Soon-Yi Previn, Dylan Farrow, and Woody Allen

Courtesy of HBO

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 race. Voting for the 2021 Emmys was held from Thursday, June 17 through Monday, June 28 (with polls closing at 10 p.m. PT). Emmy nominations were announced Tuesday, July 13. The Creative Arts Emmy Awards will be given out Saturday, September 11 and Sunday, September 12. 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 was only eight shy of adding another slot — the chosen finalists each represent unique aspects of what documentary series are capable of accomplishing.

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 levied against a famous figure 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.

With seven nominations overall, the HBO docuseries also earned the most recognition of any program in the category. Second, somewhat surprisingly, is “The Secrets of the Whales”; the Disney+ series pulled in three nominations (including Best Cinematography and Best Narrator for Sigourney Weaver), topping the two each for “City So Real” and “American Masters,” as well as the solo nod for “Pretend It’s a City.” While it’s doubtful that’ll make a difference when it comes to crowning the Best Documentary Series, the nature doc could capitalize if voters are pulled toward more peaceful fare than “Allen v. Farrow.”

Still, “American Masters” has history on its side. No documentary series has more nominations or wins historically, and while the PBS program hasn’t won the category since 2014, its regular presence as a nominee speaks to the TV Academy’s deep respect for the long-running series. Similar esteem seems to exist for Steve James, the two-time Oscar nominee whose latest docuseries, “City So Real,” earned the director dual nominations, as a producer in this category and for its cinematography (shared with Jackson James). Nat Geo and Hulu’s impressive five-part project has already earned nominations from the TCA Awards, IDA Awards, and Film Independent Spirit Awards. If voters make the time to watch it in full, an upset could still happen.

That still leaves Netflix  and “Pretend It’s a City,” Martin Scorsese’s latest doc on Fran Lebowitz, the writer and humorist tied to NYC. The Scorsese name should be enough to warrant a second look from some within the TV Academy, but its one nod makes it an underdog to win.

Power Rankings:

  1. “Allen v. Farrow” (HBO)
  2. “City So Real” (Nat Geo)
  3. “Pretend It’s a City” (Netflix)
  4. “American Masters” (PBS)
  5. “Secrets of the Whales” (Disney+)

Will Win: “Allen v. Farrow”
Could Win: “City So Real” or “Pretend It’s a City”
Should Win: “City So Real”

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