Last Year’s Winner: “The Apollo”
Still Eligible: No.
Hot Streak: After Netflix took home back-to-back trophies in 2016 (“What Happened, Miss Simone?”) and 2017 (“13th”), HBO has rattled off three consecutive wins in the Best Documentary or Nonfiction Special category: “The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling” (2018), “Leaving Neverland” (2019), and “The Apollo” (2020). HBO remains the most-awarded network in the category’s 23-year-history, with 11 total wins.
Fun Fact: This year, 78 documentary or nonfiction specials made the Emmy ballot, falling just three submissions shy of qualifying for an additional nomination. Due to the sliding scale the Emmys instituted last year, categories with 20-80 submissions will nominate five projects, while categories with 81-160 submissions will nominate six projects. Had a few networks known an extra nomination was that close, perhaps they would have scrounged up three more documentaries for the ballot.
Notable Ineligible Series: “Hemingway” (the three-episode PBS documentary is running in the Documentary Series category); “My Octopus Teacher,” “Collective,” “Time,” “Crip Camp,” and “The Mole Agent” (all of which are ineligible for the Emmys after pursuing Oscars earlier this year)
At the bottom of this page are IndieWire Deputy TV Editor Ben Travers’ predictions for Best Documentary or Nonfiction Special. 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
With a ballot about as big as it can get (without adding a sixth nominee), the documentary field is rife with competition. While a few docs and nonfiction specials have managed to build strong word of mouth, others focus on topical issues, famous faces, or both. To say there are five frontrunners is a bit deceptive; at this stage, there are maybe two programs that should feel somewhat comfortable about landing a nomination and around 10 in a horse race for the three remaining slots.
“Tina” (HBO) and “Framing Britney Spears” (FX) have to be seen as near locks. HBO has a strong track record in the category, and its music docs as well as celebrity profiles — including “The Apollo,” “Jane Fonda in Five Acts,” “Spielberg,” and “The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling” — have done exceedingly well with voters in recent years. FX, meanwhile, has seen its “The New York Times Presents” series make some noise with various entries, but none more so than “Framing Britney Spears.” The pop icon’s ongoing fight to end her father’s conservatorship makes raising the doc’s profile all the more critical, and Emmy voters aren’t ones to shy away from an important cause.
Still, there are plenty of beyond-the-show reasons that may play a factor. Ron Howard’s “Rebuilding Paradise” examines the devastating effects of California’s 2018 wildfires, specifically looking at a town in Northern CA, but which swept through houses and communities shared by many in the Hollywood industry; “Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre” chronicles the beautiful birth and hateful destruction of Black Wall Street on the 100th anniversary of the attacks; Alex Gibney’s “Totally Under Control” tackles the Trump administration’s catastrophic response to the COVID-19 pandemic still harming our nation.
That still leaves widely heralded films like the Apple TV+ doc, “Boys State,” which goes inside an annual program designed for Texas high school seniors to build their own state government; “Belushi” examines the comic genius and brilliant life of John Belushi through archival footage and moving interviews with the likes of Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radnor, and Lorne Michaels; “The Boy From Medellin” follows international musician J Balvin as he prepares for a concert in his hometown, where political unrest is rising by the day; “The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” dives deep into the ’60s and ’70s musicians — and those are just the contenders that start with “B”!
Surprises are undoubtedly in store for nominations morning. Now, all that’s left to do is wait — and see as many of these docs as possible.
- “Framing Britney Spears” (FX)
- “Tina” (HBO)
- “Boys State” (Apple TV+)
- “Belushi” (Showtime)
- “Rebuilding Paradise” (Nat Geo)
Contenders: “The Social Dilemma,” “Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre,” “The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart,” “Class Action Park,” “Totally Under Control,” “The Boy From Medellin”
In a Perfect World: “Hysterical,” “The Killing of Breonna Taylor (The New York Times Presents),” “The Go-Go’s”