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Emmy Predictions 2020: Best Documentary or Nonfiction Series

"Tiger King" takes on the Michael Jordan era in a heavyweight fight not often seen in the documentary category. [Updated September 9]

Tiger King Netflix Joe Exotic

“Tiger King”

Screenshot/Netflix

Throughout Emmy season, IndieWire will be evaluating the top contenders for TV’s most prestigious prize, and it all starts here. At the bottom of this page are IndieWire TV Critic Ben Travers’ predictions for Best Documentary or Nonfiction Series (or, as it’s more formally known, Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series). This article will be updated throughout the coming months, along with all our predictions, to reflect an up-to-the-minute state of the race. Make sure to keep checking IndieWire for the latest coverage on the 2020 Emmys, including breaking news, analysis, interviews, podcasts, FYC event coverage, reviews of all the awards contenders, and more. The Creative Arts Emmy Awards will be given out the week of September 14. The 72nd Annual Primetime Emmy Awards will take place virtually on Sunday, September 20. (See our awards calendar for a more detailed breakdown of important dates.) ABC is broadcasting the ceremony.

Last Year’s Winner: “Our Planet”
Still Eligible: No.
Hot Streak: Since breaking into the category in 2016, Netflix has won three of the last four trophies for Best Documentary Series. In addition to wins for “Making a Murderer,” “Wild Wild Country,” and “Our Planet,” the streaming giant has also earned two nominations three of the last four years — meaning voters are paying attention to these original docs.
Fun Fact: “American Masters” remains the dominant docuseries in category history. Its 19 nominations and 10 wins are well ahead of the nearest competitors, and the long-running PBS project has been nominated 14 years running, with its most recent win in 2014.
Notable Ineligible Series: “Chef’s Table”

The State of the Race

Over the last few years, the Documentary/Nonfiction race has seen a spike in buzzy, well-viewed series snagging nominations — and wins. That’s at least in part due to increased viewer interest. True crime docs, nature docs, and more popular nonfiction genres have created a demand that the TV boom is ready to fill, while plenty of “so crazy they’re true” stories have been given the docuseries treatment and earned a wide viewership all their own. Netflix, with its heavy campaigning and easily accessible programming, has done particularly well of late by creating shows that stand out, even in the era of “too much TV,” and now, seeing the giant’s success, more deep-pocketed streamers are getting into the race.

Still, those contenders will have to take down the champ — and its “King.” “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness” took the world by storm, and though plenty of critics pointed out its many ethical and formal flaws, the seven-part series’ sheer popularity and persuasive watchability can’t be denied. (Netflix even produced a follow-up special, “The Tiger King and I,” hosted by Joel McHale.) Meanwhile, Netflix rests as the reigning king of the category: The streamer has won Best Documentary Series in two straight years and three of the last four. Betting against the most widely seen show from one of the most widely watched networks is rarely a good idea.

Still, ESPN is far from a dark horse. The sports giant has earned three nominations for its “30 for 30” series in the past, and “The Last Dance” is a titan unto itself. Made in partnership with Netflix, the 10-part series following Michael Jordan and his ’90s Chicago Bulls teams took center stage for five weeks this spring, as ESPN replaced live sports coverage with back-to-back episodes on Sunday nights. High ratings drew even bigger audiences, and its summer release on Netflix shouldn’t hurt its awards campaign either. That being said, there were vocal critics of this doc as well, with Ken Burns of all people citing the dangerous precedent set by letting the subject produce his own documentary.

Then there’s HBO. “McMillions” earned strong reviews out of the Sundance Film Festival and stands as one of the most straight-up enjoyable docuseries in contention. Featuring a wild story with more than its fair share of memorable subjects, the HBO doc found a strong balance between its sensational true story and honoring the disastrous effect this scandal had on victims. If voters sour on how “Tiger King” and “The Last Dance” were made, they could look to this finely produced option as the best representative of the 2020 class.

Or they could turn to two more less surprising but incredibly effective entries. Hulu’s “Hillary” documentary went beyond typical biographical fare and made a compelling case for its star’s lifetime of service. “American Masters” continues to rack up nominations: The long-running PBS doc series has 57 nominations and 20 wins over the years, and its latest season keeps up the high standards its set. Will voters look past the most notable doc series of the year, or will they choose between the two juggernauts that dominated the culture? I’m betting the latter, and while I never thought I’d pick against Michael Jordan, Netflix + “Tiger King” has to be the favorite.

Power Ranking the Nominees:

1. “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness” (Netflix)
2. “The Last Dance” (ESPN)
3. “McMillions” (HBO)
4. “Hillary” (Hulu)
5. “American Masters” (PBS)

Predicted Winner: “Tiger King”
Actual Winner:
“The Last Dance”

  • September 20

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