When viewers think of the Emmys, they typically think of the Primetime Emmy categories: Drama, Comedy, and Limited Series. But TV is a vast landscape of all kinds of shows, and the Emmys stretch to encompass all of it, from the shortest short on YouTube to the most extended documentary on PBS. The most fascinating of those regularly relegated to the Creative Arts Emmy Awards are those in Documentary and Nonfiction. Truly, the 2020 Emmy-nominated documentaries are a reminder that TV isn’t just for telling fictional tales, but also real stories.
When the Emmys first started, the Documentary and Nonfiction categories were all under one banner of Outstanding Informational Series. In 1998, the Television Academy renamed it to Outstanding Informational Series or Special and restructured the rules to push it away from nominating shows like Entertainment Tonight and toward harder documentary fare.
In 2013, the Emmys split this one burgeoning category into three, reflecting the growing variations in types of documentary programming. Today, there are four main documentary categories:
- Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series
- Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special
- Outstanding Hosted Nonfiction Series or Special
- Outstanding Directing for a Documentary/Nonfiction Program
Let’s run down the 15 series, films, and specials nominated for 2020 in these major categories:
1. ‘American Masters’ Season 33
PBS’ long-running documentary series American Masters has been an Emmys staple since the 1998 category restructuring. Out of 23 years, American Masters only missed being nominated three times. And out of those 20 nominations, it’s won 10. This season looks to be another favorite, with episodes on Ursula K. Le Guin, Miles Davis, Mae West, and Toni Morrison.
You can stream all episodes of American Masters via the PBS Documentaries channel on Prime Video, or via PBS Passport, Public Television’s streaming service that comes with membership.
Also nominated in Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series, Hillary is one of the most intimate portraits of the former first lady and secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton ever assembled. It traces her life from an early feminist to one of the most polarizing, beloved/reviled figures in modern politics. The four-part series was already nominated for the TCA Award for Outstanding Achievement in News and Information.
Hillary is available to stream via Hulu.
3. ‘The Last Dance’
This Michael Jordan show has been praised since its arrival on ESPN in April. Though the 10-part series technically covers Jordan’s life and career, it focuses heavily on his last season with the Chicago Bulls as he faced retirement. Along with Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series, it is also nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Directing for a Documentary/Nonfiction Program.
All episodes of The Last Dance are currently streaming on Netflix.
4. ‘Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem And Madness’
The viral docuseries Tiger King about Joe Exotic, Carole Baskin, and world of big cats caps off its remarkable run with six Emmy nods, including nominations for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series and Outstanding Directing for a Documentary/Nonfiction Program. It also landed nods in the Nonfiction technical categories of Outstanding Music Composition, Picture Editing, Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing.
Tiger King is currently on Netflix.
The last of the Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series noms is McMillion$, HBO’s deep dive into the Monopoly promotion scam in the 1990s era. Perpetrated by Jerry Jacobson, the scheme wound up encompassing a shockingly wide range of people, including fake winners.
The documentary series is nominated for five Emmys altogether, including Outstanding Writing for Nonfiction Programming and three Nonfiction technical categories of Outstanding Music Composition, Picture Editing, and Sound Editing.
All six episodes of McMillion$ are currently available on HBO Max.
The Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special category starts with the story of former first lady Michelle Obama, Becoming. Becoming is also nominated for Outstanding Directing for a Documentary/Nonfiction Program as well as Outstanding Cinematography and Outstanding Music Composition in Nonfiction.
Becoming is streaming on Netflix.
7. ‘Beastie Boys Story’
Nominated in the Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special category, this focuses on the rise of the unlikely rap trio and was directed and produced by Spike Jonze, alongside surviving band members Michael Diamond and Adam Horovitz. It is also nominated in four other Nonfiction categories: Outstanding Writing, Picture Editing, Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing.
Initially planned as a theatrical release, but canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, Beastie Boys Story wound up streaming on Apple TV+.
8. ‘The Great Hack’
Unlike the first two in the Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special, The Great Hack is not specifically about famous people. It’s instead a documentary film about the Facebook–Cambridge Analytica data scandal, breaking down British investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr’s uncovering of how badly social media was hiding the exploitation of users and how Facebook affected the 2016 Brexit campaign.
Produced by Oscar nominees Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer, The Great Hack is currently streaming on Netflix.
9. ‘The Apollo’
HBO’s history of New York City’s legendary Apollo Theater also lands in the Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special. The feature film-length special weaves together interviews with modern-day Black performers about what the place means to them alongside historical footage of performances that stretch back to the theater’s opening in 1913.
The Apollo is currently streaming on HBO Max.
10. ‘Laurel Canyon: A Place In Time’
The final entry in the Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special, Laurel Canyon: A Place In Time, focuses on the 1960s-era music scene in the Laurel Canyon neighborhood of Los Angeles. The two-parter was released on Epix. The documentary is also nominated for Outstanding Sound Editing and Sound Mixing in Nonfiction.
Laurel Canyon: A Place In Time is currently available for streaming on the Epix channel on Prime Video.
11. ‘Leah Remini: Scientology & The Aftermath’ Season 3
It may not have been nominated in the top Documentary category or Outstanding Directing, but Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath did land Outstanding Hosted Nonfiction Series or Special for the second year running. The deep dive into exposing Scientology was beaten by Anthony Bourdain’s posthumous win for Parts Unknown, but with Season 3, it could get lucky.
All three seasons of Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath are streaming on Hulu.
12. ‘Ugly Delicious’ Season 2
While Outstanding Hosted Nonfiction Series or Special is also the home of less documentary-oriented shows like Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee and The World According to Jeff Goldblum, it also had Ugly Delicious, the best documentary about food on Netflix, IMO. Hosted by the charming David Chang of Momofuku fame, this exploration into the history of some of the world’s famous and favorite dishes is a lesson in culture and history.
Both seasons of Ugly Delicious are streaming on Netflix.
13. ‘The Cave’
Nominated for Outstanding Directing for a Documentary/Nonfiction Program, The Cave, directed by Feras Fayyad, is a Syrian-Danish documentary film produced by National Geographic. Nominated for an Oscar earlier this year, the film profiles Dr. Amani Ballour, who operates out of a makeshift subterranean hospital nicknamed "the Cave." The movie is also nominated for Outstanding Writing and Cinematography in Nonfiction, and in the rarer Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking category.
The Cave is streaming on Hulu and NatGeo TV.
14. ‘American Factory’
Unlike the others on this list, American Factory is not an interview-heavy documentary, but rather a "fly on the wall" telling of the takeover of the shuttered Moraine Assembly, once a General Motors plant, by Chinese company Fuyao Glass Industry Group Co., which makes construction and automobile glass. Like The Cave, this Outstanding Directing for a Documentary/Nonfiction Program nominee was an Oscar nominee earlier this year. It is also nominated for Outstanding Cinematography and Picture Editing in Nonfiction.
American Factory is available to stream on Netflix.
15. ‘Apollo 11’
The final entry for Outstanding Directing for a Documentary/Nonfiction Program is Apollo 11, in the summer of 2019 as part of the 50th anniversary celebration of the first successful trip to the moon. Constructed solely of archival footage from 1969, Apollo 11 won a Peabody Award and swept the Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards. Its nominations run the gamut of Nonfiction technicals, including Outstanding Cinematography, Picture Editing, Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing.
Apollo 11 is currently streaming on Netflix.
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