Emmys: Documentary Categories Take a Dive Into Icons and Cults

7:30 AM 8/7/2018

by Scott Feinberg

In the doc series race, a popular Netflix show about an Oregon cult leader is up against some classic-format contenders, while a slew of doc specials about well-known figures jockey for recognition.

'Mister Rogers: It’s You I Like' (left), 'Wild Wild Country'
'Mister Rogers: It’s You I Like' (left), 'Wild Wild Country'
Courtesy of PBS; Courtesy of Netflix

  • 'American Masters'

    PBS

    Courtesy of PBS

    This annual staple of public broadcasting has accumulated more nominations (18) and wins (10) than any other program in the history of this category. The seven-episode season for which it is nominated 
was, as always, distinguished by its depth and breadth, covering — for anywhere between one and two hours — subjects ranging from Lorraine Hansberry to Bob Hope and Sammy Davis Jr. to Hedy Lamarr.

    On the other hand... This is its one and only nomination. And stylistically, the series can feel 
a bit stuffy and old-fashioned compared to some newer competitors.

  • 'Blue Planet II'

    BBC America

    This epic study of marine life, narrated by David Attenborough and scored by Hans Zimmer, landed a huge audience and as many noms as any program in this category — five (the others for its narrator, sound editing and cinematography in two installments). And when there's a
 nature doc in competition, it usually wins — see The National Parks: America's Best Idea (2010), Frozen Planet (2012) and Planet Earth II (2017).

    On the other hand... As outlets like Netflix spend more than ever on campaigns, it could become harder 
for the likes of BBC America (and PBS) to keep up.

  • 'The Defiant Ones'

    HBO

    Courtesy of HBO

    Allen Hughes' stylish and revealing four-part portrait of the unlikely personal and professional relationship between music industry icons Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine scored as many mentions as any of the nominees in this category (its other four are for writing, picture editing, sound editing and sound mixing) and has the backing of both its big-name subjects and HBO.

    On the other hand... There has been some criticism that the series feels a bit like an infomercial. Beyond this, it first debuted 
more than a year ago (July 9, 2017), making it the oldest of 
the contenders.

  • 'The Fourth Estate'

    Showtime

    Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival

    Talk about timely: Oscar nominee Liz Garbus (What Happened, Miss Simone?The Farm: Angola, USA) used unprecedented access to The New York Times to capture how the Old Gray Lady actually covered the Trump administration during the year in which the president first began labeling it "fake news." (Spoiler alert: not fake.) It's also the most recently rolled out of the nominees — its four installments hit Showtime in late May and early June (after the first episode closed the Tribeca Film Festival in April).

    On the other hand... This is the project's only nomination.

  • 'Wild Wild Country'

    Netflix

    Courtesy of Netflix

    Netflix is campaigning hard for this mind-blowing six-parter, which revisits a decades-old conflict in which both sides were more or less nuts — with the participation of almost all surviving key players. Executive produced by the Duplass and Braun brothers, it premiered at Sundance to glowing reviews, spawned a Saturday Night Live parody and has as many noms as any program 
in this category (directing, editing, sound editing and sound mixing).

    On the other hand... Each episode feels a bit too long and none of the subjects are very likable. And several cannot support the campaign because they're banned from the U.S.

  • 'Icarus'

    Netflix

    Netflix

    Can a doc that premiered at Sundance 2017 and won an Oscar only months ago now win this Emmy? Yes — this award's last two winners were merely Oscar nominees. Meanwhile, Bryan Fogel's debut doc, which is also nominated 
for directing and writing (of this category's nominees, only Zen Diaries has as many other mentions), feels as timely as ever with Russia continuing to meddle in international affairs.

    On the other hand... Its affiliation with Netflix helped get the film 
this far but could also stunt 
its prospects, as some feel it's wrong to call it a TV doc after so recently promoting it as a film.

  • 'Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond — Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention 
of Tony Clifton'

    Netflix

    Courtesy of Netflix

    Chris Smith uses archival footage and new interviews to examine Jim Carrey's descent into something resembling madness during the making of Milos Forman's 1999 Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon. The doc screened at Venice and TIFF before Netflix acquired it, and Carrey will apparently be coming out of relative seclusion to help promote it.

    On the other hand... This is its sole nom, 
so Netflix will likely prioritize Icarus.

  • 'Mister Rogers: 
It's You I Like'

    PBS

    Photofest

    Timed to the 50th anniversary of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, this hourlong tribute was written and produced by JoAnn Young, veteran of 50-plus PBS specials, and hosted by Michael Keaton, who worked on the show in the 1970s. Possibly the beneficiary of confusion (some may think they're voting for Morgan Neville's hit feature Won't You Be My Neighbor?) and certainly of timing (Rogers' kindness is a welcome balm in the Trump era), it's also nominated for its writing.

    On the other hand... Unlike Neville's doc, this covers only Rogers' TV work, not his entire life.

  • 'Spielberg'

    HBO

    Courtesy of HBO

    This intimate portrait of 
one of America's greatest filmmakers, cut together from 
15 interviews with him, had a big Los Angeles unveiling on the Paramount lot in September and then screened at the New York Film Festival in October. (Its subject, obviously pleased with the doc, attended both.) It 
also comes from strong Emmy stock: Susan Lacy, a 14-time winner best known for creating PBS' American Masters before moving over to HBO in 2013, helmed the production.

    On the other hand... This is its sole nomination, so HBO will probably be prioritizing its other nominee in the category, The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling.

  • 'The Zen Diaries 
of Garry Shandling'

    HBO

    Larry Watson/HBO

    Judd Apatow's four-and-
a-half-hour doc is a celebration of the life — public and private — of his mentor Garry Shandling, who died in 2016. Like Mister Rogers: It's You I Like, it debuted in March, making it as fresh as any of the nominees. And like Icarus, it garnered three total noms (directing and editing, as well). Members of the TV community may lean into the opportunity to honor both Apatow and Shandling.

    On the other hand... It's a multipart film (released over two nights), which leaves some wondering why it wasn't nominated in the docuseries category (currently, rules require three installments).

    This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.