The nonfiction categories at this year’s Emmys are filled with familiar names. In the doc series category, mainstays “30 for 30” and “American Masters” make another annual return. Films like “Free Solo,” “Minding the Gap,” “Hale County This Morning, This Evening,” and “RBG” will be making an awards season encore after being recognized at the Oscars in February. Both of the rival streaming Fyre Festival docs picked up nominations for good measure.
But the programs in the Short-Form Nonfiction category are recognizable for another reason entirely. Aside from a few repeat contenders, every show in the 2019 slate of nominees is a behind-the-scenes offshoot of another Emmy favorite. This year’s five nominated series are “Creating Saturday Night Live,” “Pose: Identity, Family, Community (Inside Look),” the boldly-titled “Fosse/Verdon (Inside Look)” and a pair of shows from one of the reality crown jewels: “RuPaul’s Drag Race’s: Out of the Closet” and “RuPaul’s Drag Race’s: Portrait of a Queen.”
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Whether these shows are succeeding solely on their merit or their prominently displayed associations with beloved series of other lengths, they’re receiving an inherent advantage. “Fosse/Verdon” may have benefited the most from simply slapping an “(Inside Look)” onto the end of its title and hoping for automatic clicks from voters who went simply with name recognition. (“Snowfall” and “What We Do in the Shadows” submitted their behind-the-scenes docs the same way.)
By turning over a category called Short-Form Nonfiction entirely to programming offshoots makes an all-too-easy narrative that Academy members are incurious about the world around them. There’s no shortage of laudable work being done that was eligible and submitted this year, but have none of those explicit, pre-existing connections.
In theory, this spinoff strategy may not be all that different from a comedy or drama benefiting from the market share of a network or streaming service, but the shortcut from “I like ‘Weekend Update,’ so this ‘SNL’ making-of project is probably great!” is a lot shorter than “I saw a ‘Chernobyl’ trailer before Episode 5 of ‘Game of Thrones,’ so this limited series is probably great!”
Learning about the craft that goes into the programs that audiences love is certainly worth commending. And some of these programs deserve a better fate than being buried in playlist three pages deep on some network’s YouTube account. It doesn’t take a deeply held love of “Saturday Night Live” to recognize that the team behind this overview of the show’s cue card department requires the same amount of care that goes into the process they’re documenting. “Out of the Closet” gives an opportunity to follow reality competition alums out into their post-TV lives, one that’s polished without keeping out some spontaneity and individual personality.
But delve into what was overlooked: The VICE series “Innocence Ignored” looks at how current practices in the American justice system have failed (and in many cases are continuing to fail) the wrongly accused and those closest to them. “Waking Dream” examines the daily life and titanic challenges facing those currently in the United States under the existing form of the DACA program. “Birds of North America” is Jason Ward’s endlessly fascinating look at the logistics and thrills of spotting fluttering wildlife in Central Park and beyond.
“Explained,” a Netflix-Vox co-production with a Season 2 on the way, managed to maintain an overarching digital aesthetic while tackling subject matter as wide-ranging as cricket, K-Pop, the exclamation point, and an impending global water crisis. (Though its title is connected to an existing NatGeo series, “Linked | Explorer” is doing something similar for nature and history-related topics.)
Even though it didn’t break through this year, Netflix may be the one to crack the behind-the-scenes stronghold. “Marching Orders,” one of the documentary series close in spirit to some of the longer-form nonfiction counterparts, takes an extended look at all aspects of the Bethune-Cookman University marching band. A concerted push behind a show like “Marching Orders” would not only help get the streaming service get closer to dethroning HBO in the overall nominations count, it could inject some outside perspective in a corner of the Emmys that’s looking increasingly inward.
Maybe some revamping is necessary for a category whose prime honoree for the past decade has been a show about the unrivaled greatness of Jay Leno’s favorite cars. In fact, while “Jay Leno’s Garage” is something of a surprise snub this year, it and “National Endowment for the Arts: United States of Arts” are the only non-BTS multiple nominees since “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” was a Crackle property. Every year brings another new series to dig into, whether it’s the final season of “The Americans,” “Top Chef,” or the History incarnation of “Roots.”
Assuming absolute voter integrity for any awards-giving body is a stretch to begin with, but that’s why creating a separate category makes the most sense. And we all love “Drag Race,” but it also seems telling that this voting body somehow managed to neglect nominating a series that features Will Smith jumping out of a plane.
This category has reached its natural film and TV awards endpoint: another set of honors bestowed on entertainment explicitly about entertainment. That alone shouldn’t disqualify these nominees. Nor is it necessarily an unworthy pursuit. But with plenty of deserving alternatives, maybe the structure around them needs to change.
Final-round Emmy voting is open from Thursday, Aug. 15 through Thursday, Aug. 29 at 10 p.m. PT. Winners for the 71st Primetime Emmys Creative Arts Awards will be announced the weekend of Sept. 14 and 15, with the Primetime Emmys ceremony broadcast live on Fox on Sunday, Sept. 22.