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What to Make of a Wide Open Limited Series Emmy Race

From Big Little Lies to Fargo to American Crime Story the Outstanding Limited Series category has consistently celebrated some of the best shows on TV at the Emmys. Five years ago, largely inspired by the work of Ryan Murphy, the Emmys even separated limited series and tv movies into their own program awards. Now in a year with 44 submissions, voters have more than enough anthologies and miniseries to choose from but surprisingly nothing is really sticking with voters. Critics haven’t rallied behind any specific show, audiences and fans aren’t throwing support towards anything specific, and no show really has the star power of a Jessica Lange or Nicole Kidman.

Usually, critics groups and ratings give at least some sense of consensus but this year they’ve shown just how wide-open the limited series race is shaping up to be. A quick ranking of Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes scores (as well as their user ratings) gave completely different lists with American Vandal being the only show to make an appearance on all four lists. Shows like Alias Grace and The Sinner are much more popular on Rotten Tomatoes while Howard’s End is more popular at Metacritic. Patrick Melrose was popular with critics but loathed by users. This only proves that at this point any limited series has a chance to walk away with the Emmy.

The Likely Contenders  

The Outstanding Limited Series category wouldn’t be complete without some sort of Ryan Murphy project and 2018 is no exception. The highly anticipated second installment of American Crime Story premiered with The Assassination of Gianni Versace. The premiere was well-received by fans and critics but the overall reaction came across as muted compared to the phenomenon that was the first season. It will be interesting to see if Gianni Versace carries as much weight with voters as OJ Simpson did especially with plenty of award-worthy performances from Darren Criss, Edgar Ramirez, Penelope Cruz, and Judith Light.

Emmy voters love a good murder mystery and this year no limited series made a bigger splash than The Sinner. Starring Jessica Biel as a woman who mysteriously has no recollection of stabbing a man on a crowded beach the anthology series dives deep into murder mystery mode captivating audiences and even earning a couple of Golden Globe nominations. The first season became so popular that Carrie Coon has even agreed to sign on for the second season. A crime thriller became the underdog series last year (The Night Of) and those same voters might go all in for The Sinner.

(Photo: Showtime)

When Twin Peaks: The Return premiered on Showtime last summer everyone seemed to be talking about the cult favorite – the only problem was that no one seemed to know what exactly they were talking about. Even the biggest fans of the show were confused but that didn’t stop critics from naming the recent season one of the best FILMS of the year. Now that fans have had time to sit with the show it stands a good chance of becoming an Emmy contender that might be pushed through off of years of cult TV status that has turned the series into one of the most beloved of all time.

On paper, The Looming Tower has all the makings of a successful limited series. Chronicling the rise of Al-Qaeda in the 90s through a rivalry between the counter-terrorism units of the FBI and CIA the limited series has prestige written all over it only helps that it was released by Hulu, the first streaming service to win a top award at the Emmys. The Looming Tower also features awards-friendly talent both in front of and behind the camera with producers Alex Gibney and Dan Futterman as well as a major ensemble including Jeff Daniels, Michael Stuhlbarg, Peter Sarsgaard, Bill Camp, and Tahar Rahim.

The most unpredictable limited series contender this year is Netflix’s American Vandal, a small 30 minute series that became a huge sensation for the network last summer. The comedy is a mockumentary send-up of the recent string of true crime docs that have dominated pop culture as of lately. Critics adored the show and on  top of a couple of Critics’ Choice nominations, it also received a WGA nomination. In all likelihood American Vandal is one of the most widely seen of this year’s contenders but it’s unclear whether or not they’ll vote for it even if they loved it.

With five nominations Benedict Cumberbatch has become an Emmy staple in the Lead Actor in a Limited Series category and this year his popularity might lead to an Outstanding Limited Series contender in Patrick Melrose. The Showtime series is based on a series of novels about a deeply troubled addict and features award worthy performances from Cumberbatch and Jennifer Jason Leigh. It will be interesting to see if Patrick Melrose is a bigger contender than just for Cumberbatch but if the user ratings on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic are any indicator some viewers are having a hard time connecting to the material.

(Photo: TNT)

Back in 2013 Emmy voters showered Top of The Lake with eight nominations including nominations for Outstanding Limited Series, Lead Actress, and Directing. Five years later the Jane Campion helmed detective drama has returned and although the limited series is bound to rake in a couple of nominations for its cast it’s unclear whether or not voters will embrace the show as a whole. Still centered around Elisabeth Moss’s Robin Griffin the series is clearly committing category fraud. China Girl is respected by critics after premiering at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and the ratings in the second season actually grew. However, the second season went entirely unnoticed by HFPA and guild voters which is never a good sign.

Last year Genius, the National Geographic anthology series, broke into the Emmy race with a surprising ten nominations. No one was expecting Genius to be so well-received by voters and this year with an installment detailing the life of Pablo Picasso should probably be taken more seriously. Even with a star like Antonio Banderas Genius has been hindered by terrible reviews from critics and ratings drastically dropping to a quarter of what they were last year.

Last fall there was a good amount of anticipation for Godless, Netflix’s seven-part western about a town ruled by women. However once it premiered the series lost all of the buzz and actually annoyed audiences by advertising itself as a feminist western only to actually be about a group of men. Even with mixed reactions on social media Godless earned a couple of guild nominations from WGA, SAG, and DGA voters and in such an unpredictable year.

The Alienist is a psychological thriller about a group of detectives investigating a serial killer targeting young male prostitutes in 1896 New York City. Starring some well-known names including Dakota Fanning and Luke Evans the period drama was a hit with audiences and is flashy enough to excite voters even if it received mixed reviews from critics. The only question is if voters will be receptive to TNT. The network is doing everything they can to get voters to pay attention but it’s been 13 years since they’ve had a limited series break into the Emmy race.

Howard’s End is the type of grand literary adaptation that would have dominated the awards conversation ten years ago however as the Emmys grow prestige projects like this aren’t as certain. The recent adaptation penned by Oscar winner Kenneth Lonergan was a hit with critics and British audiences but it didn’t really make an impact over here in the United States. Even if the limited series came and went Starz has a good track record with convincing Emmy voters to pay attention to their literary adaptations and if they actually watch their screeners there is a good chance they’ll reward it.

With The Handmaid’s Tale resonating so strongly with current events author Margaret Atwood is finally having her moment in Hollywood. Last fall Netflix premiered an adaptation of Alias Grace, a historical fiction novel about a woman in 1843 convicted of murder. The Netflix limited series received a lot of online buzz, universal acclaim from critics with a 99%  score on Rotten Tomatoes, and multiple Canadian Screen Awards. Alias Grace isn’t entering the Emmy race with a high profile like other limited series but if enough voters sought it out last fall it might be able to sneak into the race.

The Terror is another limited series that was a sleeper hit with critics and fans without ever making a dent in the online conversation.  Turning the 19th century lost expedition of Captain Sir John Franklin to the Arctic into a captivating horror anthology. Critics praised the horror portrayal and Emmy nominee Jared Harris’s lead performance. It may not have become a cultural phenomenon but in such a peculiar year smaller shows with passionate fans might have a strong chance of breaking big with voters. It doesn’t hurt that AMC has a pretty strong track record at the Emmys as well.

(Photo: HBO)
Outstanding TV Movie

While the Limited Series category has a seemingly endless list of possibilities its TV Movie counterpart is scraping the bottom of the barrel just to find five viable options. With so few options to choose from four nominees are basically set in stone. Black Mirror is the reigning champ and this year Netflix has submitted the Star Trek sendup U.S.S. Callister. The category is famous for its endless amount of HBO winners and this year The Tale, Paterno, and Fahrenheit 451 will all likely be nominated. Any other year voters would probably stay clear of Fahrenheit 451 after catastrophic reviews from critics but this year it will likely sneak in off of name recognition.

That leaves a couple of unlikely contenders to compete for the fifth and final spot. After Black Mirror made it possible for episodic anthologies to compete it made Amazon’s Electric Dreams seem like a possibility. It’s been a couple years since voters have thrown Lifetime a bone and this year the network is pushing both Flint and Cocaine Godmother. Flint is about a timely topic and received a WGA nomination but it’s not clear if voters are actually paying attention. Cocaine Godmother received a lot of buzz when it premiered especially for Catherine Zeta-Jones. Whether this will be an awards contender remains to be seen.

In all likelihood the fifth nominee will be connected to a larger series. Just like with Sherlock BBC is hoping to stick Doctor Who in the TV Movie category by submitting a single episode. In the television movie categories especially voters have a soft spot for British programming so this might be the year the decades old cult favorite breaks through. Another possibility is the Psych Movie that aired last December. The film was essentially a longer episode of the beloved USA series and fans and critics were excited to return to the buddy detective duo. Although fans of both series are smaller they are extremely passionate and that excitement might easily be channeled into a surprise nomination.