This year’s race for Outstanding Limited Series evolved through an incredible amount of changes. Because of the pandemic, post-production on multiple high-profile series was postponed removing some of the biggest names from the race like the fourth installment of Fargo starring Chris Rock, Genius: Aretha starring recent Oscar nominee Cynthia Erivo, and the Nicole Kidman-Hugh Grant vehicle The Undoing.
After all that, you would think that the category would be desperate for real contenders, but that could not be farther from the truth. Outstanding Limited Series is proving to be one of the most competitive categories of the year with no shortage of exciting possibilities. In fact, super-producers like Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Murphy are back with high-profile shows, and they aren’t even at the forefront of the conversation.
2020 is the perfect year to point out that it’s time for the Television Academy to re-vamp the category and expand the allowed nominees from five to seven just like they did for comedy and drama earlier this decade. The genre has proven to be the most thrilling format currently on television, drawing in some of the biggest names and creatives in the industry. It’s absurd to limit the lineup to five while other genres (i.e. comedy) are scraping the bottom of the barrel just to fill up their categories.
Right now, there are three early frontrunners that have captivated audiences at least in some part because of their socio-economic messages that are all currently resonating. Unbelievable was released as we as a culture try to grapple with how we handle sexual assault allegations both in our industry and in politics. Although Mrs. America is a period piece, it has inspired a lot of conversations about what has and hasn’t changed, especially for women in politics. Watchmen introduced a large portion of its audience to the 1921 Tulsa Race Riots, and since then we’ve grappled with multiple black men and women murdered in cold blood simply for jogging or residing in their own homes.
Netflix’s Unbelievable was able to take a subject like sexual assault and accurately outline the complicated and unsettling ways that the system fails survivors on a daily basis all the while producing one of the most gripping pieces of television on 2019. So far, it’s had a pretty strong awards scorecard as well with PGA and WGA nominations, a SAG nomination for Toni Collette, and four Golden Globe nominations. It’s also worth noting that while it has racked up all of these nominations it hasn’t actually won anything save a Critics Choice win for Toni Collette.
The question does need to be asked on how a show like Unbelievable can maintain momentum after premiering all the way back in September. Since then, the conversation has gone in so many different directions that the show is at risk of being forgotten, especially without any form of campaigning that will remind voters how much they were engrossed by the performances and writing in the first place.
Watchmen, the newest HBO adaptation from Damen Lindelof, completely rewrote what a superhero saga can be all while tackling the racism that permeates throughout our country. It became a huge industry hit winning WGA and DGA awards (even upsetting Game of Thrones and overcoming vote splitting) while also being nominated at the PGA awards. It was a huge sensation last fall, topping many critics best of lists, but it was also left out by the SAG Awards. Without that core support from the actors branch, it’s hard to imagine it remaining a major Emmy contender.
Watchmen is also the strongest frontrunner in terms of winning over broad support. Writers and directors clearly loved it for the way it shined a new light on the comic book genre without resorting to tired tropes. It’s politically relevant in a time when voters are looking for their work to say something more. It’s also exciting in a way that will draw in all kinds of voters. It also stars Regina King – the one actor you should never bet against.
HBO isn’t the only network that racked up awards for their groundbreaking limited series. FX has made a name for themselves in the category with shows like Fargo, American Crime Story, and most recently Fosse/Verdon. Now, their newest contender is Mrs. America a sweeping 70s period piece covering the diverse politics and voices surrounding the movement to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.
Portraying feminist icons like Gloria Steinem and Shirley Chisholm to right-wing figure Phyllis Schlafly, the ensemble features some of the biggest Emmy-friendly names of the past 20 years. With a massive ensemble and undeniable crafts, there is a good chance that Mrs. America will be the most nominated limited series of the year.
Overall, the ADTV team hasn’t come to a clear consensus either. While five of us are predicting Mrs. America to become the ultimate winner, there are some outlying opinions. Ben is betting on Watchmen to hold onto the excitement it has built up since last fall while Shadan is taking a chance on Unbelievable.
Fan Favorites Meet Mixed Reactions
Over the past couple of years, Reese Witherspoon has reinvented herself as one of the most exciting super producers working in television. She has an astute eye for what audiences are craving and mixing that with star-studded casts. This year, she produced and starred in the adaptation of the best-selling novel Little Fires Everywhere. Not un-similar to Big Little Lies, this new series also explores upper-class suburbia, parenting, secrets, and scandal.
At first, Little Fires Everywhere wasn’t taken seriously as a major Emmy contender, but as the season progressed on Hulu, it captivated audiences and ended up (mostly) winning over critics with a solidly positive consensus. But will voters take it seriously as an awards contender or dismiss it as an acting vehicle similar to what they did last year with The Act?
Honestly, no other show this year has caused quite as much commotion as Hollywood, Ryan Murphy’s newest project at Netflix. Good or bad everyone seems to have a hot take on the show that they are desperate to share. Some are head over heels regarding its revisionist history that puts minorities at the forefront of the Golden Age of Hollywood while others found it patronizing and void of any conflict and substance. Either way, it’s all led to Hollywood becoming the most talked about limited series in contention which is never a bad position to be in.
The only thing getting in the way of Hollywood becoming a clear contender is its critical consensus. With a 55 on Metacritic and 57 on Rotten Tomatoes it has by far the worst consensus of any modern limited series nominated. In a lineup that features an embarrassment of riches, voters might easily skip over the newest Ryan Murphy endeavor.
HBO’s Other Contenders
No other network knows what it takes to craft a successful limited series quite like HBO. Look at their success rate from the past ten years: Chernobyl, Big Little Lies, Olive Kitteridge, The Night Of, Sharp Objects. Their shows range from prestige dramas to best seller adaptations to gritty crime sagas. This year the premium network has plenty of strong contenders including two major adaptations of best-selling novels: Phillip Roth’s The Plot Against America and Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much Is True.
While they deal with completely different themes, they interestingly have a lot in common. Both are prestige dramas that some audiences have considered hard watches because of their pertinent and dark subject matter. Both are helmed by well-known filmmakers and both feature all-star ensembles.
In any other year, we could easily see both of these dramas nominated for Outstanding Limited Series, but the category became increasingly competitive and tends to reward the shows that are able to garner the most buzz. Both have been well-received with moderately strong reviews and thought-provoking reactions from fans online, but neither is an obvious hit. Look at last year’s winner Chernobyl for example, both shows are pulling in sometimes a third of the viewership that it did this time last year.
So which drama has the biggest chance of drawing in a sizable and passionate fan-base within the Television Academy? Right now, that contender seems to be The Plot Against America with a political premise that had everyone drawing comparisons to what we could go through today. Those who saw it are passionate about it – even ADTV member Kevin Dillon currently has it in his top spot. I Know This Much Is True shouldn’t be counted out though with its May run giving it the opportunity to be one of the last shows voters watch before they fill out their ballots.
An Overseas Sensation
Over the past couple of weeks, we have seen Normal People become a popular hit both with American audiences on Hulu and British audiences on BBC. At first it didn’t seem like an obvious awards contender. It’s a British, thirty minute, romantic drama focused on two young adults. But as the weeks went by more and more people started talking about the Sally Rooney adaptation as they quickly devoured the 12 episodes.
Emmy voters are also notorious anglophiles. They’ve welcomed with open arms many British imports including Sherlock, Luther, A Very English Scandal, and The Hour which won a surprise writing Emmy. And then there is Killing Eve which entered the Emmy race after breaking every ratings record on BBC Three – records that have now been dismantled by Normal People.
In The Conversation
With so many limited series in contention that fifth slot could go several ways – even producing one of the biggest surprise nominations in years.
It is absolutely wild to think that the television debut from Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle isn’t making much of an impact in the conversation. On paper, a show made by Chazelle and starring Andre Holland should be the automatic frontrunner, but for whatever reason, it came and went without audiences making much of a whimper. In the best way possible, it is a quiet show, and if it were a two-hour film, it would be at the forefront of the awards conversation. At the Emmys, it will probably be more of a craft contender especially for its music and sound design.
Netflix is bringing unlikely shows into the Emmy conversation, and this year they are shining a spotlight on Unorthodox. The series focuses on a young Jewish woman who rejects her Orthodox upbringing and runs to Germany to escape an arranged marriage. It’s a show that doesn’t have any big names attached, but was able to win over critics and passionate audiences. Did enough people tune in to get it into the Emmy conversation?
The last limited series to premiere this cycle will be the upcoming NatGeo series Barkskins, a sweeping epic that details the early days of what will become Quebec focusing on the French settlers, the British colony, and the Indigenous people of the Americas. We’ll have to wait and see how critics and audiences react when it premieres on Memorial Day, but as history has shown Emmy voters have always had a soft spot for NatGeo limited series, especially in the craft categories.
Nine years ago Downton Abbey made a major upset in the limited series race and cemented itself as a major Emmy player for years to come. This year, creator and writer Julian Fellowes returned to television with his newest limited series Belgravia, another British costume drama about the scandalous lives of the upper class. The only difference is that Belgravia is airing on Epix, a network that as of now has had no awards success.
Then there are the various biopics that premiered to varying success and might fare better as showcases for their leading performers. Last fall, Catherine The Great aired on HBO, and although it stars Helen Mirren, it struggled to stand out in a time where viewers are growing increasingly tired of prestige costume dramas. Self Made premiered on Netflix to a lot of excitement as the first major portrayal of entrepreneur Madame CJ Walker but was swiftly met with controversy and mixed reviews. Then there’s Showtime’s The Loudest Voice a show that premiered last summer with a lot of praise (especially for Russell Crowe’s portrayal of Roger Ailes) but ultimately lost a lot of steam to Bombshell later in the year.
Where The Race Stands Now
In The Conversation
|1. Mrs. America
|4. The Plot Against America
5. I Know This Much to Be True
7. Little Fires Everywhere
|8. Normal People
9. The Loudest Voice
10. The Eddy