Last June as we headed into the start of the 2022 Emmy season, a heavily buzzed-about limited series danced on the lips of Emmy watchers everywhere. Set for a summer premiere date, it boasted an all-star cast interacting with each other at an exclusive and luxurious resort. It hailed from a celebrated writer/creator and appeared to be an early contender for limited series glory.
That limited series was Hulu’s Nine Perfect Strangers.
But a funny thing happened on the way to its August premiere date: The White Lotus premiered.
Granted, Nine Perfect Strangers and The White Lotus have only a handful of superficial similarities, but as critical and early audience reaction to The White Lotus emerged, Mike White’s Maui-set series dominated the summer buzz with its sickly hilarious take on well-meaning but incredibly self-centered tourists. As HBO doled out weekly episodes, social media couldn’t get enough of it. While Nine Perfect Strangers came and went within a weekend, Jennifer Coolidge, who gives a career-best performance as Lotus‘s Tonya McQuoid, received a standing ovation at the 2021 Emmy Awards.
Now that the 2022 Emmy season officially ends tomorrow, it doesn’t feel like any limited series premiering since then has the buzz, the overall goodwill, or the sheer entertainment value as The White Lotus. A strong reception during last winter’s guild/year-end awards season further solidified its place in the mind of voters. To me, the series feels like an inescapable frontrunner, one that seems likely to win several awards next September.
Certainly, there have been other very strong candidates along the way.
Strangely, Nine Perfect Strangers decided to go the Big Little Lies route and declared a second season earlier this month. That takes it out of limited series contention, which many have claimed would happen to The White Lotus once Mike White revealed that Coolidge’s Tonya McQuoid would make an appearance in the follow-up in the anthology series, The White Lotus: Sicily. However, the locale and the remainder of the cast are completely different, and neither HBO nor White have revealed the size of Coolidge’s presence in Sicily. Unless the Television Academy intervenes, The White Lotus will remain a limited series.
For several months, Hulu’s Dopesick seemed the most likely competitor to The White Lotus. Based on Beth Macy’s book Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company that Addicted America, the sprawling limited series certainly has the heft, the social importance, to show nicely at the Emmys. Led by Michael Keaton, Dopesick also features an all-star cast of award-winning actors including Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg, Kaitlyn Dever, Rosario Dawson, Will Poulter, and more. Michael Keaton’s high-profile sweep of key performance awards last winter (Critics’ Choice, Golden Globes, and SAG) keeps the series in the mind of voters, and his revelation of a personal addiction tragedy in his life underscores the importance of the series. Yet, aside from Keaton’s performance, it doesn’t feel like many love the series. Yes, it’s widely respect, but it feels like homework, a feat that plagues a handful of limited series this year.
While Dopesick can technically be classified as a “true crime” limited series, it definitely falls into the white collar crime arena, much like the other high-profile Hulu limited series The Dropout. As with Dopesick, The Dropout looks at the adverse impact of drug companies (in this case, the ill-fated tech start-up Theranos and its partnership with Walgreen’s) on the health care industry. Oscar-nominee Amanda Seyfried (Mank) stunned audiences with her transformative performance as Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes. She’s likely the frontrunner for lead actress, pairing nicely with likely lead actor frontrunner Michael Keaton from Dopesick. Yet, as good as The Dropout is, there’s a not insignificant buzz surrounding the series and the necessity of its 8-episode duration. At the end of the day, The Dropout probably sees a Limited Series Emmy nomination on the strength of its central Seyfried performance.
The other side of the true crime limited series coin involves a myriad assortment of more traditional murder-based stories. HBO’s The Staircase and FX’s Under the Banner of Heaven premiered late in the Emmy season to critical acclaim. A late-season premiere is usually the sweet spot for winning Emmys and certainly both titles have massive fans, but they are both intense, often unpleasant series in a category that, more often that not, awards bingeworthy obsessions. While both series seem destined for nominations, Heaven probably holds the upper hand, if people watch it. Based on the Jon Krakauer book and starring recent Oscar-nominee Andrew Garfield, Heaven is a sprawling exploration of faith, fundamentalism, and Mormon traditions set against a murder investigation. When you watch the series, you understand that it’s about much more than the murder. It’s incredibly heavy material, and after having finished all seven episodes, I’m not sure I’d ever want to see it again. While it is imperfect, the performances, direction, and crafts are all top-notch, and Emmy nominations seem assured all around. Whether or not it can win the top prize entirely depends on whether or not people actually watch it. Garfield’s presence will help, but the series often focuses on incredibly unpleasant subject matter which could turn off a lot of voters.
True crime obsessives already know a lot about The Staircase headed into the series, and that may handicap it in the Emmy game. Rather than uniquely focus on the Michael and Kathleen Peterson murder case, the series broadens its scope to include the documentarians who produced the infamous docuseries of the same name. But was that a smart move? As it moved beyond the initial Peterson trial, The Staircase recently emerged as another entry in the “Does This Really Warrant This Many Episodes” game. Plus, its greatest asset is also a potential liability in that it refuses to take a side on Peterson’s guilt. It remains a passive third party, giving three different possibilities of Kathleen Peterson’s death. Yes, that includes the infamous “owl theory.” The Staircase is a class act in every way with two of our very best actors — Toni Collette and Colin Firth — leading a strong cast. But will people care at the end of the day?
Those are the most likely contenders for our top five limited series slots. If the category expands to six, then I would strongly urge Emmy watchers to consider Disney+’s Moon Knight. I initially put this series aside thinking it would be yet another superhero story, but many, I suspect, are sleeping on this series as much as I did. As with WandaVision before it, the creative team behind Moon Knight threads an intensely emotional narrative amongst the superhero goings-on. The limited series provides another example of trauma and its lingering impact, something not fully apparently until episode five of the six episode series. I’m wondering if the voting members of the Television Academy will find this narrative independently or will Disney have to work overtime to reveal it. Also in its favor: a fantastic performance from Oscar Isaac that absolutely should be in the Emmy conversation for lead actor in a limited series. Forget Scenes from a Marriage: this is his most adept and creative work in years.
Other potential limited series contenders include Netflix’s Maid, Starz’s Gaslit, FX’s Impeachment: American Crime Story, Amazon’s A Very British Scandal, Paramount’s 1883, HBO’s Station Eleven, and Hulu’s Pam & Tommy.
Still, of the titles in contention, I have yet to see a consensus form around a contender. Dopesick, The Dropout, and Under the Banner of Heaven all have their supporters, but I personally believe that The White Lotus is really the only series with enough broad support to win.
What do you think? Do you have an argument supporting another limited series? Sound off in the comments!