By Tom O’Brien
It is on.
With the May 31 deadline for award submissions now passed, the serious cutthroat politicking for the 73rd Annual Emmy Awards has begun in earnest. Between now and June 28, beleaguered Emmy voters (of which I am one) will have to sift through and review what seems like hundreds of programs to determine which shows and performers will grab those coveted nominations.
In above-the-line categories, the Academy has recognized this predicament, and in certain select races, they have expanded the number of potential nominees. For example, in the race for Drama and Comedy Series, the number of slots has grown to eight, as it has with the supporting acting categories. Curiously, the often more competitive lead-acting races have only added only one slot to make it a total of six.
With last year’s series champions either between seasons (“Succession”) or concluded (“Schitt’s Creek”), the field in the series races, both acting, and program, is comparatively wide open, a fact that has not gone unnoticed by Emmy pundits. But most of the suspense surrounding this year’s awards surrounds one category…the demolition derby of this year’s Emmy Awards…the likely bloodbath that is the race for Outstanding Limited Series.
Off the top of my head, I can think of at least a baker’s dozen of likely contenders for Limited Series — “Fargo,” “Halston,” “Small Axe,” “It’s a Sin,” “WandaVision,” “The Undoing,” “Genius: Aretha,” “The Comey Rule,” “The Good Lord Bird,” “Mare of Easttown,” “I May Destroy You,” “The Queen’s Gambit” and “The Underground Railroad,” just to name a few. So the new expanded number of nominations will also help here, right?
It seems that the Academy has decided to keep the number of nominations at the same five. So, on nomination morning, most of these 13 potential nominees will say so long to the series race, leaving only a very select quintet to duke it out.
Opinions among pundits vary, but the consensus has begun to jell that eight series are in the strongest position to compete for the final five slots. But which ones? I’ve taken a look at those eight and weighed the pros and cons of their chances to grab a nomination.
THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT
STREAMING SERVICE: Netflix
Masking up. Making sourdough. Watching “The Queen’s Gambit.” These were three of the rituals practiced by millions around the world in 2020 to help them make it through each day during the COVID lockdown. Based on Walter Tevis’ novel about a young prodigy whose dazzling climb to the top of the chess world brought with it problems with drugs and alcohol, this seven-part Netflix series was one of the most-watched limited series in the history of the streaming service. In February, “The Queen’s Gambit” picked up the Golden Globe for Best Limited Series (as well as a Best Actress Globe for its star Anya Taylor-Joy) and has been the front-runner for most of the past nine months. It was almost inevitable, then, that it would be challenged by several bright shiny new limited series, and now we have a real race on our hands.
PRO: “The Queen’s Gambit” has been picking up awards all year, so it seems logical to believe that winning the Emmy will be its final reward for helping us through the darkest days of the pandemic. Plus, it’s really good.
CON: The series seems to have been in our lives for such a long time that many Emmy voters may consider it soooo 2020 and opt for one of the fresher series to reward.
THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD
STREAMING SERVICE – Amazon Prime
Academy Award-winning filmmaker Barry Jenkins’ 10-part adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel has garnered some of the year’s best reviews in its depiction of the brutality of slavery in the Civil War era. The subject is seen through the eyes of Cora (Thuso Mbedu), a slave who, once she is convinced to escape to the North, searches for the Underground Railroad, the fabled system in which slaves are surreptitiously helped to reach their freedom. Led by remarkably evocative work from such long-time Jenkins collaborators as cinematographer James Laxton and composer Nicholas Britell, “The Underground Railroad” will likely score big in below-the-line nominations, and since all Emmy voters cast their ballots for programming categories as well. Could that tech support put “The Underground Railroad” over the top for limited series? Time will tell.
PRO: It’s Barry Jenkins, people!
CON: As good as it is, “The Underground Railroad” is still 10 hours long and a significant commitment in time to screen some very difficult subject matter. Will some Emmy voters bail on it before the final episode?
I MAY DESTROY YOU
STREAMING SERVICE – HBO/HBO Max
Writer and star Michaela Coel has drawn upon her own experiences as the victim of sexual assault for this 12-part series focusing on Arabella (Coel), a writer who takes a break from finishing her second novel by going out for drinks with friends. The following day, she wakes up to realize that her drink had been spiked and that, in her haze, she was sexually assaulted by an unknown individual. Yes, there is a whodunit element to the series as Arabella seeks the identity of her mysterious attacker. Still, Coel is much more interested in Arabella’s struggle to get her life back together. Coel never lets Arabella off the hook as the character must confront some of the darkest parts of her psyche as she reevaluates her own life. However, what makes “I May Destroy You” stand out is the fact that, despite the heavy material, Coel deals with it by using a sardonic wit, which both draws us toward her characters and helps us better understand just what makes each one tick.
PRO: “I May Destroy You” was the first major hit of the Emmy season, both critically and with audiences, and even a year later, it has never been out of the conversation, retaining every bit of its dramatic power.
CON: It’s been almost a full year since the series premiered, and despite its glowing reviews, that’s practically an eternity to maintain your Emmy heat.
STREAMING SERVICE – Amazon Prime
Steve McQueen’s five-film anthology series “Small Axe” managed to do what no other Emmy contender has ever done — the entire project was voted the Best Film of 2020 by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association over such acclaimed competitors as “Nomadland” and “The Father.” By assembling five self-contained films into one limited series, “Small Axe” clearly stands out in structure from the rest of the Emmy pack. While each film has a different cast and characters, they are all linked thematically in their exploration of life in London’s West Indian community during the years when McQueen was growing up. “Small Axe” provides American audiences a glimpse at a rarely seen culture in mainstream entertainment with exquisitely detailed characters that viewers won’t soon forget.
PRO: “Small Axe” is a major project from an acclaimed international filmmaker with an artistic heft that should be a notable draw for Emmy voters.
CON: Since each film is a self-contained story, will voters see one film and feel as if they’re done? If so, they’ll lose the cumulative effect of seeing all five stories.
STREAMING SERVICE – Disney+
After a string of mostly forgettable TV series, Marvel Studios hit the critical jackpot with “WandaVision,” a unique mix of superhero films and 20th-century sitcoms that succeeded in balancing both humor and spectacle alongside a dark undercurrent of grief, which is no easy feat. The series’ first two episodes offer a detailed recreation of early television sitcoms with “Avengers” supporting characters Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) as a husband and wife acting out familiar sitcom situations, but something seems to be…off. As the scope of the series enlarges and the reasons behind the sitcom tropes become clear, what seems like a light television parody becomes a story with far more weight, a dramatic transition that “WandaVision” handles with ease.
PRO: The bold narrative switcheroo from a small sitcom parody to an expansive adventure tale was the subject of much admiration among the nation’s TV critics and one which Emmy voters may want to recognize.
CON: By the end of the series, some Emmy voters may feel that “WandaVision” has become just another Marvel movie, and would they want to reward that with their highest prize?
MARE OF EASTTOWN
STREAMING SERVICE – HBO/HBO Max
Kate Winslet has returned to HBO, where her 2011 limited series “Mildred Pierce” brought Winslet her first Emmy Award. Here she is back as Mare Sheehan, a seriously damaged police detective in a small Pennsylvania town, who has to balance her work life (which includes an investigation of a young woman’s murder) and her personal demons (as she still grieves her drug addict son who committed suicide). Unlike Netflix and Amazon, which drop all of their series’ episodes simultaneously, HBO has been parceling out their “Mare” episodes one week at a time. In today’s market, that can be a risky strategy, but in “Mare’s” case, it has worked as its audience (and anticipation of each episode via social media) has grown from week to week. And its timing couldn’t be better — Emmy voters are just now beginning to window shop for their voting choices, and the heat is rising on “Mare.”
PRO: Clearly, the audience’s response to “Mare” is strong, and as one of the new kids in this category, there’s a freshness to the series to which Emmy voters may respond.
CON: With much of the series’ reviews focusing squarely on Winslet’s performance (and spot-on accent), will “Mare of Easttown” be solely a Best Actress contender?
IT’S A SIN
STREAMING SERVICE – HBO Max
On the surface, the swinging London gay scene in the 1980s looks like a blast with hot sex, loud fashion, and Pet Shop Boys. But just take a moment to remember that time in the LGBTQ+ world, the dark cloud of AIDS will soon be enveloping gay Britain, the setting for Russell T Davies’ acclaimed limited series. Davies weaves his story focusing on three young gay men who move to London to fulfill their dreams: Ritchie, whose goal is to become an actor; Roscoe, who is escaping from his conservative family and Colin, who is apprenticing at a men’s tailoring shop. The men initially have come together to enjoy the good times, then later rely on one another for emotional support as the plague begins to take away their closest friends and threatens each of them as well. It is heavy subject matter, to be sure, but Davies injects it with just enough music and joy to give the series’ most emotional moments an extra punch.
PRO: With its unflinching look at the AIDS crisis in the UK, “It’s a Sin” stands out from its leading rivals, and its critical acclaim (and a 98% fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes) should not be lost on Emmy voters.
CON: With no stars and a public profile that’s arguably lower than some of its other rivals, “It’s a Sin” may have a more difficult time cracking into the top five.
STREAMING SERVICE – HBO/HBO Max
Writer/producer David E. Kelley and actress Nicole Kidman reunite after their “Big Little Lies” Emmy triumph for this six-episode limited series that is ostensibly a murder mystery but underneath, a stark examination of the oblivious damage that can be done by the privileged classes. The undoing here is not only the marriage of Grace (Kidman) and Jonathan (Hugh Grant), who is also the prime suspect in a sensational crime but also their comfortable life that takes full advantage of their being rich and white. Under the astute direction of Emmy winner Susanne Bier, Kidman embodies a woman who is desperately trying to cope as all of her assumptions about her husband begin to unravel, and Grant, as a man who cannily plays on his movie-star looks to coast through life on his wit and charm, which he suddenly realizes may not be enough to get by anymore. All this, plus a murder.
PRO: With DGA, PGA, Critics Choice, and Golden Globe nominations in hand, can Emmy recognition be far behind?
CON: With its original airing a long eight months ago, is “The Undoing” still on Emmy voters’ radar, or has the “HBO murder mystery” slot been taken over by “Mare of Easttown”?
While much of the pundit focus on this race has centered on these eight series, any one of the other titles mentioned could break through to make the final five. Indeed, the vote tally could even be split so much that a series we haven’t even mentioned could make it in. It’s going to be that kind of Emmy race, and I suspect it will be one for the ages. What do you think will be nominated/win? Let us know in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.
You can follow Tom and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @thomaseobrien