By Tom O’Brien
The deadline for eligibility for this year’s Emmy Awards has been extended into early June, but one category that extension won’t affect is the already red-hot race for Outstanding Limited Series in which all of the likely contenders have already been seen. To be considered as a limited series, a show must have two or more episodes with a running time of at least 150 minutes and tell a complete story without any teasers suggesting future episodes. There have been occasions where the limited series proves to be so popular that the networks and producers decide to take it to series – “Downton Abbey,” “Fargo,” and “Big Little Lies” – but it’s a rarity.
This year, the Limited Series race is seen by Emmy prognosticators to be very tight. The leading contenders: superheroes seeking racial justice; female detectives investigating a true-life series of rape cases; a take on the real-life opponent of the growing women’s rights movement in America in the 1970s; a fantasy speculating what a PC Hollywood would be like in the late 1940s. Let’s meet the top ten contenders and rank their chances of getting a coveted Emmy nomination.
1. “Watchmen” (HBO)
Superhero films may lay an egg with Oscar voters, but this superhero series, led by acclaim for its star Regina King, scored with both viewers and critics. As a masked Tulsa police detective named Sister Knight, King’s character investigates the murder of a friend which may be tied to vigilantism. King is awards gold, having won an Oscar on her first nomination for “If Beale Street Could Talk” and three Emmys from four nominations. Not a bad track record. With “Watchmen,” she has found a series that’s as good as she is.
2. “Unbelievable” (Netflix)
Real-life crime dramas are catnip for Emmy voters in this category. The story of linked rape cases investigated by Washington detective Grace Rasmussen (Oscar nominee Toni Collette) and Colorado detective Karen Duvall (two-time Emmy winner Merritt Wever) proves to be a powerful one. The case relies on the testimony of a young woman, Marie Adler (“Booksmart“‘s Kaitlyn Dever), who is accused of lying about being raped. The female-centered investigation of this case helps to make “Unbelievable” stand out from your everyday police procedural.
3. “Mrs. America” (FX on Hulu)
It’s not easy to make notorious conservative gadfly, Phyllis Schlafly, into an interesting figure, but Cate Blanchett, starring in her first American TV series, does just that in Schlafly’s campaign to defeat the proposed Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. Providing powerful support is a cast of other great actresses like Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem, Margo Martindale as Bella Abzug, Uzo Aduba as Shirley Chisholm, and Tracey Ullman as Betty Friedan. “Mrs. America” will, no doubt, find support in the Actors Branch which should be enough for a nomination, if not an Emmy win.
4. “Hollywood” (Netflix)
Producer Ryan Murphy, whose miniseries have won this category two of the last four years, is back in the hunt in this fantasy look at Hollywood in 1947. The series focuses on the making of a film helmed by a half-Filipino director (Darren Criss), written by a gay African-American (Jeremy Pope), and starring an African-American actress (Laura Harrier) playing a black character who’s not a maid – a rarity at that time. While reviews on the miniseries’ writing have been mixed, critical notices on its acting, costumes, and production design are strong, so look at it to score multiple Emmy nominations across the board.
5. “Little Fires Everywhere” (Hulu)
This miniseries, based on the best-seller by Celeste Ng and produced by the late Lynn Shelton, brings together Reese Witherspoon (is she in everything these days?) and Kerry Washington as mothers from different socio-economic backgrounds whose lives intertwine. Though the reviews for this miniseries weren’t as strong as they were for Witherspoon’s “Big Little Lies,” for those Emmy voters who are going through “Big Little Lies” withdrawal, “Little Fires Everywhere” may be a comfortable place to land.
6. “I Know This Much Is True” (HBO)
Executive Producer Mark Ruffalo helped to guide the miniseries adaptation of the 1998 novel to the screen, playing the dual roles of paranoid schizophrenic, Thomas Birdsey, and his identical twin brother, Dominick, who comes to the aid of Thomas after he has suffered a violent public breakdown. It’s a compelling dual performance from Ruffalo, which has garnered largely good reviews and has the advantage of airing as Emmy voters begin to consider for whom they will cast their ballot.
7. “Unorthodox” (Netflix)
Shira Haas delivers one of the year’s best performances as Esty Shapiro, a 19-year-old ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman who’s in an unhappy arranged marriage to her nerdy husband, Yanky (Amit Rahav). She runs away from her home in Williamsburg, Brooklyn to Berlin where she hopes to reunite with her estranged mother and live what she hopes will be a happier secular life. The only problem is, under orders from their rabbi, Yanky, and his more aggressive cousin Moishe (Jeff Willbusch), are sent to Berlin to bring Esty home. It’s a powerful story that’s well-told.
8. “The Plot Against America” (HBO)
In this six-part miniseries, based on the best-seller by the late Philip Roth, a question is posed: What would happen if Franklin D. Roosevelt was defeated in the 1940 election and Charles Lindbergh became President? Lindbergh, who’s depicted here as a Nazi sympathizer, leads the U.S. to a much cozier relationship with Adolf Hitler and turns a blind eye to Hitler’s plan for world domination. Produced by Ed Burns and David Simon (“The Wire”), they bring the same grittiness that they brought to that series, providing an unusually realistic bit of alternative history.
9. “The Eddy” (Netflix)
On paper, “The Eddy” would appear to have everything needed for an Outstanding Limited Series win: an Academy Award-winning director in Damien Chazelle (“La La Land“), a successful playwright and screenwriter in Jack Thorne (“Wonder“), and an exotic locale in the jazz world of Paris. The reviews of the series, so far, have been mixed and the buzz for the series has been muted. However, as the series is still playing out, there’s lots of room for the buzz to grow and turn “The Eddy” into a serious Emmy contender.
10. “The Loudest Voice” (Showtime)
There are times when one film on a historical event becomes the definitive chronicle on the subject, but Showtime’s “The Loudest Voice,” which aired nearly a year ago – a miniseries that deals with the sexual harassment saga of Roger Ailes at Fox News – was largely overshadowed by the release of Jay Roach’s feature film on the same subject, “Bombshell,” later in the year. Still, Russell Crowe’s depiction of Ailes received positive notices so “The Loudest Voice” may find more success in Best Actor than Limited Series in the long run.
With Emmy deadlines moved forward, the voting period for Academy members jumps from June 15-29 to July 2-13, with the new nominations announcement date now July 28 instead of July 14. How this all plays out is going to be fascinating. Stay tuned.
What do you think will be nominated for Outstanding Limited Series at the Emmys this year? 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 Emmys and TV on Twitter at @thomaseobrien