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‘Big Little Lies’ May No Longer Be a Limited Series, But It Can Still Get Away With Competing As One — For Now

HBO hasn't yet determined an episodic order for Season 2, which will impact where the show will face off at future Emmy and Golden Globe Awards.

Alexander Skarsgard, Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon - Outstanding Actress in a Limited Series - Big Little Lies69th Primetime Emmy Awards, Press Room, Los Angeles, USA - 17 Sep 2017

Alexander Skarsgard, Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon of “Big Little Lies” at the 2017 Emmys

Matt Baron/REX/Shutterstock

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This may be the biggest little lie of “Big Little Lies.” The show won eight Emmys this September, and now dominated this year’s Golden Globes TV nominations — but as a limited series. Now, with a second season on the horizon, “Big Little Lies” faces a category conundrum.

HBO said it hasn’t yet determined whether “Big Little Lies” will continue to be produced as a limited series, or if it will graduate to full drama series status. Much of that decision will now come down to episodic order, per TV Academy rules.

The org, which generally sets the standard that other awards shows then follow, classifies a “limited series” as “programs of two or more episodes with a total running time of at least 150 program minutes that tell a complete, non-recurring story, and do not have an ongoing storyline and/or main characters in subsequent seasons.”

That would seem to rule out “Big Little Lies,” as Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman have already signed up to return, with other cast now in negotiations. As to the question of whether they would return as new characters or in new storylines (following the “American Horror Story” model), Witherspoon made it clear they’ll be back in their same roles: “It gives us the opportunity to delve deeper into the lives of these intriguing and intricate Monterey families and bring more of their stories back to the audience who embraced and championed them.”

But here’s where “Big Little Lies” might still remain a “limited series”: Per Academy rules, “any narrative series with at least two but no more than five episodes will be considered a ‘limited series.'” That’s why “Sherlock,” which usually caps out at three episodes, continues to compete as a limited series or movie.

Big Little Lies Reese Shailene Nicole

“Big Little Lies”

Hilary Bronwyn Gayle / HBO

If “Big Little Lies” matches last year’s seven episodes, it will indeed have to move over to the regular drama series competition. There’s precedent for that: Most notably, PBS’ “Downton Abbey” won six Emmys in 2011 in the limited-run categories, including Outstanding Miniseries or Movie, as well as the Golden Globe for best miniseries or TV film.

But by 2012, it was clear that “Downton” was a continuing series, and the show had to move to the more competitive drama categories, where it didn’t fare quite as well.

In a twist of timing, HBO’s decision to pick up “Big Little Lies” for a second season came on Friday, just days before the Globes announcement — making it too late for the Hollywood Foreign Press Association to switch the show’s categories. The question of whether it might be a limited series, however, could impact how the show ultimately fares at the Globes. Similarly, “Big Little Lies” is competing in the “long form adapted” category at the Writers Guild Awards. And with the Screen Actors Guild announcing its award nominees on Wednesday, it’s also too late to switch categories there as well: “It was submitted and qualified as a limited series,” a SAG Awards spokesperson said. “Nominations voting was already underway when HBO made their announcement. It remained in the limited series category on the ballot for this year.”

The question of series categorization has been under scrutiny in recent years, as cable and streaming services redefined what’s considered a regular series (and of course, there’s the ongoing drama vs. comedy debate for shows like “Orange is the New Black”). Several returning hit series have taken an anthology approach, especially FX series like “American Horror Story,” “Feud” and “American Crime Story,” with new storylines and characters each season, allowing those shows to remain “limited.”

Rivals have grumbled, in the cast of “Big Little Lies,” that HBO and the show’s producers had been discussing a second season of the show long before the Emmys, which made it a bit disingenuous to place the show in the limited series category. But at the time, it was eligible to compete there, and when a show has a choice of categories to compete in, the TV Academy will generally allow shows to pick which field it wants to submit.

“Big Little Lies” isn’t the only show to straddle the line: USA’s “The Sinner,” which hasn’t yet been up for Emmy consideration, is also competing in the limited series category. “The Sinner” hasn’t yet been renewed for a second season, allowing it to choose that race; and even if it does return for a Season 2 (as expected), series showrunner Derek Simonds has suggested that it may turn into an “anthology series of sorts” with a different mystery each season. However, if series star Jessica Biel or any of the other characters return, that show will also likely have to move to regular drama series contention.

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