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The Limited Series Conundrum: What to Do With the Emmy Awards’ Most Competitive Category

Each year, the competition in Outstanding Limited Series at the Emmy Awards gets fiercer than ever. Does the category need a change?

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(clockwise, from top left) Thuso Mbedu, Kate Winslet, Michaela Coel, Letitia Wright, Anya Taylor-Joy

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Every year we say it, and each year it becomes even more accurate than it was the year before: the Outstanding Limited Series category is out of control.

There are plenty of reasons why limited series is so often the horse race to watch when it comes to the Emmy Awards. For one thing, like film and the Oscars, there’s no chance of repeat winners mucking up the category, making each year’s showdown a blank slate, pitting new project against new project, with marquee actors facing off against complete unknowns in categories increasingly difficult to predict.

It’s a reality made even more glaringly obvious this year by the slightly underwhelming offerings that will almost certainly populate the comedy and drama categories, where disrupted production schedules saw a lot of contenders fold, hoping for a better hand come the 2021-2022 awards season and all but guaranteeing some truly unconventional series nab nominations.

If you’re wondering why this is the case, you need look only as far as the most recent batch of Emmy Awards rules and regulations, in which the TV Academy laid out the guidelines for the number of nominees per category, based on how many submissions said category received. Categories with between 20 and 80 submissions get five nominees, 81 to 160 get six, 161 to 240 get seven, and more than 240 submissions in a category means said category will feature eight nominations.

That’s fairly straightforward, but there are exceptions to that rule. Specifically, the TV Academy states that both Outstanding Drama and Outstanding Comedy Series will each receive eight nominations, regardless of submissions. But not, you’ll note, limited series.

On the surface this makes perfect sense. In a typical year, both drama and comedy series likely both receive enough submissions to naturally receive eight nominations, but, it would seem, in case that wasn’t the case in a particular year, it appears that the TV Academy has made a concerted effort to keep the categories nominations static, just to be sure.

What that means for limited series — and it should be said, anthology series, as the category was expanded this year — is that the category is hamstrung, in part because of the precise issues that make the competition so exciting year after year: no turnover. Comedy and drama series naturally have more entrants year after year, because they aren’t exclusively new shows in competition. There are also shows two years old, three years old, hell, 32 years old, in some cases (Thanks, “The Simpsons.”) In that sense, is it fair to restrict the number of nominees in limited series by a metric based on figure that don’t — and could never — apply to them?

Let’s look purely at this year, which was subject to an industry-disrupting pandemic, and still managed to produce a prodigious crop of high-level limited and anthology series contenders. There are actually so many realistic potential nominees, it would be best to break them into tiers.

Star Wars:Mare of Easttown” (HBO), “The Undoing” (HBO), “Genius: Aretha” (NatGeo), “The Good Lord Bird” (Showtime), “The Comey Rule” (Showtime), “Halston” (Netflix). All of these players — for as likely or unlikely their ultimate nominations — bank on big name stars, either in casting, as is the case with Kate Winslet and Nicole Kidman; or content, with Aretha Franklin; or both, with Ewan McGregor in “Halston.” Either way, these series have bet big on marquee names to nab an edge in a bustling category.

Prestige Players: “I May Destroy You” (HBO), “It’s A Sin” (HBO Max), “A Teacher” (FX on Hulu). These are your smaller productions that don’t necessarily have household names bolstering their street cred, but do have critics willing to go to the mat to stump for their limited series elite status.

Auteurs, Come Out to Play: The Underground Railroad” (Amazon Prime), “Small Axe” (Amazon Prime). Helmed by Barry Jenkins and Steve McQueen, respectively, both of these Amazon Prime projects give full creative control to some of the most dynamic and celebrated minds currently working within the industry. While these series have some star power on the screen, the real investment comes behind the camera, in a play to tame TV like they previously conquered film.

What Hath Marvel Wrought: “WandaVision” (Disney+). Sure, “WandaVision” might be the only limited series put forth by Marvel this year, but part of the concern for this entire endeavor is the fact that another Marvel project, “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” is not competing as limited series, but instead trying to forge a path in a significantly more roomy drama series category. While Disney+ will tell you a variety of reasons for this decision, it’s difficult to dissuade a cynical mind from thinking that “Falcon” is trying to dodge a fight and play the odds.

So what’s the solution? For now, it seems as though the most logical way to go is to expand the limited and anthology series category to eight nominees, a static declaration, as is done with both comedy and drama series. The category shows no sign of slowing when it comes to high-quality, high-profile programming. Why not encourage those creative endeavors by allowing the Emmy Awards to showcase more of TV’s most alluring projects and not less.

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