The limited series race at this year’s Emmys may be the most cutthroat, high-stakes battle of any category. Though featuring only a fraction of the hundreds of submissions featured in comedy and drama, the unusually strong crop of limited series means that multiple big-name, big budget projects are on a crash course to duking it out in September. Assuming, of course, that voters can determine which shows are worthy of nominations.
IndieWire is here to help. As we did with both drama and comedy, TV Awards Editor Libby Hill and TV Critic Ben Travers have selected an ideal ballot of more-than-worthy contenders from the 35 limited series, 21 TV movies, and 300-some performers submitted.
While there’s no way to represent all the excellent would-be Emmy nominees out there, the list below highlights critical voices in the TV industry and cuts out the riffraff so you have a clear picture of the best options. Perhaps the selections will remind you of a few series you missed, or encourage you to give an actor a second look. No matter what, it’s a much more streamlined ballot than the one offered by the TV Academy.
So read on, think carefully, and please: Don’t forget these candidates before the voting deadline on June 24 at 10 p.m. PT. The ballot may be big and the ads may be overwhelming, but voting is a responsibility not to be taken lightly.
Ben Travers: I’m not convinced any of these shows are better than “What/If” — Netflix’s “so bad it’s phenomenal” homage to ’90s noir — but I’ve convinced myself winning an Emmy would actually go against everything Mike Kelley’s limited series stands for, so here goes: “Sharp Objects” is far more than its final twist, which is great, but so are the sweaty aesthetics of Southern Missouri, the detailed cuts feeding bits of information, and the challenging themes of misplaced manners and sexist double standards. Then there’s “Chernobyl,” which became a surprise sensation for many reasons as well: elegant dialogue, strong performances, and gripping imagery all add up. Finally, “The Little Drummer Girl” didn’t make a huge splash when it dropped last fall, but that’s not for lack of quality. Michael Shannon’s accent alone justifies a limited series nod.
Libby Hill: If this ballot turns into an extended “What/If” runner, we’re going to have a fight. Setting that aside, I will say that “Fosse/Verdon,” FX’s deep dive into one of Broadway’s most electrifying partnerships is one of the finest series — limited or otherwise — of the year and it would be a shame to see it get lost in the shuffle (step). (I’m sorry.) It’s been nearly a year since “A Very English Scandal,” starring Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw, made its Amazon debut, but that’s no reason for voters to overlook the series that explores a very real political sex scandal from the 1970s. Also in the conversation is Netflix’s “When They See Us,” a vital series from Ava DuVernay illuminating the true horror that was the aftermath of the Central Park Jogger case and the lives fractured in the process.
LH: This is the first, but not last, time I’ll speak about HBO’s “Deadwood” on this ballot. The late chapter to David Milch’s stellar original series, his movie reads like a mash note to fans from a man grateful for both their patience and fervor and also reflective of his own life in its final, fading years. Anyway, it’s real good. And quite Shakespearean, though not as Shakespearean as Amazon’s “King Lear” which is easily worth the price of admission based on performances alone, which boasts Anthony Hopkins in the titular role and Emma Thompson, to boot. Meanwhile, HBO’s “My Dinner With Hervé” does what HBO seems to do better than anything else, which is give Peter Dinklage great outlets for his talents. In this case, portraying actor Hervé Villechaize.
BT: And if you bring up “My Dinner With Hervé” again, then we are going to have a fight! I kid (kind of), but I will throw my weight behind three other HBO films: “Brexit” is a quick, efficient, and sharp outline of how the eponymous event came to be. “Native Son” is a festival favorite for good reason — another that HBO scooped up following last year’s successful run with “The Tale” — while “O.G.” features one of Jeffrey Wright’s best turns, as well as a beautiful, ethereal tone.
BT: Sharon Stone wasn’t Oscar-nominated for “Basic Instinct,” so legally, I don’t think the TV Academy can nominate Renée Zellweger for an Emmy. Someone should check on that, maybe I’m wrong, but until then let’s just focus on the non-winking, very serious, and wholly terrific performances elsewhere in the category. Amy Adams and Patricia Arquette should be a given — I’m inclined to push for Adams at this point, given the stunning specificity involved in her achingly emotional work, but let’s not forget about one Florence Pugh, either. “The Little Drummer” deserves all the nominations “The Night Manager” got, and who knows? Maybe the spy-thriller that doubles as a savvy ode to acting will be honored for its skillful, nuanced, and commanding lead performance.
LH: There’s no Emmy category for most unsettling performance, but if there was, this year’s award would go to Joey King, hands down, and I mean that as the highest compliment. King’s portrayal of Gypsy Rose Blanchard channels some arrested adolescent/horror movie energy that strikes just the right tone to play the protagonist in Hulu’s “The Act.” Ruth Wilson is also channelling someone in her performance in PBS Masterpiece’s “Mrs. Wilson,” but it’s her real-life grandmother, so that feels a bit like cheating. Still, Wilson is phenomenal in her work depicting a woman whose life is splintered after learning her husband had a second family. Rounding out this trio of actresses depicting real people is Michelle Williams, who had perhaps the most difficult task of all, in attempting to effectively replicate the life, love and work of a Broadway legend in Gwen Verdon. That Williams succeeds in “Fosse/Verdon” is impressive. That she’s able to elevate the role beyond just caricature is a triumph and “Fosse/Verdon” lives and dies on her performance.
Jharrel Jerome in “When They See Us”
LH: Heading back to “Deadwood,” while all of the film’s ensemble aged into their roles with grace, none came back with as much range and depth as Timothy Olyphant. Though co-star Ian McShane was equally as good, it was Olyphant who had grown as an actor and took Sheriff — now U.S. Marshall — Seth Bullock to the next level. On “Chernobyl,” Jared Harris once again proves what an absolutely astounding and empathetic actor he is, making it all the more tragic that apparently no one in the TV Academy got around to watching the first season of “The Terror” last year. More’s the pity. And in “Escape at Dannemora” Benicio del Toro delivers a ferocious performance, reminding audiences why he’s considered one of the finest actors of his generation.
BT: Listen, if it weren’t for Mahershala Ali’s rightly heralded work in “True Detective” and Jharrel Jerome’s deserved spotlight in “When They See Us,” not to mention Chris Pine’s out-there allure in “I Am the Night,” then we’d be talking about Blake Jenner in “What/If” right now. But these other fine thespians blew doors off their respective sets, so we’re not… going… to talk about… “What/If.”
BT: Netflix made the disastrous decision to push Renée Zellweger as a Lead Actress, alongside the limited series’ true lead, Jane Levy, so here we are: one more category where I can’t possibly advocate for “What/If.” That’s OK, though. Between Sissy Spacek and Patricia Clarkson, both talents shine so bright it’s hard to even see anyone else. Good thing HBO gave the great Carmen Ejogo a platform to strut her stuff, stepping up next to double Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali of all co-stars. That said, Spacek’s spotlight work in the episode “The Queen” is up there with anything she’s done in a storied career (OK, maybe “In the Bedroom” is a tick better… no, never mind, they’re even), while Clarkson continues to dominate any TV show she steps into; she’s a consistent, additive presence, and a consistently masterful one, as well.
LH: I thought I’d open this blurb by making fun of Ben’s incessant carping about “What/If” and then I realized I nominated actresses from both “Deadwood” and “Fosse/Verdon” here, so I guess I’ll just mind my own business. Of the cast of “Chernobyl,” Emily Watson has perhaps the most difficult role. The actress plays a fictional character in a very real scenario and thrives in being a strong, subtle presence in an emotionally volatile situation. Robin Weigert is pulling double HBO duty, currently co-starring on “Big Little Lies,” but the actress’ best work came in her return to “Deadwood” as Calamity Jane. It was a remarkable performance in the original series and is just as awe-inspiring some 12 years later. What to anyone else would be a collection of tics and oddities, in Weigert’s hands is a tapestry of the human condition, a masterwork depiction of a damaged, but indomitable, spirit. And on “Fosse/Verdon,” the great (“Leftovers” alum) Margaret Qualley is electric in her depiction of dance great Ann Reinking, another smart as hell woman with talent for days, who still manages to get tangled up in Fosse’s magnetic web of bullshit.
LH: No “Deadwood” here, so let me neatly pivot back to “Fosse/Verdon,” where Broadway veteran Norbert Leo Butz delivered a warm and humane portrayal of an often difficult man in Paddy Chayefsky. Ben Whishaw in “A Very English Scandal,” brings a vulnerability to his depiction of Norman Scott, a man very much trying to stay alive while simultaneously standing his moral ground. And in “Chernobyl” Stellan Skarsgård walked a similar line, with his steely depiction of a man reckoning with his own moral code and evolving from a cog into the machine into a person motivated become a whistleblower on the failings of his own government.
BT: Thrice snubbed by the Academy for “The Leftovers,” then again last year for his guest turn in “At Home with Amy Sedaris,” now is the time for Justin Theroux to snag his first Emmy nomination. OK, it would be a surprise akin to Juan Castano being the sole representative of “What/If” at the Emmys, but Theroux’s nod would be the best choice from “Maniac.” Same goes for Kyle Chandler in “Catch-22” — sure, you’ve got your George Clooneys and Hugh Lauries in the same category, but Chandler nails the tricky tone of Hulu’s adaptation, while adding a lively pizzazz all his own. And finally, let’s not forget Eric Lange’s transformative turn in “Escape at Dannemora.” With co-star Paul Dano in the supporting race as well voters could go for the bigger name, but Lange really put in the work to build out a character who could’ve been one-note in less capable hands. Give him the edge.
BT: I’m skewing a little more film-y than I’d like — without even acknowledging “Sliver” and “The Saint” director Phillip Noyce’s blue-hued, balanced-shifting, tone-setting work in “What/If,” which even has Netflix’s original auteur David Fincher rethinking his steely set-ups — but how can you not acknowledge Park Chan-wook shooting a shadowy, period dance at the Parthenon, or Ben Stiller mixing “The Great Escape” with a hip-hop soundtrack in “Escape at Dannemora”? And then there’s Mike Flanagan, whose roots in indie horror helped turn “The Haunting of Hill House” into a creepy, carefully paced tribute to classic haunted house stories. Noyce would fit right in, but again, I just don’t think that’s what “What / If” would want — it’s destined for cult status as an overlooked gem.
LH: Daniel Minahan is no stranger to directing under David Milch’s watchful eye, which is what makes it unsurprising that the veteran television director was able to recapture the soulful essence of “Deadwood” these many years later, in a fitting send-off for the show. Similarly, Jean-Marc Vallée returned to the reins of an HBO limited series and with “Sharp Objects” and proved beyond a doubt that he has mastered this medium, just like film before it. And in these final moments of voting, don’t sleep on Thomas Kail, veteran director of “Hamilton” and “2 Broke Girls,” whose vision on “Fosse/Verdon” went beyond recreating Broadway legends and accomplished something even more magical.
LH: There is something intoxicating about the words of Gillian Flynn and the way she can manipulate assumptions and subvert expectations. Coupled with Marti Noxon’s inherent understanding of television, the pair crafted a remarkable final episode to “Sharp Objects.” Such craftsmanship was also on display in Russell T. Davies work on the whole of “A Very English Scandal,” a project Davies had been pushing to do for over a decade and told in a fashion that both honors that LGBTQ community while also exposing the hatred and homophobia even more prevalent culturally in the ’70s. Finally, there is David Milch and his “Deadwood” script. Unquestionably one of television’s finest screenwriters, Milch has never been recognized by the TV Academy for his groundbreaking work on “Deadwood.” Wouldn’t now be a lovely time to start?
BT: OK, OK, it’s finally happening. I can’t stick to my principles any longer — or, I should say, the presumed principles I’ve assigned to Mike Kelley’s excellent Netflix series: “What/If” deserves a writing nod. No, it doesn’t feature the intricate beauty bursting from Sam Shaw’s exquisite episode of “Castle Rock,” nor is the dialogue as crackling or the structure as well-executed as Craig Mazin’s surprisingly watchable “Chernobyl.” But “What/If” is really, really, really fun. It’s a delight. How often can you even say that in this category, with so many stark dramas populating the ballot? Comedy is king in 2019, and “What/If” is a soapy thriller that will have you cackling for all the right reasons. Kelley knew exactly what he was doing with this one, and even if it’s antithetical to reward something so bad it’s good, gosh darn it, sometimes trash deserves a trophy.