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Emmy Predictions: Best Limited Series — Too Many Choices, Too Few Slots

The race for Outstanding Limited or Anthology Series is primed to be the most heated campaign of the 2021 Emmys.

The Underground Railroad William Jackson Harper

William Jackson Harper in “The Underground Railroad”

Atsushi Nishijima/Amazon

Last Year’s Winner: “Watchmen”
Still Eligible: No.
Hot Streak: Repeat winners aren’t the norm in Limited Series, and while they do happen (“American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson”/”Gianni Versace,” “Band of Brothers”/”The Pacific”), it’s more common to see networks go on hot streaks — albeit brief ones. Currently, HBO has won the Best Limited Series category in back-to-back years, first for “Chernobyl” and then for “Watchmen.” The premium cable giant has also won in three of the last four years and seven of the last 11. Its last win gave it more trophies for Best Limited Series than any other network in history, and yet HBO has still never won more than twice in a row. Only one network has: NBC, from 1986 – 1988.
Fun Fact: Speaking of repeats, only four series have earned more than two nominations in the Limited Series category: “Horatio Hornblower” and “Fargo” both have three, “American Horror Story” has four, and “Prime Suspect” is the all-time leader with five. (Seven more series have been nominated twice, including “Genius,” “Luther,” “American Crime,” and “American Crime Story.”)
Notable Ineligible Series: “American Crime Story: Impeachment” (the season did not air in time to be eligible); “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” (submitted as a Drama Series); “Lisey’s Story” (the season did not air in time to be eligible); “Loki” (the season did not air in time to be eligible)

At the bottom of this page are IndieWire Deputy TV Editor Ben Travers’ predictions for Best Limited Series. This article will be updated throughout the season, along with all our predictions, so make sure to keep checking IndieWire for the latest news from the 2020 race. Voting for the 2021 Emmys will be held from June 17 through June 28 (with polls closing at 10 p.m. PT). Emmy nominations will be announced Tuesday, July 13. The Creative Arts Emmy Awards will be given out in September, at a date (or dates) to be announced. The 73rd Annual Primetime Emmy Awards will take place Sunday, September 19. CBS is broadcasting the ceremony.

The State of the Race

No disrespect to the many, many significant Emmy categories out there, but the 2021 race for Best Limited Series is where it’s at — not only has the deluge of limited series spread from typical prestige platforms to virtually every network out there, but the diversity of stellar offerings makes it legitimately hard to choose what shows are deserving of those coveted five slots. I do not pity the TV Academy members forced to narrow their nomination ballots, but we here at IndieWire are more than willing to offer a helping hand. (I am reachable 24/7/365 for anyone who needs a second opinion.)

Now then, what series are in the best position so far? “The Queen’s Gambit” emerged from the winter TV awards season as the guild favorite, notching key victories at the DGA Awards, SAG Awards, and PGA Awards, among others. At this point, it would take a minor miracle for Scott Frank’s breakout chess drama to miss the cut on nominations’ morning, though not for lack of competition.

Netflix will also have Ryan Murphy’s latest limited series, “Halston,” starring Ewan McGregor and the mega-producer’s typical cast of all-stars. Considering how well “Hollywood” did after some pretty mediocre reviews (12 nominations, two wins), it seems safe to bet “Halston” will be an across-the-board player no matter what kind of buzz it generates. Meanwhile, “The Haunting of Bly Manor” earned strong marks for Netflix in 2020, and Mike Flanagan’s follow-up to “The Haunting of Hill House” could benefit from the franchise’s burgeoning reputation. (Though it’s still a ways off from becoming the Academy’s new horror genre fave, a la “American Horror Story.”)

Netflix’s widespread accessibility should help it snag nominations yet again, but the service’s ubiquitous nature may not help it get multiple nods here. Amazon Prime, arguably, has the best shot at two of the five slots, thanks to its collaborations with esteemed filmmakers Steve McQueen and Barry Jenkins. McQueen’s “Small Axe” anthology made a bit of noise on the film front last winter, as various awards organizations tried to justify honoring one (or more) of the director’s five distinct works. But the TV Academy’s clarifying 2021 rule change — renaming this category Outstanding Limited or Anthology Series — makes the Emmys the perfect place to honor a five-film set. (The Oscars have no way of honoring multiple narratives housed under one title, anyway, which is the only way to reasonably weigh this work against another.) As for Jenkins, the “Moonlight” Oscar-winner has been working on his TV debut for years now, Amazon Prime is giving “Underground Railroad” a heavy push, and Jenkins, frankly, has yet to disappoint.

Still, one can never count out HBO. In a typical year, Kate Winslet’s TV debut would be a lock for a nomination, if not a half-dozen wins. This year, “Mare of Easttown” is going head-to-head with another Oscar-winning movie star: Nicole Kidman in “The Undoing.” Reviews tend to favor “Mare,” but Susanne Bier’s 2020 mystery built up a bit of steam over the winter TV awards season, snagging notable guild nominations. Both, though, could be overshadowed by an even earlier release: Michaela Coel’s “I May Destroy You” has maintained a fervent fanbase and steady buzz since it’s summer 2020 debut, and that very well could build to “Fleabag”-esque dominance at the Emmys. Right now, even the gentlest nudge forward — be it through new interviews, a solid FYC campaign, or general support from critics — could make all the difference.

So far, I’ve mentioned eight contenders, all of which have strong resumes, and all of which could be nominated — if the TV Academy had expanded the Limited Series category when it stretched the Comedy and Drama Series nomination slots to eight. But it did not. So only five can make the cut, and there are still so many more limited series to consider! Disney+ moved “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” to the Drama categories, paving the way for “WandaVision” to snatch up Limited Series nods. “Fargo” has gone three-for-three when it comes to Limited Series nominations, so the pressure is on for Season 4 to crack through. The same can be said of “Genius”: two seasons, two nominations, and now the third, “Genius: Aretha,” will look to keep the streak alive.

Then there are the dream nominees; the ones that would be considered dark horses in a normal year, but would need an immense surge of support to take down the heavily favored stallions. FX on Hulu’s “A Teacher” proved Hannah Fidell’s indie film could work as a long-form series (and get people talking); not enough can be said about Jude Law’s performance in “The Third Day” on HBO (I mean, come on); and Starz produced another sleek, smart season of “The Girlfriend Experience,” this one commanded by Anja Marquardt. Toss in HBO Max’s “It’s a Sin” and Showtime’s “The Good Lord Bird” — two limited series with enough awards bonafides to have a shot, albeit a longer one than in years prior — and there’s a full set of nominees that could stand up to many past classes of Limited Series. What a year. What a race.

Predicted Nominees:

  1. “The Queen’s Gambit” (Netflix)
  2. “I May Destroy You” (HBO)
  3. “The Underground Railroad” (Amazon Prime Video)
  4. “Mare of Easttown” (HBO)
  5. “WandaVision” (Disney+)

Contenders: “Small Axe,” “The Undoing,” “Halston,” “Fargo,” “Genius: Aretha,” “The Good Lord Bird,” “It’s a Sin,” “Your Honor,” “Solos,” “The Comey Rule”

In a Perfect World (Where There are Eight Nominees): “Haunting of Bly Manor,” “A Teacher,” “The Girlfriend Experience,” “The Third Day”

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