Emmys 2016: Who Will and Should Win in the Limited-Series Races?

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Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images/FX/Mike Windle/Getty Images

The 68th Emmy Awards air Sunday, September 18, and all this week, Vulture TV columnist Jen Chaney and New York Magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz are breaking down the major categories. What will win? What actually should win? That’s what we’re here to determine.

Today’s focus: Limited series. (Read Jen Chaney's picks and predictions for variety series here.)

Outstanding Limited Series
American Crime (ABC)
The Night Manager (AMC)
Fargo (FX)
The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story (FX)
Roots (History)

The Emmy should go to: Fargo. Season two’s mix of whimsy, sorrow, love, and resentment set the show apart from its inspirations, Joel and Ethan Coen, as well as from season one of Noah Hawley’s brilliant anthology series. In sheer variety of emotions conjured from one hour to the next, this program beats all comers — quite a compliment, considering how generally excellent the category is this year.

The Emmy will go to: The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.  And you won’t hear a peep of complaint from me. It was one of the most surprising and ridiculous dramas of the year, even though it was based on events everyone knows all too well.

Outstanding Actor in a Limited Series or Movie
Cuba Gooding Jr., The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
Courtney B. Vance, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
Bryan Cranston, All the Way
Idris Elba, Luther
Tom Hiddleston, The Night Manager
Benedict Cumberbatch, Sherlock: The Abominable Bride

The Emmy should go to: Courtney B. Vance, The People vs. O.J. Simpson. No one else in this category gave a performance with as much wit, pride, and soul as Vance, who brought O.J. Simpson’s lead defense attorney Johnnie Cochran back to life for ten righteous hours. Some of Vance’s treacherous, combative, or sly moments are as enjoyable as George C. Scott ‘s best work in indestructible crusader mode.

The Emmy will go to: Vance.

Outstanding Actress in a Limited Series or Movie
Sarah Paulson, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
Kerry Washington, Confirmation
Kirsten Dunst, Fargo
Felicity Huffman, American Crime
Audra McDonald, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill
Lili Taylor, American Crime

The Emmy should go to: Felicity Huffman, American Crime. As the headmaster of a private school whose basketball team is dealing with a rape scandal, Huffman put an entire craven era into perspective. Her character, Leslie Graham, is the most white-bread devil imaginable, talking everyone into acting against their best interest or at least in concert with hers, while telling herself the entire time that everything is being done for the greater good. Incredibly, you only hate the character some of the time because the actress makes every move seem comprehensible even when it’s reprehensible. 

The Emmy will go to: Sarah Paulson, The People v. O.J. Simpson. Paulson is great in everything, and no matter what the challenge (even playing twins on American Horror Story) she always rises to it. But her Marcia Clark in The People v. O.J. Simpson was something else: a chance to reclaim a fascinating woman who in real life had been caricatured by the media and too often treated as a scapegoat or punch line. Paulson humanized her, and in some scenes (such as the one in the bar where she reconstructs the crime scene for impressed onlookers) she had something else as well: movie-star cool. No regrets if she takes it.

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or a Movie
Jesse Plemons, Fargo
Hugh Laurie, The Night Manager
Sterling K. Brown, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
John Travolta, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
David Schwimmer, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
Bokeem Woodbine, Fargo

The Emmy should go to: Sterling K. Brown, The People vs. O.J. Simpson. As O.J. Simpson prosecutor Chris Darden, the partner of Marcia Clark (perhaps in more ways than one), Brown captured the exact emotional temperature of a man who accepted an impossible assignment out of pride and a sense of opportunity and then realized, too late, the vise that he’d become trapped in. There was so much anguish in this performance, but so much fire and charisma, too.

The Emmy will go to: Brown.

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or a Movie
Melissa Leo, All the Way
Jean Smart, Fargo
Sarah Paulson, American Horror Story: Hotel
Regina King, American Crime
Kathy Bates, American Horror Story: Hotel
Olivia Colman, The Night Manager

The Emmy should go to: Regina King, American Crime. As Terry LaCroix, the mother of the captain of a basketball team embroiled in a rape scandal, Regina King (who won in this category last year, for a different role in American Crime season one) took you inside the sort of character whose motives are often treated dismissively in real life, and showed the character’s tenderness, obliviousness, and dawning awareness of the moral quagmire everyone around her was slowly sinking into.

 The Emmy will go to: Melissa Leo, All the Way. As Lady Bird Johnson, wife of President Lyndon Johnson, Leo withstood the fusillade of technique that was star Bryan Cranston’s performance. Her work was the most nuanced thing about this adaptation of the hit play. It also feels a bit like the kind of performance that might’ve won an actress a best supporting statuette for a Miramax film back in the 1990s, which can’t hurt.

Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series, Movie, or Dramatic Special
Noah Hawley, Fargo, "Palindrome"
Bob DeLaurentis, Fargo, "Loplop"
David Farr, The Night Manager
D.V. DeVincentis, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia"
Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, "From the Ashes of Tragedy"
Joe Robert Cole, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, "The Race Card"

The Emmy should go to: The People v. O.J. Simpson, “The Race Card.” Joe Robert Cole’s script for the fifth episode of this excellent mini-series put the spotlight on defense attorney Johnnie Cochran (Sterling K. Brown), and along with him, the structural racism that still plagues the United States, and that eventually became the cornerstone of the Simpson team’s plan of attack. From the opening flashback of Cochran getting pulled over for no good reason by a white police officer years earlier to its clashes over proper courtroom language and tactics, this was an insightful, if often saddening, hour of television.

The Emmy will go to: The People v. O.J. Simpson, “The Race Card”

Outstanding Directing for a Limited Series
Jay Roach, All the Way
Noah Hawley, Fargo, "Before the Law"
Susanne Bier, The Night Manager
Ryan Murphy, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, "From the Ashes of Tragedy"
John Singleton, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, "The Race Card"
Anthony Hemingway, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, "Manna From Heaven"

The Emmy should go to: “Before the Law,” Fargo. Series creator Noah Hawley stepped behind the camera for this one, a cool, wintry blast of sarcasm, earnestness, and guile that laid out conflicts that would carry season two of Fargo through to its finale. Making playful use of split-screens and deep-cut soundtrack choices, this chapter played like the shotgun marriage of the Coens and Quentin Tarantino that you might not have realized you wanted.

The Emmy will go to: The People v. O.J. Simpson, “The Race Card.” John Singleton returns in spirit to some of his earliest films (Boyz n the Hood in particular) with this episode centered on Johnnie Cochran. Drum-tight, often unexpectedly hilarious, and chillingly matter-of-fact in its presentation of the Simpson team’s machinations, this is a rare depiction of historical events that allows you to see the logic of competing sides in a conflict without falling into mushy equivocation.