The 69th Emmy Awards air Sunday, September 17, 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: The limited-series races.
Outstanding Limited Series
Big Little Lies (HBO)
Feud: Bette and Joan (FX)
Genius (National Geographic)
The Night Of (HBO)
The Emmy should go to: Big Little Lies
Because it’s intricately structured, humane, often stirring, unusually attentive to the inner lives of women, and superbly cast from leads on down. That the characters just happen to be swimming in money (with the exception of one major character) and live in a paradisiacal beachside community where high-level Emmy voters probably have second homes won’t hurt.
The Emmy will go to: Big Little Lies
But don’t be surprised if Feud: Bette and Joan sneaks in to grab the top prize in this category. Feud is a deep dive into an earlier era of Hollywood royalty, featuring a cast filled with veteran actors who all have a lot of awards between them: Susan Sarandon, Jessica Lange, Judy Davis, Stanley Tucci, Alfred Molina, et. al.
Outstanding Television Movie
Black Mirror: San Junipero (Netflix)
Dolly Parton’s Christmas of Many Colors: Circle of Love (NBC)
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (HBO)
Sherlock: The Lying Detective (PBS)
The Wizard of Lies (HBO)
The Emmy should go to: Black Mirror: San Junipero
A sinuously plotted, time-shifting work about love, death, and virtual reality that rivals the best of the old Twilight Zone. However, its brief running time — 61 minutes, barely over the eligibility line separating a movie from a regular dramatic series episode — could work against it.
The Emmy will go to: The Wizard of Lies
Barry Levinson’s HBO film about the Bernie Madoff scandal was pretty good, not anywhere near great, but the cast (led by Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Alessandro Nivola, Hank Azaria) might prove too prestigious to resist. Never underestimate the TV industry appeal of a story that dissects the failings of a man who was trusted to handle other people’s money and royally screwed them.
Outstanding Actor in a Limited Series or Movie
Riz Ahmed, The Night Of (HBO)
Benedict Cumberbatch, Sherlock: The Lying Detective (PBS)
Robert DeNiro, The Wizard of Lies (HBO)
Ewan McGregor, Fargo (FX)
Geoffrey Rush, Genius (National Geographic)
John Turturro, The Night Of (HBO)
The Emmy should go to: John Turturro
As the beleaguered defense attorney in The Night Of, Turturro’s subtle character acting is often relegated to the margins of prestige mini-series like this one. He’s better known for going “big” (in Coen Brothers films and big-budget fantasies like the Transformers franchise), and that can be enjoyable in its own right, but it’s great to see him working in an Al Pacino–in–Donnie Brasco mode, letting the complexity of the character happen behind the eyes.
The Emmy will go to: Riz Ahmed
In The Night Of, Ahmed plays a young Pakistani-American accused of murdering a young, native-born white woman, then becoming hardened during a stint at Riker’s Island. Between his superb work in this role (often selling plot twists that were rather contrived) and his concurrent, seriocomic turn as a surfing instructor on Girls, this should be the year when the industry rewards his versatility and kicks him up a notch in the pecking order. That actors of Ahmed’s cultural background (he’s British with Pakistani roots) rarely have premium cable mini-series built around them should be a bonus for voters. All that being said, the temptation to give an Emmy to Method god Robert De Niro might prove too tempting to resist.
Outstanding Actress in a Limited Series or Movie
Carrie Coon, Fargo (FX)
Felicity Huffman, American Crime (ABC)
Nicole Kidman, Big Little Lies (HBO)
Jessica Lange, Feud: Bette and Joan (FX)
Susan Sarandon, Feud: Bette and Joan (FX)
Reese Witherspoon, Big Little Lies (HBO)
The Emmy should go to: Nicole Kidman
Kidman’s searing work as a woman trying to escape an abusive marriage was one of the most moving, subtle performances on TV this year, strong enough to overcome occasional accent issues. (I just told myself the character emigrated from Australia decades earlier; in any case, not a deal-breaker.) I’ve said elsewhere that if you clipped out all of Kidman’s scenes in Big Little Lies, strung them end to end and released it as a theatrical film, she’d win another Oscar, and I stand by that.
The Emmy will go to: Nicole Kidman
Admittedly, this is a volatile category. Lange or Sarandon could sneak in and grab the award for playing Hollywood legends in Feud if their cheering sections in the Academy don’t cancel each other out. Carrie Coon, who was robbed of a best actress in a drama Emmy for The Leftovers, could win here, because she was equally strong performance in Fargo and her fans in the Academy might want to give her a collective “you’re awesome, keep doing your thing” prize.
Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or a Movie
Judy Davis, Feud: Bette and Joan (FX)
Laura Dern, Big Little Lies (HBO)
Jackie Hoffman, Feud: Bette and Joan (FX)
Regina King, American Crime (HBO)
Shailene Woodley, Big Little Lies (HBO)
The Emmy should go to: Regina King
For her performance as Kimara Walters, a social worker who serves as a nexus point for other major stories on American Crime while she’s trying to get pregnant. King has been one of the best actresses on television and in movies for 25 years, but she rarely gets the recognition she’s due. She’s been great on all three seasons of this ABC anthology series, and this year might’ve been her peak. Unfortunately, the show got canceled for low ratings, so it’s highly unlikely that she’ll win in this category.
The Emmy will go to: Judy Davis
She’s a force of nature in almost every role, and her performance as gossip queen Hedda Hopper is no exception. Plus, she’s been nominated for a dozen Emmys in various categories and won three — for 1982’s Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story, 2001’s Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows, and 2007’s The Starter Wife — so she’s Emmy royalty. Jackie Hoffman, who played Joan Crawford’s maid and unofficial handler Mamacita on Feud, could be a wild card here.
Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or a Movie
Bill Camp, The Night Of (HBO)
Alfred Molina, Feud: Bette and Joan (FX)
Alexander Skarsgård, Big Little Lies (HBO)
David Thewlis, Fargo (FX Networks)
Stanley Tucci: Feud: Bette and Joan (FX)
Michael Kenneth Williams, The Night Of (HBO)
The Emmy should go to: Bill Camp
Like many performers in The Night Of, including Turturro, Camp’s world-weary detective epitomizes the kind of no-fuss certitude that used to be commonplace in 1940s crime films. He was also been terrific this year on The Leftovers (as a character who might or might not be God) and in the theatrical crime drama Crown Heights.
The Emmy will go to: Alfred Molina or Stanley Tucci
Mark it down for one of the two Feud co-stars: Molina as Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? director Robert Aldrich, who was caught between the Scylla of Joan Crawford and the Charybdis of Bette Davis, or Stanley Tucci as the supremely manipulative Warner Bros. studio boss Jack Warner.
Directing for a Limited Series, Movie or Dramatic Special
Jean-Marc Vallée, Big Little Lies (HBO)
Noah Hawley, Fargo (FX Networks)
Ryan Murphy, Feud: Bette and Joan (FX Networks)
Ron Howard, Genius (National Geographic)
James Marsh, The Night Of (HBO)
Steve Zaillian, The Night Of (HBO)
The Emmy should go to: Jean-Marc Vallée
For directing Big Little Lies, a series whose supple shifts from past to present and reality to fantasy would’ve been the subject of countless think pieces if it were about tough guys doing tough-guy stuff instead of mothers worried about their children and marriages. Watch it again, and you’ll appreciate how the story manages to unfurl in the manner of a third-person omniscient novel, switching between characters’ points of view and jumping in and out of subjective emotional states without confusing the audience. It’s remarkable.
The Emmy will go to: Jean-Marc Vallée
But Ryan Murphy’s ferociously detailed reconstruction of a vanished Hollywood era in Feud also has a shot.
Writing for a Limited Series, Movie or Drama
David E. Kelley, Big Little Lies (HBO)
Charlie Brooker, Black Mirror: San Junipero (Netflix)
Noah Hawley, Fargo (FX)
Ryan Murphy, Feud: Bette and Joan (FX)
Jaffe Cohen, Michael Zam and Ryan Murphy, Feud: Bette and Joan (FX)
Richard Price and Steven Zaillian, The Night Of (HBO)
The Emmy should go to: David E. Kelley
I’ve given Kelley a lot of grief over the years for a lot of reasons, much of it deserved, but this mini-series was a marvel of construction. Its insight into its characters rarely struck a false note, even when particular subplots rested on hyped-up melodrama or coincidence.
The Emmy should go to: David E. Kelley
Because he’s a multiple winner who did the best work of his career here. The only serious competition I can see are Murphy for Feud (more for Hollywood nostalgia reasons than for the script, which drew fire for historical inaccuracies) and Price and Zillion for The Night Of, a bleak procedural with a touch of Dickensian humanism.