awards season

It’s Time for Emmys to Expand Limited Series

Ethan Hawke (who should have been nominated for an Emmy) in The Good Lord Bird (which also should have been nominated for an Emmy). Photo: \/William Gray/SHOWTIME

Just over a decade ago, in 2010, there were so few Emmy Award contenders in what was then called the Outstanding Miniseries category that only two shows were nominated: HBO’s The Pacific, which won, and PBS’s Return to Cranford, which didn’t. In response, the miniseries and television movie categories were combined the following year to widen the field of competition.

Ten years have passed since then, and now what is known as the Outstanding Limited or Anthology Series category — which again broke off from Best Television Movie in 2014 due to an increase in anthology and single-season shows — has the opposite problem. There are many extraordinary, Emmy-eligible limited series every year, but still only five nomination slots available to be filled.

This year, a quintet of worthy shows was nominated in this category: I May Destroy You, Mare of Easttown, The Queen’s Gambit, The Underground Railroad, and WandaVision. But several other terrific ones were left out, including the Steve McQueen anthology Small Axe, The Good Lord Bird, It’s a Sin, and A Teacher. A high-profile HBO series that in years past would have been a shoo-in, The Undoing, was shut out. We Are Who We Are, which submitted itself as a drama for some inexplicable reason — maybe limited series seemed too competitive? — would have been another solid limited-series entry, too. The, uh, limitations in the limited category become that much more egregious when compared to Outstanding Comedy Series and Outstanding Drama, which each have eight nominations.

The reasons for the numerical discrepancy, like so many things in life, come down to fuzzy math and random rules. Emmy guidelines stipulated that there will be eight nominations in the Outstanding Drama and Comedy fields, in part (presumably) because so many shows are eligible for the honor and they want the two genres to be balanced. In just about every other category, however, the number of nominations depends upon that eligibility factor. According to Variety, 37 programs were submitted in the limited-series race this year. Since Emmy rules state that a category with 20 to 80 submissions yields five nominees, there are only five nominated limited series.

If I may use language that can only be deployed by the most articulate of critics, this is suuuuuper stupid. For starters, on the comedy and drama side, this approach assumes that having more eligible shows naturally means there are more strong shows in the bunch that are worthy of Emmy attention. But more quantity doesn’t necessarily equate to more greatness. Believing that it does is what I refer to as “playing life by Netflix rules.”

The best examples of drama on television in the past year were largely — though not entirely — found in the limited-series realm. As an experiment, put, say, I May Destroy You or Mare of Easttown in the Outstanding Drama Series category. Either would immediately wipe out the competition, most likely. If WandaVision were considered a comedy, I can’t say for sure that it would beat Ted Lasso, but it would very likely have bumped Cobra Kai or Emily in Paris off of the nominee list, which would have been completely appropriate.

This isn’t just a one-year anomaly, either. Last year, Normal People, I Know This Much Is True, and The Plot Against America stood among the overlooked. The year before that, A Very English Scandal, Dirty John, and Maniac were passed over. The number of high-achieving limited series only seems poised to increase in the coming years.

I’m not advocating that the Outstanding Limited Series category be abolished and that all shows compete as either dramas or comedies, although it would be very interesting to see how the Emmys played out if that were the case. But given the increasing number of limited series of incredibly high caliber, it only makes sense for the outstanding series in the limited, drama, and comedy categories to have the same number of nominees. (The acting nominations, which open a whole separate can of worms in terms of how many nominations fall in each category, can remain unchanged, at least for now.)

I realize that making an ongoing series is a different sort of art than making one that you know will only last for one season. Limited series often attract bigger stars, have comparably larger budgets, and have the flexibility to be more cinematic in their approach than many traditional TV projects. But when Emmy voters sit down to cast ballots, they’re mostly looking at the merits of a specific season of television. And the truth is that the seasons of many limited series are on par with, if not superior to, a vast number of the ongoing shows that are flooding the networks and streaming services and keep multiplying every day like Mogwais who binge-ate after midnight. There may be fewer limited series total, but the proportion of good to bad in that mix is quite high.

If there were just one or two more spots in the limited-series category this year, we might have actually seen the sensational The Good Lord Bird get nominated this morning, although the fact that Ethan Hawke was not nominated for his off-the-charts fantastic performance in it suggests that voters must not have even watched it. Maybe the groundbreaking Small Axe would have made it in there, too, although it’s possible it was overlooked because some voters remain conflicted about whether it qualifies as a movie or a series. In retrospect, it would have made more sense for Amazon to champion each of McQueen’s explorations of the West Indian immigrant experience in Great Britain in the TV Movie category; it could have swept the whole thing. Before you dig out the Emmy rule book to start explaining why that would not have made sense, I would just like to offer the counterpoint that a lot of this doesn’t make sense! When Ethan Hawke can’t get a nomination for delivering one of the best television performances of the year, in any category, “making sense” ceases to be relevant.

No matter how many slots the Emmys makes available in its major categories, there will always be some wonderful shows that get left out or quote-unquote snubbed. But giving comedy and drama such a wide berth without extending the same flexibility to the limited series, where some of the most exciting contemporary television is being made, isn’t just unfair. It’s a refusal to take the temperature of the medium and adjust accordingly to a changing climate.

It’s Time for Emmys to Expand Limited Series