Every year, there is more TV, and every year, the Emmys stubbornly stick to the same old series. Once the Emmys like you, they really like you, which is why series like Game of Thrones, Veep, and Modern Family secured so many wins during their runs and why series like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Ozark, and Succession are now so dominant. The Limited or Anthology Series category is supposed to be different: an opportunity for the Emmys to shake up their patterns with nominations for shows that, by the category’s very definition, shouldn’t really repeat year after year. And yet despite those explicitly inclusive standards, the Limited or Anthology Series categories mimic the Emmys’s forever-frustrating narrowness.
This is not a new phenomenon. As Vulture’s Jen Chaney pointed out last year, the Television Academy’s “suuuuuper stupid” eligibility guidelines for the category mean there are not enough slots to recognize all the shows competing in this ever-expanding designation. But this year’s nominees underscore a related issue that’s increasingly prevalent across all the major categories, but particularly galling in the Limited or Anthology Series categories that could and should counteract the Emmys’ habit of repetition: the trickle-down snub.
Dopesick, Inventing Anna, Pam & Tommy, The Dropout, and The White Lotus — the five series up for Outstanding Limited or Anthology Series, and coincidentally also up for Outstanding Casting for Limited or Anthology Series or Movie — dominate the associated acting, directing, and writing categories to such a degree that there is barely room for anything else. Literally: In Outstanding Supporting Actor, three of the nominees are from The White Lotus, three from Dopesick, and one from Pam & Tommy; in Outstanding Supporting Actress, five of the nominees are from The White Lotus and the other two are from Dopesick. Dopesick, The Dropout, and The White Lotus took four of seven spots in Outstanding Directing for a Limited or Anthology Series or Movie and three of seven spots in Outstanding Writing, while Dopesick, Pam & Tommy, and The White Lotus took five of six spots in Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing.
Hulu must be pleased that Dopesick, Pam & Tommy, and The Dropout are cleaning up, but only one of those series is good, and it’s odd that while Amanda Seyfried rightfully earned an Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited or Anthology Series or Movie nod, Naveen Andrews — whose portrayal of Sunny Balwani is integral to the series’ atmosphere of menace and paranoia — couldn’t break through in Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited or Anthology Series or Movie. To be fair, that category is probably the most varied, with nods for Colin Firth in The Staircase, Andrew Garfield in Under the Banner of Heaven, Oscar Isaac in Scenes From a Marriage, and Himesh Patel in Station Eleven, alongside expected dudes Michael Keaton in Dopesick and Sebastian Stan in Pam & Tommy. But the otherwise admirable diversity of this category just highlights all the other good series that could have been nominated for the big prize and taken the place of, say, the shockingly ill-conceived Inventing Anna, or the redemptively confused Pam & Tommy, or of Dopesick and its we’re-telling-a-serious-story affectations.
Why not Under the Banner of Heaven, which smartly invented a True Detective–like frame for Jon Krakauer’s nonfiction book and made real the danger of unthinking religious obedience and uniquely American-male narcissism? Garfield’s nomination should have at least been joined by a supporting-actor nod for Wyatt Russell, who gave the scariest performance of this year on television. Why not Station Eleven, which secured nominations for Outstanding Cinematography for a Limited or Anthology Series or Movie (alongside welcome, unexpected choices like 1883 and Moon Knight) and Outstanding Music Composition for a Limited or Anthology Series, Movie or Special (Original Dramatic Score) and which actually considered the pandemic era we’ve been in for the past two years and found something profound to say about it? Why not Gaslit, which got one nod for Outstanding Cinematography for a Limited or Anthology Series or Movie but absolutely should have received some sort of recognition for its absurdly deep ensemble, from Julia Roberts crushing it as the outspoken-then-traumatized Martha Mitchell to Shea Whigham as the relentlessly maniacal G. Gordon Liddy? Why can’t the Emmys catch on to the fact that Roberts is doing some of her best late-career work in Sam Esmail–produced projects like Homecoming and Gaslit? And speaking of Esmail-produced projects, Emmy Rossum gave a more transformative performance in Angelyne than either Garner in Inventing Anna or Sarah Paulson in Impeachment: American Crime Story, but since the Emmys never found a way to nominate Rossum during all those years she led the Gallagher family on Shameless, I guess they weren’t going to start now.
Like Angelyne, there are an array of deserving limited series this year that were shut out entirely — Conversations With Friends, Midnight Mass, and The Offer, which wasn’t amazing overall but in which Matthew Goode ruled — but perhaps the most frustrating is the blanket rejection of We Own This City, George Pelecanos and David Simon’s adaptation of Justin Fenton’s book of the same name investigating the widespread corruption of Baltimore’s Gun Trace Task Force. Nearly everything about this series was impeccably crafted, in particular Jon Bernthal’s lead performance as the mercurial Sergeant Wayne Jenkins, Jamie Hector’s conflicted turn as Detective Sean Suiter, and the precisely edited timelines juxtaposing the GTTF’s actions over the aughts with their interviews in FBI custody. It’s dispiriting that 20 years after The Wire received only two Emmy nominations over its entire run, We Own This City has gotten even worse treatment.
Part of the issue here is what Chaney pointed out last year: Unlike the Outstanding Comedy Series and Outstanding Drama Series categories — which each have eight slots — Outstanding Limited or Anthology Series has only five and clearly needs to be expanded already. If there are only five series that can be elevated to the “best” designation, then certain programs, even if they get nominated in technical areas, don’t make the final cut and others that seem on the bubble (like We Own This City) don’t get considered at all. But I’m going to go a step further and make another suggestion to combat the creeping problem of certain series dominating the acting categories and then getting nominated, seemingly automatically, for the top prize: Only allow each series one nomination in its associated categories, and I mean that for limited, drama, and comedy series down the line.
That limitation should seemingly already exist for lead actor and lead actress, although this year’s double nods for Only Murders in the Building’s Steve Martin and Martin Short and Succession’s Brian Cox and Jeremy Strong suggest an encroaching laxness there. Let’s nip that in the bud and enforce it elsewhere, too. Only one supporting actor and one supporting actress for each series, so that ensembles don’t end up dominating. Only one writing and one directing nod per series, so that voters are forced to consider more options.
Could this cause more competition within the cast and crew working on a series together? It probably would. But with apologies to Abbott Elementary and pointed stares at Ted Lasso, I think, in the long run, a one-nominee-per-category limitation could also broaden the kind of series the Emmys end up nominating and awarding and break the cycle of repetition. As Television Academy Chairman and CEO Frank Scherma said during the Emmys announcement this morning, “Production is at a historic high” and “the quality of the shows we are all watching is also at an all-time high,” but “only a fraction of the incredible television being made right now” is reflected by these nominees. If that can be changed so that Emmys more accurately reflect what Scherma himself described as “multitude of choices,” it’s time to do it. Break the monotony already.