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A decade ago, the limited series was on its deathbed, as was its place at the Emmys.
To be fair, the “limited series” didn’t really exist. Way back in the ancient past of 2010, they were called “miniseries,” a name that primarily referred to three things: PBS prestige literary adaptations, broadcast multi-parters reserved to air during sacred “sweeps” periods, and Tom Hanks-produced epics for HBO, all of which sounds like enough to support a genre.
It was not. At the 62nd Primetime Emmys, there were only two nominees in the outstanding miniseries category: HBO’s ambitious, bloody masterpiece The Pacific, which probably would have won even against a loaded field, and PBS’ Return to Cranford.
The TV Academy did what, at the time, made total sense: It folded the miniseries and TV movie categories together. But even that didn’t solve the problem, because at the 2011 Emmys, a miscategorized ongoing drama (Downton Abbey) triumphed in a six-nominee category that still had room for Reelz’s dismal-but-popular The Kennedys and Starz’s forgettable The Pillars of the Earth. One might have been justified in thinking that this was simply a style of storytelling that was on its way out.
In 2020, the TV movie category is still on life support, but “limited series” has evolved into Emmy night’s marquee category, even if the producers of the Emmy telecast have yet to recognize this and adjust the show to reflect that the limited fields are more competitive and star-studded than drama or comedy (and certainly more so than variety programming).
Ryan Murphy deserves a healthy dollop of credit for the revitalization of the category, starting with the first American Horror Story season, which introduced the season-to-season anthology, a format that added Fargo soon after. Murphy was also behind the juggernaut The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, the limited series winner in 2016.
That re-examination of the O.J. Simpson trial was part of a real tipping point for the limited genre, dominating one category after another at the expense of a second Fargo season that many fans deem the series’ peak. But it wasn’t just those two pace-setters. It was a category without weak links that in any other year would have seen much-needed recognition for the harrowing second season of ABC’s American Crime or for a History remake of Roots that was surprisingly vital. Even the fifth nominee, AMC’s The Night Manager, was an impeccably produced and acted John le Carré adaptation.
As the comedy and drama categories fell into repetitive ruts of honoring Veep and Game of Thrones over and over again, the limited category changes every year and has featured The Night Of, Feud, The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story and last year’s winner, Chernobyl.
Since its resurrection as a full-fledged category in 2014, the miniseries/limited series selection process hasn’t been perfect. But mostly the limited categories are full of fresher and more timely titles and showcase bigger names, lured by the chance to do six or eight hours of provocative material without a five-season commitment — and probably have proven themselves worthy of anchoring the Emmy telecast instead of being buried in the middle.
Only a decade after the TV Academy struggled to justify two nominees in the category, this year’s outstanding limited series field is a robust five. You have HBO’s Watchmen, the year’s most nominated program, which offers a prescient lesson in American history and has become the most topical drama of the Black Lives Matter moment; FX’s Mrs. America and Netflix’s Unbelievable, which take actual events that could have been dry or unwatchably harrowing in different hands and make them humane, emotional and occasionally even funny; Little Fires Everywhere, powered by A-list star-producers Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon; and Netflix’s Unorthodox, driven by a breakout turn from Shira Haas.
Even if holding comedy or drama to the awards show’s end might offer such effective moments as an emotional valedictory for the beloved Schitt’s Creek or a passing of the torch from Game of Thrones to Succession, neither genre can compete with limited series for finger-on-the-pulse currency. And that’s before you get to acting showdowns like Cate Blanchett versus Regina King and Mark Ruffalo versus Jeremy Irons. It’s time to give pride of place to the limited series.
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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