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2021 Emmys Preview: Handicapping the Limited Series Categories

Queen's Gambit, WandaVision and Mare of Easttown face off in a battle of the most talked-about shows of the year.
  • (Photos: Netflix, Disney+, HBO)
    (Photos: Netflix, Disney+, HBO)

    Joe Reid isn't just Primetimer's managing editor. He's also an awards expert and one half of the popular podcast, This Had Oscar Buzz. Over the coming weeks Joe will be looking at the competition in each of the major categories at this year's 73rd Annual Emmy Awards. Today: Limited Series.

    We've been building up to this for a while now, but the 2021 Emmys are where the limited series has finally taken its place at the top of the TV mountain. For so long, we squabbled over whether or not it was genre bias that was leading the Emmys to constantly place Outstanding Drama as the last (and by implication most prestigious) award of the night, when really it was all just treading water, waiting for the year that a superpowered witch, a funny-talking cop, and a chess grandmaster would be the most talked-about shows on TV.

    The limited series is here, and the shows nominated in this category represents those that truly most captivated the TV conversation over the last year. But who's poised to win in the Outstanding Limited Series, Actor, and Actress categories?

    Outstanding Limited Series

    • I May Destroy You (HBO)
    • Mare of Easttown (HBO)
    • The Queen's Gambit (Netflix)
    • The Underground Railroad (Amazon Prime Video)
    • WandaVision (Disney+)

    The Frontrunner: Of the major show categories, this one is by far the most competitive and the most exciting. All five of these shows were sparklingly reviewed and discussed like the major events they were. At a time when TV viewership is so splintered, we really came together to follow Wanda and Mare; maybe that kind of old-school week-after-week viewing experience will help those shows? The Queen's Gambit won the Golden Globe, but none of its Emmy competition was nominated then (only I May Destroy You was even eligible). The awards experts at Gold Derby are majorly split, giving a slight edge to The Queen's Gambit, which would be Netflix's first win in this category ever.

    The Likeliest Spoiler: If The Queen's Gambit is a slight favoritefrom the Netflix stable, it's got a few HBO thoroughbreds chasing it down. Since the category was rebranded "Limited Series" in 2015, HBO has won four of the six trophies. I May Destroy You was the critical cause celebre last summer, but recency bias — and the fact that it was outstanding television — might benefit Mare of Easttown the most.

    The Feel-Good Long-Shot: It's tough to tell if any of these shows is too long of a shot. I May Destroy You would end up being a feel-good victory if only because of how hard Michaela Coel fought to get the show made and how hard the show's supporters (critics and folks on Twitter alike) fought to demand recognition for it. On the other end of that spectrum, WandaVision didn't need to fight for eyeballs, but a win for a superhero series in what is definitely the most prestigious category of the year this year, would a huge barrier broken for genre shows, not to mention a populist choice that the Emmy telecast would love to feature.

    Stat to Chew On: FX, the network that won the two Limited Series Emmys that HBO didn't win in the last six years, isn't nominated in this category for the first time since 2011, back when the then-"Outstanding Miniseries" category was combined with the TV Movie category and Downton Abbey (which was still being considered a miniseries) won. In that span, eleven FX miniseries have been nominated, with three winning.

    Prediction: The Queen's Gambit got to the high ground early in this category, and while sometimes that's enough, the show has lost some steam lately, while Mare of Easttown is just full of it (steam, that is). Bring that Emmy home to Delaware County.

    Outstanding Actress in a Limited Series

    • Michaela Coel as Arabella in I May Destroy You
    • Cynthia Erivo as Aretha Franklin in Genius: Aretha
    • Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff in WandaVision
    • Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon in The Queen's Gambit
    • Kate Winslet as Mare Sheehan in Mare of Easttown

    The Frontrunner: The fact that Anya Taylor-Joy got a jump start on this competition at the end of last year means she was able to rack up wins at the Golden Globes and SAG Awards before Elizabeth Olsen or Kate Winslet were even in the game. Still, success tends to beget success in the awards game, so it's hard to imagine anyone else at the front of the pack at this point.

    The Likeliest Spoiler: Two things can simultaneously be true: Anya Taylor-Joy can be the definitive frontrunner here, while at the same time this is the single most competitive category on the Emmy ballot, with almost anyone making a good case to win. Best poised among the other four is Kate Winslet, whose reputation (one Oscar, one Emmy, three BAFTAs, three SAG awards, three Golden Globes) works in her favor, especially when she's receiving some of the best reviews of her career.

    The Feel-Good Long-Shot: A victory for Michaela Coel would be a victory not only for I May Destroy You but for the strength, courage, and artistry that it took to bring that story to the screen.

    Stat to Chew On: Each of the first three seasons of the NatGeo anthology series Genius have produced Emmy nominations for their stars: Geoffrey Rush as Einstein, Antonio Banderas as Picasso, and now Cynthia Erivo as Aretha Franklin. This bodes well for whomever is cast in the fourth season, which will be about Martin Luther King, Jr.

    Prediction: Is it a cowardly hedge to go with Mare in Limited series but stick with Anya Taylor-Joy here? Perhaps, but that's what's happening.

    Outstanding Actor in a Limited Series

    • Paul Bettany as Vision in WandaVision
    • Hugh Grant as Jonathan Fraser in The Undoing
    • Ewan McGregor as Halston in Halston
    • Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton in Hamilton
    • Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr in Hamilton

    The Frontrunner: You tell me! If Actress in a Limited Series is crazy competitive because of the elite performances nominated, Actor in a Limited Series is crazy competitive because no one really has all that great buzz. The country is certainly still wild for Hamilton, as the many, many nominations it got for the Disney+ airing of its filmed Broadway performance would indicate. But while the Tony Awards were able to see both Lin-Manuel Miranda and Leslie Odom Jr. in the same category and still vote overwhelmingly for one (Odom, in that case), it's likely that Emmy voters will split between them. Or it would be likely if any of the other three nominees were stronger contenders. I mean, you'd have thought that a Broadway show from 2016 couldn't dominate the Emmy nominations in 2021 either, but here we are.

    The Likeliest Spoiler: Wild as is it to consider, the best bet to thwart a Hamilton victory here might come from a costumed superhero. With WandaVision incredibly popular but likely running in third place in the Limited Series and Actress categories, this might be where voters decide to show their love for the Marvel/Disney+ series and vote for Paul Bettany's excellent performance.

    The Feel-Good Long-Shot: He's probably too much of a contender to win to be considered a "long-shot," but it's worth noting that Hugh Grant hasn't won any kind of major award — no Oscars, no Emmys, no SAG Awards — since his breakthrough in Four Weddings and a Funeral in 1994. He's been putting in some great work since then, and no matter what you may have thought of The Undoing, his performance was absolutely brilliant.

    Stat to Chew On: In a bit of encouraging news for the Hamilton contingent, five of the last six times that two actors from the same show were nominated in this category together, one of them won: Riz Ahmed over John Turturro in The Night Of; Courtney B. Vance over Cuba Gooding Jr. for The People vs. O.J. Simpson; Michael Douglas over Matt Damon for Behind the Candelabra; Kevin Costner over Bill Paxton for Hatfields & the McCoys; and Barry Pepper over Greg Kinnear for The Kennedys.

    Prediction: This one is a real toss-up, so I'll just go for the good vibes and predict that Hugh Grant will triumph for all murderous, cheating, wealthy husbands everywhere.

    The 73rd Primetime Emmy Awards are scheduled to air September 19th on CBS and Paramount+.

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    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: 73rd Primetime Emmy Awards, Genius, I May Destroy You, Mare of Easttown, The Queen's Gambit, The Underground Railroad, The Undoing, WandaVision, Anya Taylor-Joy, Elizabeth Olsen, Hugh Grant, Kate Winslet, Leslie Odom Jr., Lin-Manuel Miranda, Michaela Coel, Paul Bettany, Hamilton, Handicapping the 73rd Emmy Awards