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Emmys 2020: Who Has the Best Shot at Limited Series Nominations?

A stellar crop of miniseries are competing in some very crowded categories.
  • Little Fires Everywhere, Unbelievable and Watchmen are among the front-runners in the race for Limited Series nominations.
    Little Fires Everywhere, Unbelievable and Watchmen are among the front-runners in the race for Limited Series nominations.

    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. This week Joe will be looking at the top contenders in each of the major categories at this year's 72nd Annual Emmy Awards. First up: Limited Series. Who's poised to get a nod when the TV Academy announces its nominees on July 28th?

    One of the cornerstones of trying to predict the Emmy nominations is knowing that the TV Academy likes their ruts. If they loved a show or a performance last year, odds are they'll love it again this year. It makes the Comedy and Drama categories into something less than nail-bitter, where the question isn't who will be nominated, but rather who won't. That all goes out the window when it comes to the Limited Series contenders, which by definition didn't exist last year. And while we can talk about certain showrunners or actors who have historically been favored by Emmy voters and the shows that are being heavily promoted and campaigned for, there's a lot more uncertainty to the field.

    More and more, Limited Series have been getting the kind of attention that regular dramas and comedies used to. This is very much reflected in this year's Emmy pool, where the Limited Series division is easily the buzziest and most prestigious. As a result, the fight for nominations — which, unlike the Drama and Comedy categories, have not been expanded beyond six nominees except in the supporting categories — is set to be fierce. Here's how I see things shaking out:

    Outstanding Limited Series

    Contenders: HBO and FX have traded wins in this category since 2013, and if they stick to the pattern, it's FX's turn year. FX's big gun this go-around is Mrs. America, which it distributed via its FX on Hulu partnership. Starring Cate Blanchett and Rose Byrne (as well as a deep bench of Supporting Actress contenders) and telling the story of the women's movement via the push to get the Equal Rights Amendment ratified, the series was a huge critical success. (Primetimer's own Aaron Barnhart own memorably declared it "2020's most 2020 show yet.")

    For its part, HBO has a trio of strong contenders. At the top of that heap is Watchmen, Damon Lindeloff's adaptation of the Alan Moore graphic novel that grows more pertinent by the day. It was a stunning achievement of adaptation and storytelling, and it's exactly the kind of weighty thematic material that seems likely to have Emmy voters glossing over any possible genre snobbery. Also hoping to contend are HBO's The Plot Against America, David Simon's incredibly well-reviewed Philip Roth adaptation; and I Know This Much Is True from writer/director Derek Cianfrance.

    Netflix has yet to break through to a win in this category, although they came close last year with When They See Us. Their top contenders this is Unbelievable, an immaculately-reviewed dual-narrative story following a young rape victim and the two detectives working the case from afar. There's also Ryan Murphy's Hollywood, less well-reviewed to be sure, but Murphy's had juice in this category for years, and with a star-studded cast, expect a strong presence in the nominations. Less star-studded but certainly no less potent is Unorthodox, the four-part series about a young woman trying to leave her repressive Orthodox Jewish community.

    Elsewhere, Hulu has the megawatt star-power of Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington leading the way for Little Fires Everywhere, as well as another novel adaptation, Normal People, which it imported from Britain. Apple TV+ will look to get into the game with Defending Jacob, a story about the parents of a teenage boy accused of murder. And Showtime will hope that voters can remember all the way back to last summer and their purposefully grotesque Roger Ailes miniseries The Loudest Voice.

    For Your Consideration: A less obvious choice is another that stretches back to last summer, but it's also one that grows more emotionally prescient with every passing day: HBO's import of the BBC's Years and Years, the mini-series from Russell T. Davies that tracked a British family through a near-future that included both technological advancements and terrifyingly plausible socio-political events that brought the free world to fascism and tore the family apart. It's a show whose predominant mood was dread, a feeling that has only become more thematically appropriate in 2020, and for that alone it ought to be recognized.

    Predicted Nominees: Watchmen, Mrs. America, Unbelievable, Hollywood, The Plot Against America

    Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series/Movie

    Contenders: While the lines between movie star and TV star are more blurry than ever, the Limited Series acting categories have still prizes big-screen names in recent years. Which is why the top of these charts could also double for the greatest superhero movie crossover of all time. Hugh Jackman's highly acclaimed performance in HBO's Bad Education has been accumulating buzz since it hit the film festival circuit last year. It may well be the best performance he's ever given on screen, and he's a major threat to win. Opposite him — on the same channel — is Mark Ruffalo's dynamic performance as beleaguered twins in I Know This Much Is True, a miniseries that throws every possible emotion at him to play (other than, you know, joy).

    Russell Crowe actually won the Golden Globe for his performance as Roger Ailes in The Loudest Voice, so he's definitely in the mix here. And while he's probably a longer shot, no discussion of A-Listers should be complete without mentioning Chris Evans downshifting into domestic drama in Defending Jacob.

    Other major contenders here include Oscar-winner Jeremy Irons for playing the exiled and oft-thwarted Adrian Veidt in Watchmen, Andre Holland for playing a jazz club owner in The Eddy, and three-time Emmy winner Aaron Paul returning to the role of Jesse Pinkman in El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie.

    Longer shots include Hollywood's Jeremy Pope, Normal People's Paul Mescal, The Plot Against America's Morgan Spector, and Quiz's Matthew Macfadyen.

    For Your Consideration: I don't expect the television academy to recognize Nickelodeon's airing of The Spongebob Musical, but since they definitely threw some major nominations at NBC's Jesus Christ Superstar a couple years ago, I'd be remiss if I din't mention here that Ethan Slater's lead performance is a godsend, and the Emmys could help make up for the injustice of him not winning a Tony Award.

    Predicted Nominees: Hugh Jackman, Mark Ruffalo, Aaron Paul, Russell Crowe, Jeremy Irons

    Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series/Movie

    Contenders: Look for this category to truly catch fire once the nominees are announced and Emmy voters must choose one actress from this highly talented crop. For now, though, the race to six nominees might be more clear-cut than it seems. At the top of the heap are Regina King (Watchmen) and Cate Blanchett (Mrs. America), two phenomenal actresses giving phenomenal performances that hit very different high points on the graph. King plays the ultimate hero in Sister Night; Blanchett the ultimate villain in Phyllis Schlaffly. King is the Emmy fave, having received three Emmys on four nominations since 2015. Blanchett is a two-time Oscar-winner and seven-time nominee. Of course, Regina King has an Oscar too. This could be a battle for the ages.

    The other major contenders include two pairs of co-stars hoping that their votes don't end up canceling each other out. But kudos ought to be given to Netflix and Hulu, respectively, for being willing to campaign these actresses in the Lead category where they belong, rather than fudging a supporting distinction to make their campaigns easier. Unbelievable stars Merritt Wever and Kaitlyn Dever were positively flawless, delivering two of the finest performances in any category this year. Meanwhile, Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington did some capital-A Actressing as two increasingly spiteful mothers coming from very different social standings in Little Fires Everywhere.

    Potential spoilers in this category include Unorthodox's Shira Haas, The Plot Against America's Zoe Kazan, and Normal People's Daisy Edgar-Jones.

    For Your Consideration: That Peak TV queen Kathryn Hahn delivered a devastatingly brilliant sero-comedic performance is no longer news, but her star turn in HBO's all-too-brief Mrs. Fletcher is the stuff awards were made for — or at least it would have been if it had aired closer to the voting window.

    Predicted Nominees: Cate Blanchett, Regina King, Merritt Wever, Kaitlyn Dever, Kerry Washington

    Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series/Movie

    Contenders: If you were wondering about the absence of Ryan Murphy-produced shows in the preceding categories, not to worry, because here's where Hollywood makes its presence felt in spades. Jim Parsons either gives the absolute best or the absolute worst performance in the mini-series, depending on your perspective, but either way he's giving the most, and considering he's a four-time Emmy winner, it's a fairly safe bet that Emmy voters will go for it. The actual best performance is given by Joe Mantello, and if this were the Tonys, the acclaimed theater actor/director would be a shoo-in. There's also Darren Criss, who is only a few years removed from his Emmy triumph in Ryan Murphy's The Assassination of Gianni Versace.

    Watchmen offers its own trio of contenders, headlined by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in a role that proves more important as the series moves on. There's also Tim Blake Nelson, who gets a spotlight episode all to himself, as well as Oscar-winning acting vet Louis Gossett Jr. who brought a ton of spark to his role.

    Elsewhere, The Plot Against America gives John Turturro (last nominated in 2017 for The Night Of) a plum role as a charismatic rabbi who makes his bed with a xenophobic populist in an alternate history of early 20th century America. John Slattery, four times an Emmy nominee for Mad Men, is back playing another nightmare male chauvinist in Mrs. America and is the show's only bet for a male acting nominee. Ray Romano is hilarious as a clueless bureaucrat in Bad Education. And Michael Sheen could be a contender as game show host Chris Tarrant in Quiz.

    Two familiar faves could find Emmy success for Netflix: Tituss Burgess gets one last chance at the Emmy glory he's so richly deserved for the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt movie. And Jesse Plemons is back again as frigging Todd in El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie.

    For Your Consideration: Much as we love Tituss and think he should have won an Emmy by now, the single greatest performance in the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt movie is given by none other than Daniel Radcliffe, whose prodigious comedy chops were on full display.

    Predicted Nominees: Jim Parsons, John Turturro, John Slattery, Tim Blake Nelson, Jesse Plemons, Darren Criss

    Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series/Movie

    Contenders: Truly, if you are looking for the one barn-burner category on the Emmys ballot, this is it. Thanks to one particularly great actress-heavy cast, this category is going to be bursting at the seams to contain merely six nominees, and the sad reality is that a LOT of incredibly worthy performances are going to be left out.

    Let's start with Mrs. America, a show whose all-star cast could legitimately fill out this category all on its own. With due respect to A+ performances from Elizabeth Banks, Ari Graynor, and Bria Samoné Henderson (as well as Melanie Lynskey and Kayli Carter who aren't even on the Emmy ballot, of all shameful things), there are five major contenders to consider. Rose Byrne maybe should've been campaigned as a lead for her brilliantly modulated and deeply cool performance as Gloria Steinem. By all rights she should be a shoo-in for supporting, though her low-key vibe could get drowned out by bigger performances. Her in-house competition are all massive Emmy favorites: Margo Martindale (five nominations, three wins) as Bella Abzug, Uzo Aduba (three nominations, two wins) as Shirley Chisholm, Sarah Paulson (seven nominations, one win) as composite ERA-opposer Alice Macray, and Tracey Ullman (TWENTY-SIX nominations, SEVEN wins) as Betty Friedan. Each one of them gets her own featured episode in the series, and they're all brilliant, which should make it very hard for Emmy voters to choose between them.

    Elsewhere, Toni Collette is stellar in Unbelievable. Jean Smart, another huge Emmy fave (eight nominations, three wins), got her own spotlight episode and some of the best reviews out of Watchmen. She's joined on the ballot by her co-star Hong Chau, whose Lady Trieu was one of the great layered villains of the TV season.

    Other contenders, who in any other year would be formidable competition for the win, include both Patti LuPone and Holland Taylor (seven nominations, one win) for Hollywood, Allison Janney (fourteen nominations, six wins) in Bad Education, Rosie O'Donnell in I Know This Much Is True, and Winona Ryder in The Plot Against America.

    For Your Consideration: From the second Cherry Jones steps into frame in Defending Jacob, you know that you are dealing with a formidable presence and an absolute authority. She stands basically no chance given the competition, but very much deserves to be mentioned in their company.

    Predicted Nominees: Margo Martindale, Toni Collette, Allison Janney, Jean Smart, Sarah Paulson, Tracey Ullman

    The 2020 Emmy nominations will be announced Tuesday, July 28 at 8:00 AM ET.

    Talk about the 2020 Emmy Awards in our forums.

    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: 72nd Primetime Emmy Awards, Bad Education, El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, Hollywood, I Know This Much Is True, Little Fires Everywhere, The Loudest Voice, Mrs. America, Normal People, The Plot Against America, Unbelievable, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Unorthodox, Watchmen