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Emmys Preview: Who's Got the Edge in Best Actor and Actress in a Limited Series?

Will When They See Us make good on its many nominations? And can Amy Adams ever get a win?
  • Amy Adams, Michelle Williams and Sam Rockwell, Jared Harris (HBO, FX)
    Amy Adams, Michelle Williams and Sam Rockwell, Jared Harris (HBO, FX)

    The 71st Primetime Emmy Awards are coming at us in just a short few weeks. And whether you're gearing up for an office pool or just playing a private game of "told ya so" with the know-it-alls on Twitter, it's good to know how the races are shaping up. It's so much better to go into an awards show being able to tell the favorites from the underdogs. Then, when a Melissa McCarthy, a Merritt Wever, or a Kyle Chandler end up winning, you'll have an even better appreciation of what this moment means to the people involved.

    With that in mind, Primetimer is breaking down this year's major Emmy categories. Who are the favorites? The underdogs? What's the story in each of these competitions.

    There's no shortage of star power in the lead acting races for Limited Series, with movie stars like Amy Adams, Michelle Williams, and Hugh Grant in the running, along with Oscar winners like Sam Rockwell, Mahershala Ali, Benicio Del Toro, and Patricia Arquette. And then there are the actors who haven't had their moment in the spotlight yet, but whose performances in productions like HBO's harrowing Chernobyl — about the 1980s Soviet nuclear disaster — or Ava DuVernay's shattering When They See Us — about the wrongfully accused "Central Park Five" — have earned them much-deserved accolades. These are a couple of stacked and deeply competitive categories.

    Outstanding Actor in a Limited Series

    • Mahershala Ali in True Detective
    • Benicio Del Toro in Escape at Dannemora
    • Hugh Grant in A Very English Scandal
    • Jared Harris in Chernobyl
    • Jharrel Jerome in When They See Us
    • Sam Rockwell in Fosse/Verdon

    The Frontrunner: According to the awards experts at Gold Derby, Jharrel Jerome — who followed up his breakthrough performance in Moonlight with a crackling, devastating turn in When They See Us — is the heavy favorite. There was some question whether Jerome's relative dearth of name value as an actor would cost him a nomination, but now that he's here, and with When They See Us is nominated in so many categories, you have to figure his chances at winning are pretty good.

    The Likeliest Spoiler: There are three Oscar winners in this field (Del Toro, Ali, and Rockwell) and one very famous personality in Hugh Grant, but if you're looking for someone to snatch the crown from Jerome's young hands, look no further than Jared Harris. The long-running character actor rode a wave of critical and social media goodwill for Chernobyl the likes of which he hadn't experienced before, even for well-received performances on Mad Men and The Crown.

    The Feel-Good Long-Shot: A Hugh Grant win would be welcome because, leaving aside his Golden Globe win for Four Weddings and a Funeral, Grant has far more often been the bridesmaid than the bride. Of course, it's also impossible not to love Mahershala Ali, and despite the fact that True Detective flew massively under the radar in its third season, he's a personality who could draw votes.

    Stat to Chew On: If Mahershala Ali can pull off the upset win, he'd become only the fourth performer — after Helen Mirren (2007), Helent Hunt (1998), and George C. Scott (1971) — to win an Oscar and an Emmy for acting in the same calendar year

    Prediction: Emmy voters clearly loved When They See Us, but Jerome could suffer the fate of many a younger award nominee ("They've got their whole career to win one..."). Meanwhile, Chernobyl was a huge popular hit, and it could be Jared Harris's time.

    Outstanding Actress in a Limited Series

    • Amy Adams in Sharp Objects
    • Patricia Arquette in Escape at Dannemora
    • Aunjanue Ellis in When They See Us
    • Joey King in The Act
    • Niecy Nash in When They See Us
    • Michelle Williams in Fosse/Verdon

    The Frontrunner: In a tight race, Gold Derby has Patricia Arquette — who also took home the Golden Globe and SAG awards for playing a prison guard who becomes personally involved with two escaping prisoners — maintaining a narrow edge over Michelle Williams' deeply impressive performance as Gwen Verdon.

    The Likeliest Spoiler: You really want to say that it's Amy Adams, who gave what was arguably a career-best performance in HBO's Sharp Objects, a miniseries that has experienced a precipitous dip in support since it aired last summer. When the series was first broadcast, everybody assumed Adams had the Emmy wrapped up. Now, it seems almost certain that she's destined to sit on the sidelines as a Best Actress nominee again.

    The Feel-Good Long-Shot: It's hard to pick one of the When They See Us actresses over the other (which is probably why neither one of them will win), but it would be a real moment to see Niecy Nash get rewarded for her recent string of A+ performances in Claws, Scream Queens, and especially the deeply underrated Going On.

    Stat to Chew On: Michelle Williams and Amy Adams have a combined for 10 Oscar nominations between them, with zero wins. This is a first Emmy nomination for each of them. Meanwhile, Patricia Arquette won on her first Oscar nomination, for Boyhood (and on her first Emmy nomination, for Medium).

    Prediction: While Williams was not a factor in Arquette's Globe or SAG triumphs, it seems silly to bet against the tide: Patricia Arquette

    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: 71st Primetime Emmy Awards, Chernobyl, Escape at Dannemora, Fosse/Verdon, Sharp Objects, When They See Us, Amy Adams, Jared Harris, Mahershala Ali, Michelle Williams (actress), Niecy Nash-Betts, Patricia Arquette, Sam Rockwell