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Emmy Race: Limited Category Overcomes ‘Mini’ Past

Remember when we just called them miniseries?

Limited series couldn’t have a more complicated Emmy history: First a standalone category, then merged with TV movies, then separated yet again — and then renamed limited series. Talk about an identity crisis.

It’s hard to imagine, but back in 2009, there were only two — yes, two — nominees in the limited series category. We’ve come a long way since PBS’ “Little Dorrit” vied for the trophy against HBO’s “Generation Kill.” The Dickens classic — starring a then-unknown Claire Foy — took the prize, for what it’s worth.

Oh, how times have changed.

Now it’s one of the most hotly contested races, with high-profile projects boasting A-list star wattage rivalling what’s on tap at the local multiplex. Hollywood’s premier talent — behind and in front of the camera — is flocking to the small screen, lured by the promise of six- to eight-episode runs, and the promise of no long-term contracts.

TV fans are the true beneficiaries — relishing in the abundance of limited series, from compelling crime dramas, to twisty murder mysteries, to thought-provoking explorations of our social issues.

But it’s creating a logjam at the Emmy ballot.

Consider the race for lead actress. There’s no surer way to start an argument in Variety’s offices than to bring up the race for lead actress in a limited series or movie. Talk about a “Feud.”

For devotees of Ryan Murphy’s FX series, which re-creates the infamous behind-the-scenes battle between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, there’s a divide that’s just as impenetrable: Between Jessica Lange’s indelible Crawford and Susan Sarandon’s imperious Davis.

“It’s hard to imagine, but back in 2009, there were only two nominees in the limited series category.”

And then there’s HBO’s “Big Little Lies,” where two heavyweight performances are again dividing our newsroom: Reese Witherspoon as the mother-of-all-mothers, and Nicole Kidman as the seemingly perfect wife with a deep secret of her own.

But regardless of which side you’re on, that’s already four slots spoken for in the race for Emmy noms, and thanks to this category mishmash, TV movies get thrown into the mix. And none other than Oprah Winfrey has returned to acting in HBO’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” with an unforgettable performance as an emotionally unstable woman trying to get justice for her mother.

There’s a powerhouse field of contenders lining up behind those women: Felicity Huffman has been nominated every season for “American Crime,” and this time out, is no exception, giving voice to a Southern housewife who’d been quiet for too long. Carrie Coon, who’s been doing double time on HBO’s “The Leftovers,” brings her quixotic charm to FX’s “Fargo.” Lauren Graham made us fall back in love with Lorelai in Netflix’s reboot “Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life.” And then there’s Viola Davis, who’s never less than brilliant in anything she does, a contender for the Lifetime movie “Custody.” Can we just have her give a speech at the Emmys?

It’s also the battle of the movie stars on the lead actor side, with Robert De Niro’s turn in HBO’s “Wizard of Lies” leading the pack. He IS Bernie Madoff.
His competition comes from his network-mate John Turturro, who won the case — and the cat — in “The Night Of.” But he, too, will have to fend off co-star Riz Ahmed, now a rising star in his own right. We learned that two Ewan McGregors are always better than one in “Fargo” (even with those prosthetics), that Geoffrey Rush as Einstein is a “Genius,” that Jude Law makes a frighteningly good “Young Pope.” And never count out Benedict Cumberbatch (“Sherlock”), who surprised everyone back in 2014, upsetting Billy Bob Thornton for the win.

The series race itself is another high-class conundrum — with a list of accomplished returning anthology series including “American Crime,” “Fargo” and “American Horror Story” vying against sterling new entries “Big Little Lies” and “The Night Of,” along with “Gilmore Girls,” “When We Rise,” “Genius,” “Shots Fired”…

Of course, it remains to be seen whether we’ll get future iterations of “Lies” and “Night.” No sooner did the seasons conclude than fans began clamoring for more. You can hardly blame them.

But what should be next for “Night Of” and “Lies”? Perhaps we will see the continuing adventures of John Stone, as he continues his battles against the criminal justice system (and eczema). As for the mothers of Monterey, I for one, would rather see the creative team of Jean-Marc Vallee, David E. Kelley, Witherspoon, Kidman & Co. put their powers to use on an entirely new story, rather than a new chapter. But I certainly can’t wait to see what they come up with.

It’s never an easy decision: While season two of “True Detective” faltered, creative development for season three is said to be under way.
But Ryan Murphy has reinvented the anthology format: We already know that next season will bring at least one more “American Crime Story,” another “Feud” (giggles in anticipation).

The good news in all of this that the Academy has been quick to respond to changing times. As soon as the creative forces in the industry come up with a new iteration, the Academy has come up with a new category to cover it.

It seems the only true “limit” to limited series is our own imagination.

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