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With Shorter Seasons and Runs, Aren’t All TV Series ‘Limited’ Now? (Column)

A week before the Emmy nominations were announced, I published my predictions for most of the major categories on Variety’s website. The reaction was mostly positive, even if I ultimately missed some of this year’s biggest snubs and surprises. (I thought for sure voters would gravitate toward popular stars like “Homecoming” lead Julia Roberts and George Clooney of “Catch-22.”)

But the biggest objection from a reader to my picks came via Twitter, where I was chastised for not including “Escape at Dannemora” supporting actor Paul Dano. “Did you watch ‘Escape at Dannemora’?” this person asked. “Paul Dano’s performance beat out every nominee in best actor and supporting actor. This show is hands down the best TV drama. Shocked you left him off your predictions. Ben Stiller directed a masterpiece.”

Here’s the funny thing about that reaction: I had, indeed, included Dano among my picks. But I almost immediately could tell what likely happened: This reader saw my predictions for the outstanding drama categories and was miffed that “Escape at Dannemora” wasn’t included, but didn’t scroll down to check out my predictions in the outstanding limited series fields, where “Dannemora” is actually competing.

I pointed this out to the reader on Twitter, who apologized for missing that I hadn’t counted Dano out. (And indeed, Dano did receive a nomination for outstanding supporting actor in a limited series or movie.) But the tweet also got me thinking: This “Escape at Dannemora” fan’s confusion might be instructive. Given the way that TV series are now produced and consumed, does it still make sense to divide between “series” and “limited series”?

The programs now defined as “limited series,” of course, mark an evolution from what used to be considered “miniseries.” Back in the day, there was an obvious distinction: Miniseries were essentially multi-part TV films (and would often be scheduled over the course of two, three or four consecutive nights). Epics like “Roots” and “The Thorn Birds” would air as special one-time events, usually during sweeps months, and had more in common with telepics than with traditional series, which almost always ran the length of a traditional September-to-May TV season.

But these days, most viewers couldn’t  tell you the difference between a regular series and a “limited” series. Both kinds of programs mostly average between six and 10 episodes. And both roll out virtually the same way: For linear TV, it’s generally on a weekly basis; on streaming, they all drop at once. And they’re all mostly promoted in the same manner. 

Anthologies have further blurred the lines, as most fans view different seasons of shows like “American Horror Story,” “The Sinner” and “Fargo” as being part of the same distinct series, year after year, even if the storylines and characters change. And of course, there are those limited series like “Downton Abbey” and “Big Little Lies” that then turn into regular series, further confusing categorization.

Merging limited series with series might make room for new categories we’d like to see the Emmys include, such as one that tackles the issue of drama-comedy hybrids, or another that separates the different styles of variety/talk shows.

Here’s the truth: Almost all of TV could be considered limited series now. Seasons are shorter, as are series runs. Among this year’s outstanding drama nominees, only “This Is Us” produced more than 10 episodes last season (clocking in at 18). Two of the nominated dramas, “Bodyguard” and “Game of Thrones,” aired only six episodes — while three of the limited series nominees ran more than that number. (“Escape at Dannemora” had seven; “Fosse/Verdon” and “Sharp Objects” ran eight.)

The Oscars aren’t afraid to pit sequels and film franchises against one-off films in the best picture race. Is the promise of “ongoing storyline and characters” in regular dramas versus one-time-only stories of limited series really enough of a distinction for the Emmys to keep shows from these two categories in separate silos? Consider “American Horror Story,” which had to switch to the drama field this year simply because it brought back too many old characters to remain as a limited series — even though the show’s tone and style hadn’t changed a bit.

There’s no difference in the caliber of storytelling, acting and directing between programs in the two categories. Why shouldn’t “Sharp Objects” compete with “Better Call Saul,” or “Chernobyl” go up against “Pose”? And if our Twitter friend suggests “Escape at Dannemora” is the best drama on TV, shouldn’t it compete with “Game of Thrones” or “Killing Eve”? 

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