“Chernobyl” and “When They See Us” made us see history anew, shifting our awareness of tragic past events in ways that were insistent, exciting and absolutely haunting. The shows’ storytelling was economical — “When They See Us” unfolded over four superbly structured episodes; “Chernobyl” took five — but these weren’t series you could binge. You needed time to recover.
Which limited series will rule the Emmys next month? Here’s an early forecast.
“Escape at Dannemora”
“When They See Us”
Winner: “When They See Us”
Analysis: First, the numbers: “Chernobyl” earned the most nominations of any limited series, pulling in 19. “Fosse/Verdon” received 17; “When They See Us” had 16; “Dannemora,” 12. All four earned key nominations for writing and directing. Aside from “Game of Thrones,” no drama earned more Emmy affection than this quartet.
Sifting through this outpouring of love, I give the edge to “When They See Us” for the ways its creator, filmmaker Ava DuVernay, tells its story of the Central Park Five with empathy and honesty, and for the potent manner in which the series shines a light on injustices still occurring in America today. “Chernobyl” was a sobering look at what happens when a government prioritizes image over the well-being of its people. The institutional denial in “When They See Us” cuts even deeper because its consequences envelop this country daily.
“Black Mirror: Bandersnatch”
“Deadwood: The Movie”
“My Dinner With Herve”
Winner: “Deadwood: The Movie”
Analysis: “Black Mirror” episodes have won this category the last two years. The interactive “Bandersnatch” proved an interesting experiment that used its choose-your-own-adventure contrivance in the service of a thriller about technology and free will. But it might have confused some voters and put off others who feel like they shouldn’t have to participate in the storytelling process.
“Deadwood” earned just two other nominations (for makeup and sound editing), a paltry haul in line with the lack of attention David Milch’s series received during its three-year run on HBO from 2004 to 2006. The movie provided a perfect ending to the show and, given the competition, I can’t imagine voters passing up the chance to salute it here.
LEAD ACTRESS, LIMITED SERIES/MOVIE
Amy Adams, “Sharp Objects”
Patricia Arquette, “Escape at Dannemora”
Aunjanue Ellis, “When They See Us”
Joey King, “The Act”
Niecy Nash, “When They See Us”
Michelle Williams, “Fosse/Verdon”
Analysis: Based on Sam Wasson’s 2013 biography of Broadway choreographer and film director Bob Fosse, “Fosse/Verdon” was initially going to be all Bob. Then Michelle Williams came on board, and you’re not going to put her in the background and waste her talent. So the series turned into something of a corrective, establishing dancer and actress Gwen Verdon as a creative force every bit the equal to her onetime husband. Williams gave a star turn, exhilarating in the showbiz scenes and vulnerable in the depiction of Verdon as a defiant survivor. In a strong set of nominees, she’s the showstopper.
LEAD ACTOR, LIMITED SERIES/MOVIE
Mahershala Ali, “True Detective”
Benicio Del Toro, “Escape at Dannemora”
Hugh Grant, “A Very English Scandal”
Jared Harris, “Chernobyl”
Jharrel Jerome, “When They See Us”
Sam Rockwell, “Fosse/Verdon”
Analysis: Sometimes all it takes to win an Emmy is a great speech. Playing Russian nuclear physicist Valery Legasov, Harris has a couple of doozies in “Chernobyl,” including a courtroom summation in the finale that may well earn him the trophy. “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth,” Legasov gravely intoned, speaking to the government cover-up. “Sooner or later, that debt is paid.”
Jerome’s achievements in “When They See Us” are many, beginning with the fact that he’s the only actor to play his character (Korey Wise) as both a teen and an adult. Jerome is the focus of the series’ last (and best) episode, which recounts the harrowing years Wise spent in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. It’s painful to watch, impossible to shake. For that, I think Jerome will prevail.
SUPPORTING ACTRESS, LIMITED SERIES/MOVIE
Patricia Arquette, “The Act”
Marsha Stephanie Blake, “When They See Us”
Patricia Clarkson, “Sharp Objects”
Vera Farmiga, “When They See Us”
Margaret Qualley, “Fosse/Verdon”
Emily Watson, “Chernobyl”
Analysis: When “Sharp Objects” premiered on HBO last summer, it seemed destined for all sorts of awards, particularly for its lauded star, Amy Adams. But the slow-burn mystery came up empty at the Golden Globes and SAG Awards, save for a Globes win for Clarkson. Watson, Qualley, Farmiga and Blake have recency bias on their side, and Arquette is a formidable double nominee. But Clarkson playing a hog-slaughtering empress? Forget about it.
SUPPORTING ACTOR, LIMITED SERIES/MOVIE
Asante Blackk, “When They See Us”
Paul Dano, “Escape at Dannemora”
John Leguizamo, “When They See Us”
Stellan Skarsgård, “Chernobyl”
Michael Kenneth Williams, “When They See Us”
Ben Whishaw, “A Very English Scandal”
Analysis: Williams netted his third nomination in this category (somehow, he was never lauded for playing stick-up legend Omar Little on “The Wire”), and he might well finally win this year for his heartrending turn as a father who bullied his son into signing a false confession in “When They See Us.”
But Skarsgård has a bevy of great moments as the world-weary Soviet bureaucrat in “Chernobyl,” his bleak humor carrying viewers through the show’s river of dread and horror. As a man forced to come to terms with a lifetime spent defending a broken system, Skarsgård gave the series a beautiful, inspiring dignity.