2021 Emmys will be bursting with nominations ... but not for the shows you love

Kate Winslet looks out of a car window.
Kate Winslet in “Mare of Easttown,” an Emmy contender in the crowded limited series categories.
(Michele K. Short / HBO)

Maybe you’ve started watching Barry Jenkins’ vivid, cinematic adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s 2016 slavery story, “The Underground Railroad,” which dropped its 10 episodes on Amazon Prime last week. Or maybe you’re obsessed with those twisty storylines in HBO’s “Mare of Easttown” and are waiting, hoping that Kate Winslet encounters a running faucet before the limited series ends and, using that delicious Delaware County accent, bellows, “OK. Who left the wooder running?!?”

Both of these fine programs might show up big at the Emmys this year. Or perhaps neither will. As the Television Academy has adapted to salute the copious amount of content produced these days, it has failed to notice where most of the interesting work is done. And that means, once again, Emmy voters will face impossible choices in the limited series categories while struggling to find enough worthy shows and performances to fill out the rest of their ballots.

You may remember (or perhaps not, as we’ve had more pressing things to think about) that last year the Television Academy expanded the comedy and drama series categories to eight shows and boosted the number of nominees in other categories based on the number of submissions. This resulted in a bonanza for supporting acting members of popular shows like “Succession” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (both sitting out this year’s Emmys because the pandemic delayed filming) and the perennially unworthy “Saturday Night Live,” because, apparently, voters have no imagination and can’t break old habits.


Meanwhile, limited series, because they’re expensive to produce and it’s about quality over quantity, remain fixed at five nominations. On the one hand, the smaller field makes for a more exciting race. On the other ... well, let’s just list a few of the limited series eligible this year:

“Small Axe”
“The Queen’s Gambit”
“I May Destroy You”
“The Good Lord Bird”
“Genius: Aretha”
“The Underground Railroad”
“The Undoing”
“Mare of Easttown”
“It’s a Sin”

Now, we can debate the merits of these series. Your five favorites may be completely different from my five. Though if you don’t have “Small Axe” on your list, I can only assume you haven’t yet watched Steve McQueen’s five-movie anthology series. (Reminder: The Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. named “Small Axe” best picture.)

But they’re all worthy of discussion. And they all generated plenty of debate — for newer series, like “The Underground Railroad,” “Mare of Easttown” or Ryan Murphy’s “Halston” (the Emmys do love Murphy), the talk is ongoing. These are the series in which networks and streamers investand the series we’re obsessing over (for instance: Is it better to hand wash a murder weapon or simply throw it in the dishwasher as dear, sweet Henry did in “The Undoing”?) and, yet, comparatively speaking, they’re the series that the Emmys are ignoring.

Admittedly, television goes through cycles and popular formats have been known to grow cold. Six years ago in the glory days of “Inside Amy Schumer,” “Portlandia” and “Key & Peele,” the Television Academy split the variety category between sketch and talk shows. It seemed like a good idea at the time ... until the best sketch shows ended their runs. The category shrank to three nominees last year and may well have been merged with the talk shows again this year had not everyone involved complained. (Or was it only Lorne Michaels?)

It’s hard to imagine that happening with the limited series format. The public’s appetite for serial narratives continues to grow exponentially — I need about a decade to listen to all the podcasts stored in my library — and that extends to television where savvy storytellers realize that the close-ended format has advantages that go beyond the ability to attract stars unwilling to commit to a long-running series. Less is more. Keep the brand, tell a different story. “Fargo,” “American Crime Story” and “Genius” know the drill. “The Crown,” with its recasting and recalibrations, understands it too.

For now, though, expect this year’s Emmys “snubs” lists to be filled with your favorite shows and actors, even though it’s impossible to “snub” something when the ability to reward remains so limited.