Emmys 2021: Why the limited series categories are absolutely impossible

Julianne Nicholson and Kate Winslet in "Mare of Easttown."
(Sarah Shatz / HBO)

When Emmy nominations are announced July 13, all those cries of “snubbed” will mostly be about the limited series categories, which, thanks to quirky Television Academy rules, are too small to include all the deserving work.

Nobody needs a participation trophy ... except for when my son was playing soccer at the age of 3 and a shiny bauble added a nice little touch to his bookcase full of board books. (RIP Eric Carle.) But with the format more popular than ever, good lord (bird), some accommodation needs to be made for television’s most prestigious space. Until then, even if you possess some kind of special chaos magic, it might not be enough to earn a nomination.



“The Queen’s Gambit”
“Mare of Easttown”
“The Underground Railroad”
“I May Destroy You”

Next up: “Small Axe,” “The Undoing,” “It’s a Sin,” “Genius: Aretha,” “Fargo,” “The Good Lord Bird”

With so many series of merit, the race becomes something of a popularity contest. How many voters have watched your show? How many voters remain engaged with your show? “WandaVision” scores high on both counts, with attendance at a recent Rose Bowl drive-in topping any Disney+ event during the pandemic and RSVPs for other conversations with the series’ actors reaching unprecedented highs. Ratings for “The Undoing” were just about as strong as “Mare of Easttown,” but its fall air date — and the popularity of “Mare” in the same genre — may work against it. It’s hard to sit with the idea that masterworks from Steve McQueen (“Small Axe”) and Barry Jenkins (“The Underground Railroad”) could both be left out, but it’s entirely possible. I simply wonder if enough people have taken the time to view them.

Paul Bettany and Elizabeth Olsen on a swing set in a scene from "Wandavision."
Paul Bettany and Elizabeth Olsen in “Wandavision.”
(Marvel Studios)


Kate Winslet, “Mare of Easttown”
Anya Taylor-Joy, “The Queen’s Gambit”
Michaela Coel, “I May Destroy You”
Thuso Mbedu, “The Underground Railroad”
Elizabeth Olsen, “WandaVision”

Next up: Nicole Kidman, “The Undoing”; Cynthia Erivo, “Genius: Aretha”; Ruth Wilson, “Oslo”; Danielle Brooks, “Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia”; Tessa Thompson, “Sylvie’s Love”

Thuso Mbedu as Cora Randall in a scene from "The Underground Railroad."
Thuso Mbedu stars in “The Underground Railroad.”
(Kyle Kaplan/Kyle Kaplan/Amazon Studios)

Winslet has the momentum at the nominations voting stage, but the field will be level once Television Academy members cast their final ballots in August. As most of the year’s best limited series put women front and center, this category is just as brutally competitive as the series themselves. I’d wager that Mbedu, already a star in her native South Africa, will earn a nomination for the fiery intensity she brings to Cora, the enslaved young woman journeying to freedom on “The Underground Railroad,” if enough people watch it. She transfixes you with every gesture.



Ethan Hawke, “The Good Lord Bird”
Hugh Grant, “The Undoing”
Paul Bettany, “WandaVision”
Jeff Daniels, “The Comey Rule”
Joel Edgerton, “The Underground Railroad”
Next up: Lin-Manuel Miranda, “Hamilton”; Bryan Cranston, “Your Honor”; Leslie Odom Jr., “Hamilton”; Ewan McGregor, “Halston”; Olly Alexander, “It’s a Sin”; Chris Rock, “Fargo”

Maybe you’re wondering how the “Hamilton” leads are eligible here. Me too! “Hamilton” is a filmed version of a stage performance and, as such, is placed in the pre-recorded variety special category. But because it meets the 75-minute threshold to qualify for a TV movie, its actors are technically eligible to compete here. This inclusion feels like a weird stretch, and as Odom, Renée Elise Goldsberry and Daveed Diggs won Tonys for these performances five years ago, an unnecessary one at that. There are plenty of exceptional actors eligible here. Maybe the fourth season of “Fargo” didn’t live up to past years, but Rock held his own, convincing as a force to be reckoned with. And he’s not even one of the five best choices. So no need to throw away your shot on “Hamilton.”

Chris Rock stars in Season 4 of "Fargo."
Chris Rock in Season 4 of “Fargo.”


Julianne Nicholson, “Mare of Easttown”
Kathryn Hahn, “WandaVision”
Letitia Wright, “Small Axe”
Marielle Heller, “The Queen’s Gambit”
Jean Smart, “Mare of Easttown”
Weruche Opia, “I May Destroy You”

Next up: Teyonah Parris, “WandaVision”; Jessie Buckley, “Fargo”; Renée Elise Goldsberry, “Hamilton”; Moses Ingram, “The Queen’s Gambit”; Noma Dumezweni, “The Undoing”; Keeley Hawes, “It’s a Sin”; Holly Hunter, “The Comey Rule”

This will probably be the second of Smart’s two nominations, the other being for her lead turn on the HBO Max comedy “Hacks.” But its her co-star, Nicholson, who will likely win this Emmy, as the final episode of “Mare” served as a showcase for a turn that left us sobbing on the floor right with her. (“It’s Mare, she knows! She’s on her way here! She knows!”) Still, due respect to Smart, because falling out of a chair isn’t as easy at it looks.

John Boyega as English police officer Leroy Logan in " Red, White and Blue," part of the "Small Axe" series
John Boyega as Leroy Logan in “Red, White and Blue,” part of the “Small Axe” film series from director Steve McQueen.
(PAUL CALVER/Amazon Prime Video)


John Boyega, “Small Axe”
Bill Camp, “The Queen’s Gambit”
Evan Peters, “Mare of Easttown”
Donald Sutherland, “The Undoing”
William Jackson Harper, “The Underground Railroad”
Brendan Gleeson, “The Comey Rule”

Next up: Shaun Parkes, “Small Axe”; Daveed Diggs, “Hamilton”; Courtney B. Vance, “Genius: Aretha”; Paapa Essiedu, “I May Destroy You”; Thomas Brodie-Sangster, “The Queen’s Gambit”; Glynn Turman, “Fargo”; Chase Dillon, “The Underground Railroad”

All of the “Small Axe” actors were thrown into supporting, which, again, like so many things pertaining to the Emmys, makes little sense. But it should guarantee Boyega a nomination here for his lead turn as Leroy Logan, the trailblazing Black police officer in the series’ third entry, “Red, White and Blue.” I’d like to think that Parkes could also find a way in as he delivered the best close-up acting of the year in the final moments of “Mangrove,” the “Small Axe” courtroom drama. I respect Sutherland’s eyebrow work as much as anyone. But not if it means Parkes doesn’t receive his due.