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Epic Emmys feud: 'Bette and Joan' or 'Big Little Lies'?

Epic Emmys feud: 'Bette and Joan' or 'Big Little Lies'?
Will "Feud: Bette and Joan" or "Big Little Lies" dominate the 2017 Emmy Award nominations? (From left: Willy Sanjuan / Invision / AP Photo; Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

In each of the last two years, a standout limited series — HBO's "Olive Kitteridge" in 2015, "The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story" last September — have steamrolled through that category's top prizes.

That's not going to happen this year as the two most celebrated limited series — FX's "Feud: Bette and Joan" and HBO's "Big Little Lies" — are powered by women. Neither has a lead actor in the running, though both offer plenty of choices in the supporting categories. (I'd suggest Alfred Molina's sharp portrayal of beleaguered director Robert Aldrich in "Feud" and Alexander Skarsgard's richly nuanced work as the abusive husband on "Big Little Lies.")

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But even if there's no sweep, you have to wonder if voters will spread the love between the two celebrated shows or coalesce behind one when Emmys are handed out in September. Here's an early look at the categories.

Actress Laura Dern says with "Big Little Lies," she was thrilled to go deep with multiple stories of women and how they navigate the intricacies of today's world.

LIMITED SERIES

"Big Little Lies"

"Feud: Bette and Joan"

"The Night Of"

"Fargo"

"Genius"

Prime contenders: "American Crime," "The Young Pope," "Shots Fired," "Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life"

Analysis: "Big Little Lies," "Feud" and "The Night Of" are the big players in these categories this year, with "Fargo" in play too for a season that hasn't quite measured up to its predecessors. For the final spot, ABC's recently canceled "American Crime" could well make the cut. John Ridley's crime drama anthology earned nominations for its first two seasons, and its third won plenty of critical acclaim. But ratings for the show cratered in its Sunday night time slot, so awareness of its recent run of impassioned, ambitious episodes may have diminished among voters too.

Whereas, thanks to a huge promotional push, National Geographic's first scripted series, "Genius," is everywhere. You don't have to be Albert Einstein to know that the formula ($) x ($$2) = awards recognition, though it's worth noting that Emmy voters also like to stick to math they know, giving "American Crime" the edge. Bottom line: It's a coin flip as to which of the two shows snags the final slot.

Susan Sarandon finally takes up a role that has followed her throughout her career. She explains why "Feud" was the right reason to do it.

LEAD ACTRESS, LIMITED SERIES OR MOVIE

Nicole Kidman, "Big Little Lies"

Jessica Lange, "Feud: Bette and Joan"

Reese Witherspoon, "Big Little Lies"

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Susan Sarandon, "Feud: Bette and Joan"

Oprah Winfrey, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks"

Carrie Coon, "Fargo"

Prime contenders: Felicity Huffman, "American Crime"; Bryce Dallas Howard, "Black Mirror"; Sanaa Lathan, "Shots Fired"; Andrea Riseborough, "Agatha Christie's The Witness for the Prosecution"; Lauren Graham, "Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life"

Analysis: The debate between the "Big Little Lies" camp and the "Feud" family will continue all the way to the Emmys. Which is the worthier show? And, within each series, which of its leads most merits recognition? (Continuing with our arithmetic theme, I'd offer: Sarandon < Witherspoon < Lange < Kidman.) All four women will be nominated.

The three likeliest contenders for the remaining two slots are Huffman (previous Emmy winner, four-time nominee, twice lauded for "American Crime"), Coon (boosted here by her brilliant work in "The Leftovers") and Winfrey (who is Oprah). Winfrey gave a gut-wrenching turn in "Henrietta Lacks," but Emmy voters have overlooked big names in the past. (Anthony Hopkins and Ian McKellen were considered shoo-ins last year for "The Dresser.") This is going to be close.

Riz Ahmed, star of "The Night Of."
Riz Ahmed, star of "The Night Of." (Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times)

LEAD ACTOR, LIMITED SERIES OR MOVIE

Riz Ahmed, "The Night Of"

John Turturro, "The Night Of"

Geoffrey Rush, "Genius"

Ewan McGregor, "Fargo"

Robert De Niro, "The Wizard of Lies"

Benedict Cumberbatch, "Sherlock: The Lying Detective"

Prime contenders: Jude Law, "The Young Pope"; Toby Jones, "Agatha Christie's The Witness for the Prosecution"; Michael Gambon, "Churchill's Secret"; Ricky Gervais, "David Brent: Life on the Road"; Timothy Hutton, "American Crime"

Analysis: "The Night Of," though imperfect, offered a piercing look at the criminal justice system with standout work from Ahmed and Turturro. One of them should win this Emmy, but it's easy to imagine them splitting the vote the same way Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman did two years ago for the first season of "Fargo."

McGregor's double-duty turn playing battling brothers on "Fargo" will prove irresistible to his peers, as will De Niro's casting as Bernie Madoff in "Wizards." The final spot will likely go to Cumberbatch, nominated four previous times (with one win) for "Sherlock." Possible spoiler: Gambon, towering as another legendary Englishman.

Twitter: @glennwhipp

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