“Big Little Lies” and “Feud: Bette and Joan” made the limited series Emmy categories the races to watch last year, offering a wealth of first-rate acting and entertaining and intimate moments. This year’s races don’t quite offer the same appeal, though my dream — and, yeah, it’s a surreal one containing plenty of low-frequency ambient noise — is that David Lynch will finally win a trophy on prime-time television. What would he say? Would Candie, Mandie and Sandie accompany him to the stage? Emmy voters: Make this happen!
In the meantime, biding time in the Black Lodge, let’s offer a few thoughts on this year’s primary limited series categories.
“The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story”
“The Looming Tower”
Possible spoilers: “Genius: Picasso,” “Patrick Melrose,” “American Vandal,” “Top of the Lake: China Girl”
In the mix: “The Sinner,” “The Alienist,” “Alias Grace,” “The Terror,” “Waco”
Analysis: I’ll wait until after the nominations before embarking on a full-court-press hard sell for “Twin Peaks.” “Versace” figures to be its primary competition; it’s an ambitious and often alienating follow-up to the Emmy-winning “The People v. O.J. Simpson” that was less about the titular event and more a look at the heartbreaking harm of homophobia on a national and personal scale. It was lurid, uneven and often inert, but also a fascinating depiction of what it was like to be gay in America in the ’90s. It will be interesting to see just how deeply voters invest in Ryan Murphy’s divisive series.
LEAD ACTRESS, LIMITED SERIES/MOVIE
Laura Dern, “The Tale”
Jessica Biel, “The Sinner”
Hayley Atwell, “Howards End”
Elisabeth Moss, “Top of the Lake: China Girl”
Michelle Dockery, “Godless”
Cristin Milioti, “Black Mirror: USS Callister”
Possible spoilers: Sarah Paulson, “American Horror Story: Cult”; Edie Falco, “The Menendez Murders”
In the mix: Sarah Gadon, “Alias Grace”; Regina King, “Seven Seconds”; Catherine Zeta-Jones, “Cocaine Godmother”
Analysis: Emmy voters have nominated Paulson, Falco and King time and time again for work more deserving than their current projects. Milioti offers an excellent alternative. Starring in the “Star Trek”-like “Black Mirror” episode that’s a front-runner for the TV movie Emmy, Milioti plays two characters — a programmer working for a game creator (Jesse Plemons) she (initially) admires and a digital clone of this same woman, trapped and tortured in a simulated reality made by the aforementioned gamer, who turns out to be a poster boy for toxic male behavior. So, yes, there’s a lot going on, but Milioti manages to make it all believable with a performance that’s playful, intelligent and fierce. “Black Mirror” has never made a sequel episode, but fans have been clamoring for a “USS Callister” follow-up featuring Milioti at the helm. An Emmy nom would be a good starting point to make that mission a reality.
LEAD ACTOR, LIMITED SERIES/MOVIE
Darren Criss, “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story”
Kyle MacLachlan, “Twin Peaks”
Al Pacino, “Paterno”
Benedict Cumberbatch, “Patrick Melrose”
Jeff Daniels, “The Looming Tower”
Michael B. Jordan, “Fahrenheit 451”
Possible spoilers: Antonio Banderas, “Genius: Picasso”; Jesse Plemons, “Black Mirror: USS Callister”
In the mix: Daniel Brühl, “The Alienist”; Evan Peters, “American Horror Story: Cult”; Matthew Macfadyen, “Howards End”; Jared Harris, “The Terror”; Taylor Kitsch, “Waco”
Analysis: Daniels has been on a phenomenal run since Aaron Sorkin cast him in the Emmy-winning “The Newsroom” six years ago. He figures to pull in two Emmy nominations this year — here for his turn on “The Looming Tower” as the FBI investigator tracking Osama bin Laden and over in supporting for playing a trigger-happy outlaw on Netflix’s “Godless.” (Laura Dern, another national treasure, figures to pull off an Emmy double-dip of her own for “Twin Peaks” and “The Tale.”)
Daniels is one certainty in a competitive category that doesn’t lack big names and outsized performances. “Paterno” wasn’t anything special, but Pacino was convincing in the way he humanized the disgraced Penn State football coach without excusing his complicity in the child sex abuse scandal that rocked the school. He’s in, as are Cumberbatch, Criss, the electrifying MacLachlan and probably Jordan for his expressive turn in “Fahrenheit 451.”
SUPPORTING ACTRESS, LIMITED SERIES/MOVIE
Laura Dern, “Twin Peaks”
Nicole Kidman, “Top of the Lake: China Girl”
Penélope Cruz, “The Assassination of Gianni Versace”
Judith Light, “The Assassination of Gianni Versace”
Merritt Wever, “Godless”
Angela Lansbury, “Little Women”
Possible spoilers: Naomi Watts, “Twin Peaks”; Jennifer Jason Leigh, “Patrick Melrose”; Ellen Burstyn, “The Tale”
In the mix: Julia Ormond, “Howards End”; Elizabeth Debicki, “The Tale”; Philippa Coulthard, “Howards End”; Tracey Ullman, “Howards End”; Sharon Stone, “Mosaic”
Analysis: Betty White was 92 when she earned her last Emmy nomination in 2014 for hosting “Betty White’s Off Their Rockers.” Lansbury, who turned 92 in October, would join her as the oldest Emmy nominee for her turn as Aunt March in the BBC production of “Little Women,” which aired on PBS’ “Masterpiece.” Lansbury has hinted it might be her final role. She has 18 previous Emmy nominations — 12 for “Murder, She Wrote” — but has never won. Playing the opinionated matriarch, Lansbury was dependably amusing and a complete joy to watch. Who wouldn’t want to see her finally win?
SUPPORTING ACTOR, LIMITED SERIES/MOVIE
Jeff Daniels, “Godless”
Edgar Ramirez, “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story”
Michael Shannon, “Fahrenheit 451”
Michael Stuhlbarg, “The Looming Tower”
Peter Sarsgaard, “The Looming Tower”
Ricky Martin, “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story”
Possible spoilers: Bill Camp, “The Looming Tower”; Brandon Victor Dixon, “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert”; Jason Ritter, “The Tale”; Sam Waterston, “Godless”
In the mix: Bill Pullman, “The Sinner”; Tahar Rahim, “The Looming Tower”; Scoot McNairy, “Godless”; T.R. Knight, “Genius: Picasso”; Hugo Weaving, “Patrick Melrose”; Cody Fern, “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story”
Analysis: After Daniels and Shannon, this category comes down to a question of voters sifting through the members of the “Looming Tower” and “Versace” ensembles, with Dixon being a wild card for his intense portrayal of Judas on “Superstar.” (The mesh glitter top costume will fix him in many voters’ minds.) Choosing among Sarsgaard, Stuhlbarg, Camp and Rahim for “Looming Tower” is impossible, but Rahim — a star in his native France who has worked with filmmakers Asghar Farhadi and Jacques Audiard — deserves special mention for providing the series its moral center.