Nuclear disasters, small town murders, self-harm, self-loathing, police coercion and innocence stolen. It’s a banner year for limited series. And, given the dark, challenging subject matter, their brevity is welcome. These series are often excruciating to watch but, to their credit, we can never turn away. Emmy voters won’t either.
“When They See Us”
“Escape at Dannemora”
Next up: “A Very English Scandal,” “True Detective,” “The Act,” “Catch-22”
In the mix: “Les Misérables,” “Maniac,” “The Haunting of Hill House,” “I Am the Night”
Analysis: Two of the very best limited series arrived near the Emmy qualifying deadline. Ava DuVernay’s “When They See Us,” a dramatization of the true story of the Central Park Five, in which five boys of color, ages 14 to 16, were strong-armed into confessing to a brutal rape and then convicted of that crime, premiered on Netflix on May 31, the last day of Emmy eligibility. The four-part series is a scathing indictment of the criminal justice system and prison-industrial complex, building on material DuVernay laid out in her 2016 documentary, “13th,” with the same force and eloquence.
Premiering just a few days before Emmy nomination voting began might pose a challenge, though plenty of voters showed up at the Netflix awards space to see Oprah Winfrey interview DuVernay, the cast and the five exonerated men — Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise. Netflix says it has been its most-watched series in the United States every day since it premiered. “When They See Us” is too good not to make the cut.
HBO’s five-part “Chernobyl” has already wooed some voters — it’s the No. 1-rated series of all time on IMDB. The devastating depiction of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster and its aftermath hones in on the arrogance, fear and moral rot prevalent in the dying days of the Soviet Union as well as the heroism of those who helped stave off an even greater calamity. You might know director Johan Renck for collaborating with David Bowie on the singer’s final videos before his death. The imagery in “Chernobyl” is equally striking and unshakable.
LEAD ACTRESS, LIMITED SERIES / TV MOVIE
Patricia Arquette, “Escape at Dannemora”
Michelle Williams, “Fosse/Verdon”
Amy Adams, “Sharp Objects”
Emma Stone, “Maniac”
Joey King, “The Act”
Connie Britton, “Dirty John”
Next up: Julianna Margulies, “The Hot Zone”; Ruth Wilson, “Mrs. Wilson”; Niecy Nash, “When They See Us”
In the mix: Marisa Tomei, “Live in Front of a Studio Audience”; Molly Parker, “Deadwood: The Movie”; Kathryn Hahn, “The Romanoffs: End of the Line”; Carla Gugino, “The Haunting of Hill House”
Analysis: The quartet of Adams, Arquette, Williams and Stone have 14 Oscar nominations among them. And while “Maniac” is unlikely to earn many major noms, Stone’s work in the ambitious and sometimes affecting series was persuasive, no matter what direction it took her. (And, boy, did it take her places.)
I’m not sure which performance from the remaining real-life horror stories will pop. Between “ER” and “The Good Wife,” Margulies has three Emmys to go with 10 nominations. She takes a backseat to Ebola in “The Hot Zone” though, with the virus being the star of the show. “Dirty John” wasn’t all that great, but four-time Emmy nominee Britton sold the story of a naive woman falling for the (very) wrong guy. And if you’re looking for a wild card, how about Tomei’s magical take on Edith Bunker in ABC’s live “All in the Family” re-creation?
LEAD ACTOR, LIMITED SERIES / TV MOVIE
Mahershala Ali, “True Detective”
Sam Rockwell, “Fosse/Verdon”
Jared Harris, “Chernobyl”
Jharrel Jerome, “When They See Us”
Hugh Grant, “A Very English Scandal”
Benicio del Toro, “Escape at Dannemora”
Next up: Ian McShane, “Deadwood: The Movie”; Anthony Hopkins, “King Lear”; Benedict Cumberbatch, “Brexit”
In the mix: Chris Pine, “I Am the Night”; Christopher Abbott, “Catch-22”; Fionn Whitehead, “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch”; Dominic West, “Les Misérables”; Peter Dinklage, “My Dinner With Herve”
Analysis: Let’s circle back to “Chernobyl” and “When They See Us.” Harris has long been one of our finest actors (I still get a little weepy every time I see a Mets pennant, thanks to his role on “Mad Men”), and his turn as the principled nuclear physicist blowing the whistle on the “Chernobyl” coverup just deepens the appreciation. Harris isn’t the biggest name among the contenders, but he might just be the best.
You might remember Jerome from his key role as Kevin in the middle section of “Moonlight.” DuVernay did. He’s the one actor in “When They See Us” to play his character (Korey Wise) as a teen and as an adult. He’s brilliant in a heartbreaking courtroom scene where Wise is humiliated on the witness stand and even better in the series’ fourth episode, which focuses on the young man’s harrowing incarceration.
SUPPORTING ACTRESS, LIMITED SERIES / TV MOVIE
Patricia Clarkson, “Sharp Objects”
Patricia Arquette, “The Act”
Emily Watson, “Chernobyl”
Carmen Ejogo, “True Detective”
Emma Thompson, “King Lear”
Vera Farmiga, “When They See Us”
Next up: Sally Field, “Maniac”; Robin Weigert, “Deadwood: The Movie”; Eliza Scanlen, “Sharp Objects”
In the mix: Sissy Spacek, “Castle Rock”; Marla Gibbs, “Live in Front of a Studio Audience”; Elizabeth Reaser, “Haunting of Hill House”; Lily Collins, “Les Misérables”; Julia Garner, “Dirty John”
Analysis: Clarkson won the Golden Globe playing the icy, calculating Adora in “Sharp Objects,” and though the show aired almost a year ago, I’d imagine she remains fixed in voters’ minds. She certainly hasn’t been equaled in the intervening months.
SUPPORTING ACTOR, LIMITED SERIES / TV MOVIE
Ben Whishaw, “A Very English Scandal”
Paul Dano, “Escape at Dannemora”
Kyle Chandler, “Catch-22”
Michael Kenneth Williams, “When They See Us”
George Clooney, “Catch-22”
Norbert Leo Butz, “Fosse/Verdon”
Next up: Eric Lange, “Escape at Dannemora”; Stellan Skarsgard, “Chernobyl”;Stephen Dorff, “True Detective”; Gerald McRaney, “Deadwood: The Movie”
In the mix: David Oyelowo, “Les Misérables”; Chris Messina, “Sharp Objects”; Jovan Adepo, “When They See Us”
Analysis: Hulu’s “Catch-22” effectively captured the cynicism and despair of the Joseph Heller classic. But among the late-arriving limited series (and the “Deadwood” movie), it has found trouble finding a place in the conversation. Its streamlined adaptation and creative liberties put off some of the book’s biggest fans, probably the project’s target audience. It still might earn several nominations — Clooney and Chandler are the likeliest — but the returns will likely be disappointing for such a high-profile series.