I’ve got to get something off my chest: I’m not super duper looking forward to the 2021 Emmys. I’m a TV critic, which means at my core, I’m a TV lover. I grew up obsessively channel surfing and gleefully watching each and every awards show I could get away with. But in 2021, the thrill is gone. Ted Lasso is almost assuredly going to sweep the Comedy awards, The Crown will rule over the Drama categories, and while there will likely be a few surprises, most of the Emmys will be a yawn. Even the red carpet’s going to feel dull after the fashion smorgasbord that was the Met Gala.
There is literally no reason for me to get psyched up for the Emmys in 2021. Except for one thing. There is still one place where the Emmys feel vibrant and dramatic and chock full of fresh creative voices. And that’s in the abnormally stacked Outstanding Limited or Anthology Series categories. I May Destroy You, Mare of Easttown, The Queen’s Gambit, The Underground Railroad, and WandaVision will duke it out for the top prize, while rising stars like Michaela Coel and Anya Taylor-Joy will go toe-to-toe with Kate Winslet in the Outstanding Lead Actress category. Stars of the made-for-Disney+ movie musical Hamilton will compete with movie stars like Ewan McGregor and Hugh Grant. Evan Peters might finally win an Emmy! For playing an idiosyncratically sweet millennial cop on Mare of Easttown! And Kathryn Hahn might be honored for “Agatha All Along!”
The Limited Series categories feel wild! They are full of groundbreaking creative voices like the aforementioned Coel and The Underground Railroad‘s Barry Jenkins. They’ve got classic HBO prestige fare and the first ever live action MCU TV show. There’s even a little Netflix show about chess that somehow caught the eyes of the whole wide world. If you love television as much as I do, these categories feel like the only place where the Emmys are honoring the real pioneers making bold creative choices in the medium. In fact, it feels like this is the year when Limited Series officially are more important, more exhilarating, and more ground-breaking than traditional comedies and drama.
Now this didn’t happen overnight. For the past decade, streaming services and premium cable channels have been churning out star-studded limited series. Nicole Kidman seems to make one glossy miniseries a year. Ryan Murphy rules over an empire of anthology series. However this feels like the moment when Limited Series have not only eclipsed traditional TV as a storytelling model, but begun to really wreck its influence on the other art forms. Consider the Best Drama categories. The Crown literally reboots its cast every two seasons, giving its on-going narrative an anthology series-like flair. Freshman series Bridgerton, in turn, has committed itself to shifting the focus on a new couple every season. Even the Comedy series category has welcomed the likes of The Flight Attendant, a would-be Limited Series that was only renewed after the show was a success for HBO Max.
All that aside, the five shows competing for that Outstanding Limited or Anthology Series Emmy represent five groundbreaking television experiences. HBO’s I May Destroy You is an absolute work of devastating genius and Michaela Coel is a talent for the ages. Mare of Easttown — a very different HBO hit — was a brilliant, brutal family drama disguised as a murder mystery. The Queen’s Gambit was an exquisite portrait of genius and a breathtaking showcase for Anya Taylor-Joy. The Underground Railroad is a transcendent epic about the pain and horror of slavery, full of groundbreaking craftsmanship. And WandaVision is a love letter to television featuring tour de force performances. Oh, and it just happens to represent Marvel’s push into TV.
This year’s Emmys Limited Series represent where the art form of television is in 2021. And that’s why it’s going to be the real main event this Sunday night on CBS.
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