“The Night Manager” is among the latest miniseries set for a second season after a “limited” run that yielded big ratings and Emmy wins. “Big Little Lies” is another and its relatively swift renewal prompted the Producers Guild of America controversially to disqualify it from their Best Movie or Limited Series race in which it had submitted it for awards consideration (and revote with “Big Little Lies” eligible for Best Drama Series). The Screen Actors Guild was also in the middle of voting when “Big Little Lies” was renewed officially, but kept it as a limited series for this year.
“Big Little Lies” is not the only series with varying categorization. The Critics’ Choice Awards nominated “American Vandal” for Best Limited Series, but the Writers Guild of America nominated it as a comedy. Both Critics’ Choice and the WGA nominated “American Horror Story” in limited, but SAG considered it in drama. The Satellite Awards nominations announcement this year included “Fargo” in BOTH drama and limited categories. With the line between drama and limited increasingly blurred, perhaps the distinction has outlived its usefulness.
The Emmys introduced the Best Limited Series category in 1973. The inaugural nominees averaged six episodes, compared to 20 then for the Best Drama Series nominees. The Limited Series nominees this year averaged nine episodes, compared to 11 in Drama. Series are currently eligible as dramas with as few as three episodes, but series in recent years with as many as 15 episodes have competed in limited, so length is not a distinguishing factor. In 2014, “Breaking Bad” won Best Drama Series with eight episodes, while “Fargo” won Best Limited Series with 10.
The defining characteristic of a limited series is supposedly the limited run of its story. Miniseries tell complete stories over the course of weeks; anthologies, which also generally contend for Best Limited Series, do the same, then return in subsequent years to tell new stories with new characters. Yet there have also been Best Limited Series contenders that were neither miniseries nor anthologies. Filming had wrapped on the second season of “The Hour,” which continued the story with the characters from the first season, by the time that the Emmys nominated its first season for Best Movie/Limited Writing nomination in 2012; the second season went on to win that award in 2013. “The Missing” has similarly contended inexplicably in the limited races for its two seasons thus far, despite ongoing stories and characters, scoring a pair of nominations in 2014 for its first season.
The flipside is that the rare closed-ended miniseries submits as a drama. Laurie Metcalf received a nomination in 2016 for one-and-done “Horace and Pete” in Best Drama Guest Actress, a category without a direct equivalent in the limited field. (The series’ other nomination was curiously for Best Comedy Multi-Camera Editing.)
Best Limited Series is also home to incomplete stories that were intended to continue for years, but whose futures were cancelled because of low ratings, although axed dramas variably submit instead for Best Drama Series. Andre Braugher notably won Best Movie/Limited Actor for cut-short “Thief” in 2006. Just as some stories become unexpectedly finite, the likes of “The Night Manager” demonstrate that the limited nature of a story is flexible, too.
David E. Kelley wrote and executive produced two programs that debuted in the 2016–2017 Emmy cycle, finished their seven-to-eight-episode runs without knowing if they would return, only for both to be renewed in the same calendar year. Ironically, Kelley is continuing as writer-producer for the one that won Best Limited Series (“Big Little Lies”) and not the clear-cut drama (“Goliath”). Both are expected to contend as dramas for their second seasons. In an interview four months before the “Big Little Lies” premiere, Kelley was already entertaining the possibility of continuing that show. He even conflated its finale’s balance of closure and open-endedness with that of “Goliath.”
Revivals further demonstrate how arbitrary placement is, as well as how dubious the existing rules are. “24: Live Another Day,” a direct continuation of drama “24” (produced as its ninth season and never billed with the “Live Another Day” subtitle on screen) with the same primary characters, ran for 12 episodes (with the potential for additional seasons) and received three Emmy nominations in 2015 as a limited series (plus SAG and American Cinema Editors nominations as a drama). “24: Legacy,” set in the same world of “24,” but with an entirely new main cast of characters, also ran for a total of 12 episodes, then was shut out by the Emmys as a drama this past year. “Twin Peaks: The Return” aired 18 episodes this summer and was previously intended to continue into next year; it has been submitting and getting nominated as a limited series.
There is merit to the idea, but the Emmys and other awards are too inconsistent with how they classify limited series. Even the strictest definition would likely be negligibly different and still prone to revisionism, as networks attempt to extend their successes and abandon their failures. Those who work in television do not necessarily view their work differently depending on the project’s originally conceived longevity. Is it time for the Emmys to work toward a solution that sees “limited” and ongoing series competing head-to-head, with categories divided another way?
Comment below, then predict whether “Big Little Lies” will win Best Movie or Limited Series and its other Golden Globe nominations before the ceremony on January 7. Also predict other award shows like the Oscars, as well as reality shows like “Project Runway.”