‘The Underground Railroad’ races up Emmy odds, but can it beat ‘The Queen’s Gambit’?

“The Queen’s Gambit” has been the Emmys frontrunner in the race for Best Limited Series for months now. Created by Scott Frank and Allan Scott, the Netflix show, which is an adaptation of Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel of the same name, has already won both the Golden Globe and Critics Choice Award, and it dominated the guild awards. If there were any series that was considered to be a lock at this year’s Emmys, it was “The Queen’s Gambit.” But that could all be changing now.

The Underground Railroad,” a beautiful and well-made but sometimes challenging-to-watch adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, has risen to third place in Gold Derby’s combined odds since its debut on Amazon on Friday, May 14. It started out the week in fifth place but quickly surpassed both the high-concept Marvel series “WandaVision” and Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” to sit behind the aforementioned “The Queen’s Gambit” and Michaela Coel’s HBO limited series “I May Destroy You.” Two Experts are already predicting the 10-episode series to win.

Hailing from Oscar winner Barry Jenkins, who directs every episode, the show is set in an alternate timeline in which the Underground Railroad, which in reality was a complex network of secret routes and safe houses, is a literal railroad full of secret tracks and tunnels. They wind beneath the surface so that enslaved Black men and women can find their way to the free states undetected. Newcomer Thuso Mbedu leads the series as Cora, a slave who’s escaped from a plantation in Georgia and seeks out the railroad in an attempt to find her freedom. She is currently sitting in sixth place in the Best Limited/TV Movie Actress odds.

SEE Barry Jenkins and Steve McQueen made Oscar history — and Emmys could be next for ‘The Underground Railroad’ and ‘Small Axe’

Despite the difficult subject matter tackled on the show on an episode-to-episode basis, which ultimately makes the series difficult to binge-watch (Jenkins has a suggested viewing schedule), “The Underground Railroad” has received rave reviews from critics and has been well-received by viewers too. As word of mouth spreads and more people find the show, it’s likely that it will continue to rise in the limited series odds. So whether or not it can topple “The Queen’s Gambit” from the top spot has quickly become a big topic of discussion. And its timing couldn’t be better.

Unlike the Globes and the Oscars, which both extended various eligibility windows because of the pandemic, the Emmys’ eligibility window remains unchanged. It still closes May 31, with nomination voting occurring from June 17 to 28. That means “The Underground Railroad” will be fresh in voters’ minds when they go to cast their ballots for nominations, and likely also when they vote for winners in late August. In comparison, “The Queen’s Gambit,” which tells the coming-of-age story of orphaned chess prodigy Beth Harmon (Golden Globe, Critics Choice and Screen Actors Guild Award winner Anya Taylor-Joy), debuted all the way back in October. The newness of “The Underground Railroad” combined with possible “Queen’s Gambit” fatigue — the show has steamrolled without a ton of viable competition — could easily work in the former’s favor. Suddenly, after being mostly stagnant for months, the limited series race has become one of the biggest ones to watch.

Emmy odds for Best Limited Series
The Queen's Gambit is the favorite

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