How Do We Make The Emmys Better, Part 2

David B Morris
9 min readJun 8, 2024


Don’t Hate the Player, Hate The Game: Why We’ve Never Been Able to Figure Out What A Limited Series Is

It is past time for me to comment on the fact that FX’s adaptation of Shogun, which would seem to be the dictionary definition of a Limited Series, will be competing this year in the Best Drama category. This inspired an article that in turn has inspired this series: Does The Term Limited Series Mean Anything Any More?

There’s a blatant irony to this question because I asked it basically the same this past February when HBO announced that The White Lotus which had already won the Golden Globe for Best Limited Series was now going to be competing in the Best Drama category going forward. You might remember that as soon as this began with the SAG awards I was incredibly irate about this and I was not happy about it even though I was willing to accommodate the Emmys as the year progressed. It has taken me a while to understand exactly what I found wrong with this classification, but I’m actually going to save that for further down because it doesn’t quite fit the parameters of what I’m discussing yet

Shogun was renewed for two more seasons in April but even then the writers made it clear that further adaptations would not make the classification we traditionally use. Their plans, as they have announced it, would be to adapt the remaining novels in James Clavell’s Asian Saga; I remember reading the one they had planned next was King Rat. By that definition Shogun should still be competing in the Best Limited Series because it meets the other definition of the term: it will be an anthology. However I’m not entirely stunned by FX’s decision because when it comes to what makes a limited series, there’s an argument the Academy has been dropping the ball for a very long time.

The Emmys was right to call this drama.

I read once that many blame PBS for this fault because they chose to classify Downton Abbey as a mini-series for the 2011 Emmys and as a drama every year thereafter. I was personally irked by this decision at the time, mainly because I blamed the show’s presence in the Best Drama category as the reason my favorite show of the decade The Good Wife never got back into the ranks of Best Drama. But now I see that, my personal feelings aside, PBS had actually gotten it right. Downton Abbey was a drama, with the same cast members season after season. The reason the voters chose to blame the Emmys is because prior to that the Emmys or PBS had been misclassifying shows in Masterpiece Theater for a very long time.

During the 1990s American audiences first became familiar with Helen Mirren through her landmark role as Jane Tennison on Prime Suspect. From 1992 to 2007, she was nominated for six Emmys for outstanding Lead Actress in a mini-series or TV Movie and won twice. The problem was this was stretching the definition of what a mini-series was. Mirren was playing the same character in each version, it had much of the same recurring cast and the same writers with each show.

The trouble has always been that the Emmys well into this century has never been able to make heads or tales with what to classify how British television works. Part of it is due to the shorter number of episodes in a series and the often longer run-times of the individual episodes. Part of it also had to due with the fact that, up until the 21st century, American viewers were not used to the idea of having to wait years between installments of their series. And I think the Emmys chose the easy way out and decided it wasn’t fair to have Mirren competing against Kathy Baker for Picket Fences when Prime Suspect began and Edie Falco by the time it ended.

The problem is it has left a gap for so many other British dramas that are TV series in Britain but the Emmys has decided were mini-series in America. As a result Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman would win their Emmys in the Limited Series category where Sherlock was nominated every season it was on the air. Idris Elba has to content himself with being nominated in that category every time Luther airs a new season (it did for the first four) and Dominic West ended up competing in the Best Actor in a Limited Series for The Hour even though it was a drama. This was bad enough on its own but then American TV started to make even harder to define.

…they were wrong to call Treme a limited series.

It is considered one of the great blunders in TV history that the first season of True Detective, which was clearly an anthology, competed in the Best Drama category for its first season, a mistake its showrunners haven’t repeated since. What is forgotten by history is that same year Treme was nominated for Best Limited Series. This baffled me at the time: Treme was a drama by any definition of the term and the only definition that made sense was that its final season was only five episodes and therefore not the typical length of a drama season. This same loophole was one that the final season of The Big C had managed the previous year when it competed in the Best Limited Series because its final season was four hour long episodes. I love Laura Linney and she shouldn’t have gotten a Best Actress Emmy before but I think this was a cheat to do so. (I guess she didn’t want to compete against Julia-Louis Dreyfus and lose.)

During the era of Peak Limited Series, I’ve had little problem distinguishing between the two. The biggest part of the problem has been a financial one. When a limited series is a success, as was the case with Big Little Lies, networks will often renew it for another season in order to see if lightning strikes twice. But the difference is that when this happens the creators are almost always smart enough to shift it in to the appropriate category: when the second season aired, the show was nominating in the Best Drama category starting with the Golden Globes.

On other occasions, the voters need some help. When Watchmen debuted in 2019, the Critics’ Choice awards initially nominated it in the Drama categories but by 2020, it was competing in the Best Limited Series category. The Night Manager was a limited series in 2016; when its next two seasons air, it will compete in the Best Drama category. The biggest blunder I think came in 2021 when even though it was clear Lovecraft Country was going to be an anthology series (its creator acknowledged it when it wasn’t renewed) it was nevertheless nominated in the drama category.

No one usually questions the idea of an anthology. Fargo may have had links between its first four seasons but no one ever considered it being anything but a limited series. No one has done so for American Crime Story or Feud (the logic behind American Horror Story being reclassified as a drama escapes me but logic is not a part of that series). If Cruel Summer receives an Emmy nomination this year (almost incomprehensible but a man can dream) it will have to be as an anthology series.

So classifying Shogun as a drama rather than a Limited Series when the kindest definition is that is an anthology strikes me as stretching the term too far. The thing is to question whether a limited series means anything should have been asked last year when we were discussing the reclassification of The White Lotus.

The White Lotus? A drama? Seriously?

Now don’t get me wrong. The second season of The White Lotus was absolutely brilliant. And by the logic I listed when it came to so many of the series of the start of the article, the presence of a recurring character made it harder to classify the show as a limited series. It’s classifying it as a drama that should have raised everyone’s eyebrows higher than Tanya could.

Now I realize we’ve been having some debate over what a comedy is these days but we’re still pretty sure what a drama is. And anyone who tries to tell me that Mike White and the cast of The White Lotus should have been competing against Succession, Yellowjackets, and Better Call Saul would really have to contort themselves to make that argument. Jennifer Coolidge won a prize from MTV that spring arguing it was the best comic performance of the year. I’m not saying that Coolidge didn’t deserve another Emmy but even she must have wondered why she was competing against Rhea Seehorn and Elizabeth Debicki, and I’m not just saying that because the former absolutely should have won and the latter was a more worthy candidate.

We’re having arguments about redefining what a comedy is and it didn’t occur to all the people who were arguing whether shows like The Bear and Wednesday were in the wrong category that there was a show that had been just as blatantly misclassified? I don’t know Mike White kept a straight face when HBO told him that they were putting The White Lotus in the drama category; even he knows he wrote a comedy. I’ll be honest, had they classified The White Lotus as a comedy, there’s a very good chance this past Emmys would have turned out very different, certainly in the supporting acting categories. We have trouble telling whether something is funny or not; did no one blink at the idea of having to take The White Lotus seriously?

And it is worth noting that is one of the more promising changes of the idea of the limited series in the last few years that I find intriguing. While there have always been incredible limited series for the past decade no one would question that they have all been mostly variations on a dramas or dark literary adaptations. There had been some attempts at comic limited series (most prominently TBS Miracle Workers) but it wasn’t until The White Lotus utterly changed the game two years ago that I think showrunners acknowledged limited series could be darkly comic as well as darkly dramatic. That is no doubt a huge part of the reason that Beef resonated so well with Emmy voters — and honestly every other awards show — this past year, and it is just as likely the reason that Baby Reindeer will do the same in the next month. These shows have dark dramatic elements but they also have a sense of black comedy that I wouldn’t mind more limited series having.

As to the question: does the term limited series mean anything anymore? It would be easier to answer if the Academy had managed to codify it years ago but they’ve clearly never been able to do so. Part of it is their own fault, part of it is how the networks choose to do so, and the latter may change their mind based on considerations that may not be clear until the awards have been given. And considering the need of the viewer to want more of a story even after its been wrapped up in a bow, you can’t always blame the network for giving the viewer what they want: that’s how television has always worked, its not going to change to make awards shows pedants lives easier.

My reaction to this is not much different from the one about trying to have a definition of what a comedy is. Our standards for that have changed over time, and the same thing is happening for limited series. The major difference is that we’ve never clearly had a definition of limited series before the way we had one apparently locked in stone for comedy but the same principle applies. Trying to put an artificial construct on what so much of what an award should be, whether it be for a performer or for a genre, is a horrible idea and it will always create more problems that it will solve. The classifications for what the Emmys consider a classification have to evolve both as the times do and according to the plans of the networks. To blame them for not being able to fit your definition is something I can’t hold the Emmys responsible for. Will I carry a grudge that the Emmys spent five years nominating Downton Abbey over The Good Wife for Best Drama? Absolutely. But it’s because I liked the latter more, not because the former show was misclassified by the Emmys.



David B Morris

After years of laboring for love in my blog on TV, I have decided to expand my horizons by blogging about my great love to a new and hopefully wider field.