Emmy Circuit: Will Outstanding Limited Series go to ‘When They See Us’ or ‘Chernobyl’?

When They See Us

Welcome to the 2019 Emmy Circuit series. We are now in the Emmy post-nomination phase, where we watch all the nominated Emmy episodes and predict their chances of winning. The Creative Arts Emmy winners will be revealed Saturday, Sept. 14, while the Primetime Emmy Awards airs on FOX Sunday, Sept. 22. Tune in week after week as we tackle all things Drama, Comedy, Limited Series and Variety.


The closest race belongs to Outstanding Limited Series. It’s a real nail-biter between “Chernobyl” and When They See Us.” The former had the most nominations and won a staggering seven awards so far. Meanwhile, the latter got eight actors nominated and features a powerful movie director, Ava DuVernay, behind the camera. Both are prestigious dramas that tapped into the zeitgeist in different, yet powerful ways. It’s going to be close, but very exciting to see how this all plays out.


  • “Chernobyl”
  • “Escape at Dannemora”
  • “Fosse/Verdon”
  • “Sharp Objects”
  • “When They See Us”

Now to delve into each of the nominated episodes. Spoiler Alert: These analyses may contain spoilers of the nominated episodes.

NOMINEE #1 – “Chernobyl”

Chernobyl HBOEpisode Synopsis (IMDB): In April 1986, an explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics becomes one of the world’s worst man-made catastrophes.

Creative Arts Emmy Wins (7): Outstanding Sound Mixing for a Limited Series or Movie, Outstanding Production Design for a Narrative Period or Fantasy Program (One Hour or More), Outstanding Special Visual Effects In A Supporting Role, Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing for a Limited Series or Movie, Outstanding Music Composition for a Limited Series, Movie or Special (Original Dramatic Score), Outstanding Sound Editing for a Limited Series, Movie or Special, Outstanding Cinematography for a Limited Series or Movie

“Chernobyl” fits the textbook definition of a hard sit. Chronicling the aftermath of the Chernobyl explosion that killed over 50 people and left thousands with life-threatening illnesses and complications, Craig Mazin‘s limited series balances the more stoic political drama behind the accident with a gross-out depiction of the long term affects of the blast. This helped push the show into a rare cross section of populist and prestigious. The cast, which includes Jared Harris, Emily Watson and Stellan Skarsgård (all nominated), does a uniformly great job in their roles. Yet the titular situation is much more engrossing than any one performance.

On paper, “Chernobyl” looks like a winner. With nineteen nominations and seven wins already, it walks into the Primetime Emmys as a frontrunner. Still, the show was very grand and grotesque in equal measure. It was expected to do very well at the Creative Arts Emmys. The true test will come in the acting, writing and directing categories. If it can win just one of those, it can still take Limited Series. Winning two will all but assure victory, unless “When They See Us” does better. That show did so well on acting nominations, it could ride support from the acting branch to the win.

NOMINEE #2 – “Escape at Dannemora”

Synopsis (IMDB): An employee at a prison in upstate New York becomes romantically involved with a pair of inmates and helps them escape.

Creative Arts Emmy Wins: None

“Escape at Dannemora” is more than just a prison escape film. Director Ben Stiller’s adaptation of a true story focuses on the off-kilter horniness that engenders the escape. Unhappy at home, prison worker Tilly (Patricia Arquette) uses her position as head seamstress to strike up affairs with two inmates – Richard Matt (Benicio Del Toro) and Daniel Sweat (Paul Dano). Arquette commits to her character fully, accentuating every wildly over-the-top mannerism she has. Del Toro goes equally big with his line readings as a prisoner who seems more and more like a madman. As a supporting character, Dano’s Daniel Sweat grounds the show in some sort of reality. It’s an engrossing ride, even if it delights in heightening the absurdity of its characters. The show feels closest in tone to a Coen Brothers movie, though it lacks their affection for oddball characters.

“Escape at Dannemora” did very well in early precursors. It won major prizes for directing and Patricia Arquette in Lead Actress at the DGA, SAG, Golden Globes and Critics Choice Awards. Despite these early positive signs, the show never had to go up against “When They See Us,” “Fosse/Verdon” or “Chernobyl.” “Dannemora” earned twelve nominations, fewer than those three other shows. There is the possibility it could rally an acting or directing win. However, if it loses those, “Escape at Dannemora” will likely walk away with zero Emmy wins.

NOMINEE #3 – “Fosse Verdon”

Episode Synopsis (IMDB): An inside look at the romantic and creative partnership between influential choreographer/director, Bob Fosse, and Gwen Verdon, one of the greatest Broadway dancers of all time.

Creative Arts Emmy Wins (3): Outstanding Makeup for a Limited Series or Movie (Non-Prosthetic), Outstanding Hairstyling for a Limited Series or Movie, Outstanding Music Direction

“Fosse/Verdon” is a wildly entertaining, occasionally uneven, must watch for musical fans. As director Bob Fosse rose to a place of prominence in the 1970s, his muse Gwen Verdon struggles to stay as famous as her heyday. Michelle Williams steps forward as the heart and soul of the project. Her Gwen Verdon oozes charisma. As time moves forward, this brashy exterior morphs into something savvier, but also more desperate. We’re drawn to Williams from the very moment she meets Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell, also very good). Yet, the show comes alive in the later years as Bob’s addictions grow with success and Gwen struggles to put “Chicago” to the top of his mind.

“Fosse/Verdon” did well with at the Creative Arts Emmy Awards. With three awards, it won the second most categories of all limited series nominees. Granted, the three categories (makeup, hairstyling and music direction) were always going to favor FX’s flashy musical biopic. If anything, this positions “Fosse/Verdon” well as a potential spoiler. If “Chernobyl” and “When They See Us” split the vote, “Fosse/Verdon” could come from behind for the win. Since both of its competitors have such heavy subject matter, those looking for more entertaining or enjoyable fare will likely vote for “Fosse/Verdon.”

NOMINEE #4 – “Sharp Objects”

Episode Synopsis (IMDB): A reporter confronts the psychological demons from her past when she returns to her hometown to cover a violent murder.

Creative Arts Emmy Wins: None

“Sharp Objects” is the perfect parody of peak TV. Adapted from a Gillian Flynn novel of the same name, HBO took the “Big Little Lies” playbook and tried to replicate it. They took a beach read, put an A-list movie actress in the lead and handed it off to Jean Marc-Vallee. The Southern Gothic mystery focused less on the mystery at hand and more on the self-harm of Camille (Amy Adams). Her trip to her far-from-idyllic hometown escalates her alcoholism and cutting. With Patricia Clarkson as Camille’s devilish mother, the show truly could not have had more perfect ingredients. Yet, the story gets thinner with each episode. Rather than double down on the family conflict, Vallee doubles down on atmospheric shots of grass, countless montages of Adams driving as told from a rear view mirror and pitch black shots of Clarkson doing ASMR. It trips over its own self-seriousness.

A year ago, “Sharp Objects” rocketed to the top of every prognosticator’s Emmy predictions. As stated above, the show had a perfect Emmy pedigree, plus strong ratings and a vocal fanbase. As the year unfolded, plenty of other exciting limited series started cropping up and stealing the thunder from this HBO miniseries. Three out of five of the nominees came from the last two months of Emmy eligibility. Earning only five nominations, the least of any show in this category, “Sharp Objects” easily falls to last place in this lineup.

NOMINEE #5 – “When They See Us”

When They See UsEpisode Synopsis (IMDB): Five teens from Harlem become trapped in a nightmare when they’re falsely accused of a brutal attack in Central Park. Based on the true story.

Creative Arts Emmy Wins (1): Outstanding Casting for a Limited Series, Movie or Special

“When They See Us” will likely be the most wrenching and moving show anyone watches on TV this year. Ava DuVernay’s take on the Central Park Five expertly dramatizes the heartbreaking ways in which the criminal justice system failed five black boys. After a jogger is brutally raped in Central Park, the New York justice system rushes to accuse five teenagers for the crime, despite the lack of evidence. The show is about much more than the central case. It follows the Central Park Five (re-named the Exonerated Five earlier this year) through their prison stay and eventual release. It also examines the toll this wrongful accusation takes on the various families. In just four episodes, the Netflix show takes a grand and all-encompassing look at how this one case exemplifies the way racism runs through today’s judicial system.

Compared to “Chernobyl,” it looks like “When They See Us” had a major setback at the Creative Arts Emmy. While “Chernobyl” won seven awards, “When They See Us” only won one. Still, of sixteen nominations, eleven of them came from Primetime Emmy categories, a record this year. “Chernobyl” was always going to dominate the Creative Arts Emmys. “When They See Us” will need to be as much of a juggernaut at the Primetime Emmys if it wants to win the big award. It possesses the necessary gravitas and importance to earn votes. If it can win at least an acting award and directing for Ava DuVernay, Limited Series can definitely follow.


  1. “When They See Us”
  2. “Chernobyl”
  3. “Fosse/Verdon”
  4. “Escape at Dannemora”
  5. “Sharp Objects”

WILL WIN: “When They See Us”

SHOULD WIN: “When They See Us”


What do you think will win Outstanding Limited Series this year? Let us know in the comments below.