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Emmy Circuit: Ava DuVernay and Ben Stiller Fight It Out in Director of a Limited Series, TV Movie or Dramatic Speical

Escape at Dannemora
Benicio Del Toro as Richard Matt and Paul Dano as David Sweat in Escape at Dannemora. -Photo: Wilson Webb /Showtime

Welcome to the 2019 Emmy Circuit series, where we analyze and predict all your favorite TV series and their chances with the Television Academy (at least at this time of publishing).  The series examines the shows and performances about their awards potential, most notably the Emmy Awards.  Emmy nomination voting opens June 10 and closes on June 24.  The official Emmy nominations will be announced on Tuesday, July 16 while the ceremony airs on FOX Sunday, Sept. 22.  All Emmy pieces run with the following schedule: Mondays (Dramas), Tuesdays (Network Spotlight), Wednesdays (Comedies), Thursdays (Network Spotlight), Fridays (Limited Series, Variety Series, Below-the Lines).

In recent years, the Limited Series category presented at the Emmys has featured some of the most talented directors in the entertainment industry. David Lynch, Steven SoderbergJean-Marc Vallée, Todd Haynes, and John Singleton have been among past nominees. Rising stars Susanna BierScott Frank, and Dee Rees received attention for their work, as well. Yet no race has been quite as competitive as this year’s field. With a mixture of established Hollywood directors, up and coming talent, and strong genre filmmakers, this will be a fascinating category to track up until Emmy night.


When They See Us Michael K. Williams and Caleel Harris Ava DuVernay
Ava DuVernay directs “When They See Us “

There are two directors that have jumped ahead of the field. Ava DuVernay, already an Emmy favorite thanks to “13th,” could finally win her first major prize as a director. She was notoriously snubbed at the Oscars for “Selma” and lost the Golden Globe that year. While she won two prizes for “13th” neither was for her direction. As crazy as it sounds, she’s never won a televised director’s prize. That could very easily change thanks to the emotional and visually transfixing “When They See Us” brings to the table. Drawing from European influences and expertly allowing points where her actors break emotional boundaries, DuVernay’s vision shines through every frame.

Escape at Dannemora
Ben Stiller directs “Escape at Dannemora”

Ben Stiller he picked up the DGA prize over Ryan Murphy (last year’s Emmy winner), for “Escape at Dannemora” earlier this year. Once thought of as a comedian first and a director second, Stiller has opened up a new lane for his career with the Limited Series. Beyond utilizing flashy tricks, including an excellent one-take late in the show, Stiller creates a feeling of dread from episode one. We know the story goes sideways from the first minutes of the series, yet Stiller keeps the tension hanging over audiences at every turn. As the crime story comes to life, audiences will begin to appreciate Stiller in a new light. The visually dynamic “Part 6” and “Part 5” will stand out to the branch. Do not count out his influential status within the Academy for “The Ben Stiller Show” as well.

Previously at the Emmys

There are a slew of former Emmy winners and favorites amongst the crowd. The three to keep an eye on are Jean-Marc Vallée, Stephen Frears, and Cary Joji Fukunaga.

Sharp Objects Jean-Marc Vallee
Jean-Marc Vallée directs “Sharp Objects”

Vallée gets a leg up on the other two directors thanks to the popularity of this series and his recent win for “Big Little Lies” in 2017. At it’s best moments, “Sharp Objects” makes the audience feel as if they’re walking through a nightmare. While the Amy Adams-led narrative does not take place in the deep south, the Southern Gothic vibe of the show matches with the unsettling atmosphere of the small town. Even as momentum has faded for the series, Vallée can still crack this lineup. Just last year, David Lynch earned a nomination for “Twin Peaks,” even as the show missed in Outstanding Limited Series. Vallée’s fingerprints are all over the show, and with an extra slot in the director’s category, he can capitalize on industry adoration.

Hugh Grant A Very English Scandal Lead Actor Limited Series/TV Movie
Stephen Frears directs “A Very English Scandal”

In most cases, Amazon’s June 2018 release of “A Very English Scandal” would have been a problem. Yet with Brexit looming large over the country, Stephen Frears’ latest tale has felt strangely relevant. The story of Jeremy Thorpe gave Frears a chance to not only open up discussions about corruption, but force England to confront its past with the LGBTQ+ community. The resulting series reminds audiences that inept politicians can be extremely dangerous. Yet shrewd men who will stop at nothing to hold onto their power are an even greater threat. Frears gets two of the very best performances of the year from Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw and already holds two Emmy nominations in this category. While “A Very English Scandal” does not feature “flashy” direction, Frears’ work speaks volumes.

Maniac Netflix Cary Joji Fukunaga Emma Stone
Cary Joji Fukunaga directs “Maniac”

Finally, Cary Joji Fukunaga looks to add another Emmy to his trophy case. After winning a best director prize for the first season of “True Detective,” the director brings one of the weirdest shows to the small screen we’ve seen in years. “Maniac” gives Fukunaga the opportunity to work in strange and diverse genres, which should earn him some credit among the directors branch. The series changes genres on a dime, becoming an espionage thriller,  Philip K. Dick science fiction, a prohibition detective story, and even Tolkien fantasy. “Maniac” thrives as it gets weirder and deeper into the minds of its protagonists. Despite this, the series never really gained traction with the general populous. Yet Fukunaga nabbed a spot at the DGA awards. Could this be an indication of a potential director nomination?

Previously at the Movies

Catch-22 George Clooney, Grant Heslov, and Ellen Kuras
George Clooney, Grant Heslov, and Ellen Kuras direct “Catch-22”

Several movie directors are making their presence known at the Emmys, as well. George Clooney sits in an interesting position in Emmy history. He could be the first director/actor to earn nominations for directing and acting in a limited series since Ricky Gervais for the finale of “Extras” in 2009. Considering the goofball antics of “Catch-22,” as well as the novel’s storied place in the literary canon, he might be a threat for a nomination. However, Clooney does not direct all of “Catch-22” (like many of the other contenders do). By splitting the directorial duties with Grant Heslov and Ellen Kuras, he may have weakened his campaign. Additionally, “Catch-22” adapts the black comedy aspects of the novel well, but doing so does not make for overly compelling television.

The Haunting of Hill House Mike Flanagan
Mike Flanagan directs “The Haunting of Hill House”

Mike Flanagan might not be a household name, but he has crept into the horror spotlight. His previous films, “Oculus” and “Ouija: Origin of Evil” became surprise cult hits within corners of the community. After making “The Haunting of Hill House” one of the surprise hits of the Fall, Flanagan’s star has risen. The long takes of “Two Storms” made it one of the best television episodes of 2018. Flanagan’s eye as a director also made the show instantly re-watchable thanks to the dozens of “hidden” ghosts that creep in the backgrounds of shots. Blending the actual scares of the series with heavy drama, Flanagan created a sensation. The TV Academy could choose to crown Flanagan ahead of his upcoming adaptation of “Doctor Sleep” in November.


Fosse/Verdon - Who's Got the Pain Thomas Kail
Thomas Kail directs”Fosse/Verdon” — Episode 2, “Who’s Got the Pain”

While there are few true newcomers to the race this year, Thomas Kail and Jessica Yu stand out for their exciting episodes of “Fosse/Verdon.” With directorial duties split, Kail was forced to choose a single episode despite taking on five episodes of the season. While “Who’s Got the Pain?” might not have been my pick (I preferred “Life is a Cabaret” and “Nowadays”), Kail still boasts a strong case for his first Emmy nomination. It’s a very emotional episode, and he builds a wonderfully complex relationship between the two Broadway stars. The choreography and execution of complex dances also gives the Tony-winning director a strong foundation to show off his skill-set.

Fosse/Verdon Jessica Yu
Jessica Yu directs “Fosse/Verdon” — Episode 4, “Glory”

Yu submits her sole episode of the season “Glory,” which gets to showcase the frenetic methods that Fosse became known for as a director. With strong allusions to “All That Jazz” she keys in on the year that broke Fosse. In 1973, Fosse won the Best Director Oscar, two Tonys, and three Emmys. Yu tracks the exhaustion that wears out Fosse over the year, and eventually leads him to contemplate suicide. The harrowing visuals of the “Pippin” medley are simply stunning. It’s a career making sequence, and Yu deserves praise for pulling off its intricacies. An Emmy nomination would be a great start.

Chernobyl HBO Johan Renck
Johan Renck Directs “Chernobyl”

It’s tough to call Johan Renck a true newcomer, but it is doubtful most audiences would know his name. Yet the “Breaking Bad” (“Hermanos”) and “Bloodline” (“Part One”) alum may find his name called on Emmy morning. After directing all five episodes of the critical and populist hit “Chernobyl,” Renck could be a dark horse to win this prize if he earns a nomination. One of the most cinematic series on television in 2019, “Chernobyl” features compelling moments of intense interpersonal drama and grand spectacle. Renck balances both sides of the coin and delivers gut-wrenching moments over the course of the series. With “Chernobyl” peaking at the right moment, Renck could be a beneficiary of the love towards the show.

Guess They’re Contenders 

While we’ve used this section to shine a light on fringe contenders, there are simply too many directors in this race to ignore. On the TV Movie side, there are a few contenders to watch for. After all, since 2010, only one lineup (2016) for Best Director featured Limited Series nominees exclusively. Even with the 2019 TV Movie lineup feeling weaker than usual, there are directors who may come on strong at the end.

deadwood the movie ian mcshane Lead Actor Limited Series/TV Movie
Daniel Minahan directs “Deadwood: The Movie”

HBO can push several Limited Series/TV Movie Director Emmy nominees from years past. Daniel Minahan, an Emmy winner for “The Assassination of Gianni Versace,” directed “Deadwood: The Movie” to huge success. The favorite to win the TV Movie race, Minahan could easily make the cut. Sacha Gervasi and Rashid Johnson could nab some votes for “My Dinner with Herve” and “Native Son” respectively. Nic Pizzolatto might get some love for directing one of the strongest episodes of the new “True Detective” season as well.

Netflix hopes that the technical achievement of “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch” helps push David Slade into the race. Slade has TV credit to his name for producing and directing “Hannibal” and “American Gods” in the last five years. The overdue factor with genuine visual flair gives him the platform to mount a campaign.

"Black Mirror: Bandersnatch" David Slade
David Slade directs “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch”

Amazon could also sneak Matthew Weiner into the race for “The House of Special Purpose” episode of “The Romanoffs.” Despite the show’s struggle to actually find an audience, there’s reason to believe that the creator could still contend. However, Weiner found himself in some trouble earlier this year as details became public around his treatment of female writers. However, there was certainly evidence of these actions while “Mad Men” was on the air, but the Television Academy never held him accountable. He might still be a check off vote for some in the awards body.

Finally, Park Chan-wook could get some love for his work on “The Little Drummer Girl” on AMC. The Korean director has made an indelible mark on cinema and the opportunity to reward him may prove too good to pass up. Adapting John le Carré won Susanne Bier a surprise Emmy in 2016. Could history repeat itself?

Current Outstanding Director of a Limited Series or TV Movie Predictions

  1. Ava DuVernay – “When They See Us” (Best Episode – “Part Four”)
  2. Ben Stiller – “Escape at Dannemora” (Best Episode – “Part Five”)
  3. Johan Renck – “Chernobyl” (Best Episode – “1:23:45”)
  4. Thomas Kail – “Fosse/Verdon” — “Who’s Got the Pain”
  5. Jean-Marc Vallée – “Sharp Objects” (Best Episode – “Milk”)
  6. Daniel Minahan – “Deadwood: The Movie”

Who do you have out front for Outstanding Director of a Limited Series, TV Movie or Dramatic Special? DuVernay, Stiller, or someone else? Comment below and share your thoughts!


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Written by Alan French

Alan French is a movie buff, a TV lover, and a sports fanatic. His favorite TV shows are 'Parks and Recreation,' 'Rick and Morty' and 'Game of Thrones.' He's also a Spielberg fanatic. You can find him on Twitter and Medium @TheAlanFrench.


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