What Differentiates a Limited Series From a TV Drama at the Emmys?

At the 69th Primetime Emmy Awards, the limited series category is generating more enthusiasm than it has in years. After all, the Lead Actress in a Limited Series or TV Movie category alone features four Oscar winners. But why is it that some shows that have been on for several seasons are counted as a limited series? What criteria does the Oscars use in order to determine what makes a limited series?

According to the Emmy Awards’ official rules, a limited series must feature two or more episodes, with the total running time of the series being at least 150 minutes. It also must tell a complete, non-recurring story, with no ongoing storyline and/or main characters who appear in subsequent seasons.

On the other hand, a show would fit into the comedy or drama category if it has at least six episodes and if “the ongoing storyline, theme and main characters are presented under the same title and have continuity of production supervision.”

The poster for HBO's 'Big Little Lies.'

The poster for HBO’s ‘Big Little Lies.’ | HBO

With that in mind, Fargo is certainly pushing those boundaries a bit, as although each season is a complete story, there are some characters who have appeared in more than one season. For example, deaf hitman Wes Wrench appeared in both Season 1 and Season 3. Technically, though, he probably wouldn’t be considered a main character, and the Emmys rules specify that no main characters can be recurring between seasons of a limited series.

Big Little Lies, the frontrunner to win the award for Outstanding Limited Series, was initially presented as a seven-episode story, but there has since been some talk of a second season.

The Emmys introduced stricter rules about the definition of a limited series after there was some question about True Detective and Fargo‘s classification in 2014. That year, HBO decided to submit True Detective as a drama when the show was actually a standalone story that was not expected to get a second season until after the first one was a hit. Meanwhile, Fargo was submitted as a limited series, even though it was essentially in the same boat as True Detective. Since then, the Emmys have more clearly outlined what makes a limited series, and they reserve the right to move a show into a different category than the network submitted it as.

Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, and Shailene Woodley in 'Big Little Lies.'

Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, and Shailene Woodley in ‘Big Little Lies.’ | HBO

Big Little Lies‘ competition in the Outstanding Limited Series category tonight includes Feud: Bette and JoanGeniusFargo, and The Night Of.