Watch Out, ‘The White Lotus’ – Emmy History Says You’re Moving to a Much Rougher Neighborhood

In the past, shows that flourished in the limited series category have found voters much less hospitable after moving to drama series

The White Lotus

Last year, “The White Lotus” dominated the Emmys, landing 20 nominations (second only to the 25 for “Succession”) and winning in an Emmy-leading 10 of those categories, four more than runners-up “Euphoria” and “Squid Game.” But will it be anywhere near that easy for Mike White’s series to be that unstoppable this year?

You can’t count it out, but it’ll be tough. As has been well documented, the Television Academy has moved “The White Lotus” from the limited series categories where it competed last year to the drama series categories this year. That move marked a change of heart by the Academy, which in 2022 had classified “The White Lotus” as a limited series while knowing full well that it was planning a second season that technically violated the Emmy rule book’s definition of a limited series as a program “that tells a complete, non-recurring story … with no on-going storyline and/or main characters in subsequent seasons.”

Jennifer Coolidge, it had been established, was going to return for Season 2 — but maybe because everybody wants to see Coolidge in everything, the Academy looked the other way and said “The White Lotus” could still be a limited series, until they suddenly decided it couldn’t.

Unfortunately for “The White Lotus,” Emmy history suggests that the move from the limited series category to drama series is a problematic one. Look at the last high-profile show that made a similar shift, “Big Little Lies.”

The show was originally commissioned as a freestanding miniseries — but in the aftermath of a successful first season in 2017, HBO played coy with the idea of a second season until the show had landed 16 nominations and won eight Emmys, including Outstanding Limited Series, Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series (Nicole Kidman) and supporting awards for Alexander Skarsgard and Laura Dern.

Not long after those wins, HBO officially renewed “BLL,” which immediately made the program a drama series in the eyes of the Emmys. The second season still got some attention from voters, but its 16 nominations dropped to five and its wins dropped from eight to zero (even though it added Meryl Streep to the cast).

The most notable program to make the shift in the last 20 years was “Downton Abbey,” and even it had some trouble with the transition. Its first season (or “first series,” in British TV parlance) strangely qualified for the Emmys as a limited series in 2011, even though its second season was already in the works (and would air in the U.K. on the same day as the Emmy ceremony). As a limited series, it would be nominated for 11 Emmys and win six of them, including Outstanding Miniseries and an acting award for Maggie Smith. 

The next five seasons were placed, properly, in the Outstanding Drama Series category, where the show did well, averaging almost 12 nominations per year. But against the stronger and deeper competition in the drama categories, its wins dropped to an average of two a year, a third of what it had won as a miniseries.

Partly, it’s harder to flourish in the drama series category than in limited series because there’s so much more competition: Last year, for instance, there were 171 eligible drama series against only 61 eligible limited series, and 1,253 eligible performers from drama series against 573 from limited series.

Plus, in the drama categories, you’re going up against plenty of shows and performers who’ve been piling up nominations in the categories for years, and whose past nominations give them a kind of home-court advantage with Emmy voters. As a limited series, you come in fresh and none of your competitors has the edge of having been there before.

That’s not to say that “The White Lotus” will have problems this year. Based on how well it fared at the guild awards earlier this year, it may well hold its own. After all, it won at the ACE Eddie Awards, the ASCAP Awards, the Producers Guild Awards, the Writers Guild Awards and the Society of Composers and Lyricists Awards, and it was nominated by half a dozen other groups in categories that included limited series, comedy series, drama series, one-hour series and broadcast longform.

Still, that final season of “Succession” is a tough foe, a veritable 800-pound gorilla that won’t easily be defeated. And if that doesn’t win, “The Last of Us” and the final season of “Better Call Saul” (which has never won and might have a bit of sentiment on its side) aren’t pushovers, either.

For now, here’s what we know: The limited series category can bid “The White Lotus” a fond farewell as it packs up and moves to a rougher neighborhood.

A version of this story first appeared in the Limited Series/Movies issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from that issue here.