As the 73rd Primetime Emmy Awards approaches Sunday, there's no bigger mix of important, illuminating and just plain entertaining contenders than in the best limited-series category, which honors (usually) one-time projects that attract big stars who aren't easily lured to ongoing shows.
From Kate Winslet's turn as "Mare of Easttown," a Pennsylvania detective investigating a murder while struggling with her own family issues, to "WandaVision," Marvel's genre-bending first TV series for Disney+ to "The Underground Railroad," Amazon's take on an important historical milestone in ending slavery, the category is a mix of rich portrayals, searing drama and relevant themes.
USA TODAY's staffers passionately defend their choices for which should take home the trophy:
'Mare of Easttown'
HBO's slow burn of a crime drama unfolded this spring with a lot of buzz about the Pennsylvania accent adopted by British star Kate Winslet. But beneath all the online conversation was a superbly drawn narrative about grief, friendship and mothers and sons. Its poetic, shocking ending only cemented its greatness. With an excellent performance by Winslet at the center, great supporting turns by Jean Smart and other cast members and a compelling mystery, "Mare" became the big show of the season that deserved its hype. – Kelly Lawler
Streaming on HBO Max
'The Queen's Gambit'
To the other best limited series nominees, “The Queen's Gambit” says “checkmate.” The drama, centered on troubled orphan-turned-chess-wunderkind Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy), got viewers so interested in the game that sales of chess sets skyrocketed following its October release. Completely enthralled, I celebrate as Beth masters her sport and dominates her opponents, and root for her as she grapples with her personal demons and addictions. There’s a reason (Emmy-nominated) Taylor-Joy earned Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Awards for her performance. – Erin Jensen
Streaming on Netflix
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After taking over the movie business, Marvel shifted to TV with what initially seems like a rollicking, homage-filled jaunt through the history of sitcoms with the magical Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and her android love Vision (Paul Bettany). Then it transforms into something much more, with a scene-stealing witchy villainess (Kathryn Hahn), blockbuster action and intrigue, the likes of which superhero fans usually see only in a movie theater, and a surprisingly deep narrative that ultimately touches on Wanda’s mental health and grief after a terrible loss. No other series can compete with its mix of Spandex-ready fun and sheer ambition. – Brian Truitt
Streaming on Disney+
'The Underground Railroad'
Barry Jenkins' adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer-winning "The Underground Railroad" offers an innovative and thoughtful take on the historical network of people, routes and safe houses that offered an escape from slavery in the South. Jenkins, who directed Oscar best picture “Moonlight,” designs a literal – and visually captivating – subterranean train network that helps Cora Randall (Thuso Mbedu, in an award-worthy performance) escape a Georgia plantation. Train stops re-create other dehumanizing experiences that Black people have faced in America, including eugenics experimentation, exclusionary laws and violence against free communities. Hope comes from the resilience and growing confidence of Cora and the perseverance of people facing such horrific brutality. Jenkins acknowledged the need to examine his heritage despite “fraught” images of slavery; the result is a thought-provoking piece of art. – Bill Keveney
Streaming on Amazon Prime
'I May Destroy You'
You might've missed Michaela Coel's astonishing "I May Destroy You," which flew somewhat under the radar when it aired on HBO last summer. It's a year later, and we still have yet to see a better show than Coel's searing exploration of trauma, consent and sexual assault. The British actress writes, produces, co-directs and stars in this tragicomedy as Arabella, a struggling novelist trying to piece together the night she was drugged and raped at a bar. The darkly funny series pulls off a tricky tonal balancing act, continually subverting expectations of the revenge thriller genre on Arabella's journey toward catharsis and healing. It also features one of the most surprising and achingly gorgeous finales we've ever seen, announcing Coel's arrival as a master TV storyteller. – Patrick Ryan
Streaming on HBO Max
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Emmys 2021: Defending our picks for best limited series