Now that the movie and mini-series categories have been combined by the TV Academy, it’s interesting that in this first year of the new configuration voters predictably favored the more expensive and elaborate mini-series format with 4 of the 6 nominations. One reason for the change in the first place was because of the perceived paucity in the numbers of minis eligible, so go figure. Actually among those contenders that didn’t make the cut I would argue that perhaps two other minis got robbed: Sundance Channel’s Carlos which was the darling of every film festival it entered beginning with Cannes. And BBC America’s Luther also deserved a spot but its grim subject matter focusing on a brilliant detective who takes a walk on the dark side may have turned off those who preferred the sleaze factor of Reelz Channel’s The Kennedys instead.
But what about those that did get the nod? Here’s the handicapping.
CINEMA VERITE (HBO)
This made-for-HBO movie told the story of the Loud Family who lived their dysfunctional lives in front of a documentary film crew thus becoming the template for today’s multitude of reality TV programs. The film received mixed reviews and isn’t generally considered HBO’s finest hour but Diane Lane shone brightly in it and lifted the material, deservedly getting a Best Actress Emmy nomination. Considering the advance age of many voters, the memory of the real Loud family and their TV meltdown may be too vivid for any narrative film to overcome. Still its 9 overall nominations including Directing for Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini are impressive although the lack of a writing nod isn’t a good omen. This one is a real long shot to battle the mini-series tide in the category and may just wind up a bridesmaid this season.
DOWNTON ABBEY (PBS)
This stunning mini-series from Masterpiece Theatre is a period pre-WWI drama centering on the conflicts surrounding the Crawley family and their servants. British dramas are often showered with Emmy love and this is no exception garnering 11 nominations overall including writing, directing, and acting nods for Elizabeth McGovern and Maggie Smith. There is no giant mini like John Adams, Band of Brothers, or The Pacific to stomp all over it despite HBO rival Mildred Pierce’s whopping 21 nominations. A great script from Oscar winner Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park), a magnificent cast that also includes Hugh Bonneville, and fine production values made critics swoon. This is the one to watch coming up to the front from the outside. A second season is already planned for fans who just couldn’t get enough.
THE KENNEDYS (Reelz Channel)
This $25 million 6-hour mini widely derided as “playing with the facts” was jettisoned by the History Channel which originally commissioned it and finally found a home on the little-seen Reelz Channel. I thought Emmy voters might turn their backs on it, too, but an outsized 10 nominations proved me wrong. Never overestimate the tastes of Emmy voters as those nominations put it in the game, likely at the expense of the far superior Carlos and Luther. Stars Greg Kinnear, Barry Pepper, and Tom Wilkinson reeled in Emmy nods as well but there was no love for the mini in writing and directing categories. Not a good sign. Reelz did send a 3-DVD set of the show to all Academy members but it would likely only have a fighting chance in a weaker year – and this is NOT a weak year. This is the longest of shots. It should just be content to get an invite to the party.
MILDRED PIERCE (HBO)
Perennial winner HBO’s big mini this season was this 5-part remake of Mildred Pierce, the 1945 noir from James M. Cain’s book that won Joan Crawford her Best Actress Oscar. It is likely it will do the same Emmy-wise for star Kate Winslet who runs with the role that pays closer attention to the original novel. Pierce itself faces fierce competition for the crown in this category because at its heart it is just a soap and the overlong adaptation exposes some of its flaws. But you cannot ignore the fact that it is leading all comers in this year’s Emmy race with 21 nominations, a total bloated by 6 acting bids. Just based on those raw numbers it would seem to have wide support across the Academy. Reviews weren’t over the moon and ratings were less than expected, but director Todd Haynes gave it verve and style and that may be enough to carry the day. But this is no slam dunk even if its closest rivals (Downton Abbey and Too Big To Fail) received barely more than half of Ms. Pierce’s haul.
THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH (Starz)
An “epic” 8-part mini-series attempt to give Starz some instant Emmy cred based on Ken Follett’s bestseller. A sterling cast led by Ian McShane helped to turn this old-fashioned mini into a contender for Academy voters who fondly remember when this sort of big-scale was catnip for the broadcast networks. Although those voters awarded it 7 nominations, that’s the smallest total in the category and includes no mention of acting, writing, or directing. For Chris Albrecht who was used to all that Emmy glory when he was at HBO, Pillars reps a small stepping stone back into Emmy’s golden circle and managing to land one of the prized slots in this very competitive year is victory enough for the Starz.
TOO BIG TO FAIL (HBO)
This riveting drama based on the non-fiction book of the same name by New York Times financial journalist Andrew Ross Sorkinis is the most current and contemporary of the nominees. Playing Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson is Emmy-nominated William Hurt who turns in one of his best performances in years. But the whole cast shines including Billy Crudup, Topher Grace, Cynthia Nixon, James Woods, and Paul Giamatti. Oscar winner Curtis Hanson directed and would have taken the Movie category this year had it still existed on its own (particularly with 11 noms). But alas Too Big To Fail is probably now too small to win in the combined category against much stiffer competition.