Miniseries, the format long thought dead or dying, dominates the combined Outstanding Movie or Miniseries category on this morning’s Emmy nomination list. Basic cable shows from the likes of FX, History, USA and Sundance Channel are using “miniseries” projects to make a strong showing against the perennial strength of HBO, which scored big as usual with its one-off , movie star-laden films Behind The Candelabra and Phil Spector which received an impressive total of 26 nominations between them. There is also a particularly strong group of past Oscar winners competing for Emmy gold in this year’s group.
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But leading the pack again, with the same number of nominations — 17 — it received last year is FX’s franchise American Horror Story: Asylum. In fact Asylum leads ALL shows in any category. Although widely thought to have been launched as a regular series after its pilot was picked up on FX in the 2011-2012 season, creator Ryan Murphy successfully lobbied the TV Academy and got its board to approve its Miniseries designation. It gives the show — in which the cast changes characters and stories each season — a much better chance at Emmy success than it would have had competing in the super-competitive Drama Series category, where many thought it belonged (the vote was very close in approving this switch ). American Horror Story picked up two Emmys out of those 17 nods last year and obviously hopes to up the ante on the second go-round. This is obviously the “miniseries” that keeps on giving to FX, far outshadowing the network’s criminally under Emmy-appreciated series Justified, Sons Of Anarchy and critically acclaimed newbie The Americans just to name three. Sometimes the line between Miniseries and Drama Series is a thin one. Downton Abbey won the Movie/Mini category two years ago but now competes in Drama Series where it lost to Homeland last year.
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USA’s Political Animals, another show designed as a possible long-running drama series but designated a mini after failing to get picked up for additional episodes, ran a strong campaign and landed five nods including Best Movie or Mini and Lead Actress for Sigourney Weaver. And in its fourth and “final season”, Showtime’s regular series The Big C changed things up by going from a half-hour comedy format to four one-hour shows and re-inventing itself as a miniseries. It resulted in star Laura Linney’s return to the Emmy race as Lead Actress in a Movie or Mini, her first acknowledgement from the Academy for this role since being nominated as Lead Actress in a Comedy Series in the show’s first season. Linney, Asylum’s Jessica Lange (who won for AHS in the Movie/Mini Supporting Actress race last year) and Weaver can genuinely thank the Academy for allowing the definition of what is really a miniseries to be so uh, flexible. Elisabeth Moss in Top Of The Lake and Helen Mirren in Phil Spector round out that category.
Mirren, along with co-star Al Pacino – both multiple Emmy and Oscar winners — are not surprises,but the strong showing of their HBO movie Phil Spector is a little eye-opening since it underwhelmed in critical response and ratings. But with 11 nods including key acting, writing and directing love, it joins Candelabra and Oscar winner Jane Campion’s Top Of The Lake as the strongest contenders for the Movie/Mini crown. The other nominees Asylum, Political Animals and The Bible were left off the lists for writing and directing – not a good sign. In fact other than a couple of Sound nods, History’s The Bible might be surprising to some in landing a key mention as Outstanding Movie or Miniseries. Producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey have been tireless and vocal cheerleaders for their project and it certainly didn’t hurt that it was such a massive ratings winner, a la last year’s initial foray for History into the Mini waters with The Hatfields & McCoys which wound up winning five Emmys and multiple nominations. History also hired an Oscar awards consultant with several Best Picture wins to work on their campaign. Emmy voters love epic projects that get numbers. The Bible’s inclusion is not a surprise particularly in a somewhat weak field this year that I think is likely to be dominated in the end by Candelabra, which is the strong Vegas bet to triumph in several categories including Lead Actor for Michael Douglas, Writing for Richard LaGravanese and Directing (in his final film for now at least) Steven Soderbergh. It won an impressive 15 nominations in total, the most of any single movie this year. The well-received mystery mini Top Of The Lake could steal it though and is one to watch in the finals.
Speaking of Douglas, he is likely the sentimental favorite to take it all in Lead Actor in a Movie or Miniseries for his portrayal of Liberace. It is interesting to note that co-star Matt Damon, Pacino and The Girl’s Toby Jones (who played Alfred Hitchcock) all won nominations playing real people. Only Parade’s End star Benedict Cumberbatch made the cut with an old-fashioned fictional character in the HBO mini that also won revered writer Top Stoppard a nod for his first TV project in over three decades. However the show, which has five nods overall, was shut out in the top category.
With a last-minute reprieve from the Board Of Governors in April, the Movie/Mini Supporting categories that had been previously announced as toast, were re-instated and resulted in swelling Asylum’s overall total by winning nods for James Cromwell, Zachary Quinto and Sarah Paulson. The wealth was spread among several entries in these categories. Even Lifetime’s critically lambasted Lindsay Lohan movie Liz & Dick managed a couple of nominations for Hair and Makeup — if not for the actress who was under all that hair and makeup.
At one point the Academy was talking about seriously removing the entire Movie and Miniseries category from the primetime show largely because the broadcast networks were out of that business and they of course take turns airing the Emmys each year. That would not have been wise. Clearly in looking at today’s nominations the Big 4 are still MIA, but it appears to be a vital area elsewhere and now there’s even a sense that the traditional nets may be rediscovering minis again. It’s smart of the Academy to leave it alone. And with nominees like Douglas, Damon, Mirren, Pacino, Lange, Weaver, Linney, Soderbergh, Campion and Stoppard, where else will the Emmys get such a strong dose of Oscar-winning star power on the red carpet this year?