When Ryan Murphy’s creepy-sexy series American Horror Story was submitted as a miniseries for its first season in 2012, it caused a stir among pundits that lasted well into the 2013 Emmy race. Cynics said it was a way to avoid competing in the more-competitive drama race, despite how Murphy’s concept of putting new characters into different situations season to season didn’t exactly fit into the traditional drama series structure.
Fast-forward three years, and anthology series, such as Starz’s The Missing and ABC’s American Crime, have demonstrated that the notion of a show returning with a different storyline each season isn’t just a drama masquerading as a miniseries.
In response to the ever-changing genre, the TV Academy clarified the rules for the 2015 ceremony. Miniseries has morphed into limited series, which is defined as a show with two or more episodes totaling at least 150 minutes of run time with a self-contained story. The show can’t have recurring characters and must air under the same title each season with continuity among the production team. True Detective (which petitioned to compete in drama) and last year’s miniseries Emmy winner Fargo will have to wait until next year to contend with the newly-minted Outstanding Limited Series category, but several other shows from the eligibility period of June 1, 2014 to May 31, 2015 are likely to get voters’ attention.
Crime, deception and intrigue characterize the shows from this season that fall under the new guidelines, and it’s not solely the domain of cable. ABC delivered with John Ridley’s first-year American Crime, which shows the impact of a murder from multiple perspectives without ever forcing the audience to a conclusion. It has all the hallmarks of a gritty cable series and Ridley says he’s glad to have made it in a network environment.
“We were very fortunate that there (was) space for this kind of programming and now we have an opportunity to start fresh,” Ridley says, adding that ABC tapped him for the project well before his 2014 Oscar win for writing Fox Searchlight’s 12 Years a Slave. “They certainly didn’t perceive me then as people perceive me now. So ABC was committed to this. I was the beneficiary of what they wanted to do and how they wanted to push broadcast television in new directions.”
Starz also has announced plans for a second season of its Golden Globe-nominated anthology The Missing. Tom Shankland, who directed the first season’s eight episodes, points to the appeal of shooting a TV series in the style of a film, particularly when it came to tracking the finer plot points in the show’s two separate time frames.
“The way we scheduled it, we were able to shoot each time exclusively, which meant I could completely inhabit the world of the present in Windsor, which we did first for two or three months,” Shankland explains. “Then we had a week hiatus and I could return and entirely inhabit the world of the past. It was that level of love where you could show every detail, which was massively exciting.”
Among the major anthology hopefuls, American Horror Story: Freak Show has seen its previous three versions earn miniseries noms, and Murphy continues his high-wattage casting for this iteration set in a twisted carnival, complete with a terrifying clown. Though star Jessica Lange has a SAG Award, a Globe and two Emmys for playing different characters on AHS, the series overall is still looking for a win.
Other prominent limited series entries include SundanceTV’s The Honorable Woman, for which Maggie Gyllenhaal won a Golden Globe this year; HBO’s four-parter Olive Kitteridge, which earned Frances McDormand a SAG Award; History’s two-part Houdini, starring Adrien Brody, and the Bill Paxton-starrer Texas Rising; and PBS’ six-part royalty drama Wolf Hall, which stars Mark Rylance and Damien Lewis.
Room for new blood?
Although fresh entries abound in limited series, when it comes to the reality category, it’s been nothing but business as usual for a decade. Aside from a bit of a shakeup in the genre with the Creative Arts categories of structured and unstructured series introduced last year, reality-competition has seen the same winner 10 times since the category appeared in 2003. Sure, CBS’ The Amazing Race team enthusiastically accepts the trophy each year and certainly was disappointed when NBC’s The Voice and Bravo’s Top Chef broke their winning streak in 2013 and 2010, respectively. But it’s surprising how little Emmy attention popular long-running series like Fox’s American Idol, which ends its run next year, and CBS’ granddaddy of them all, Survivor, have received.
Many series are worthy of attention, considering the level of reinvention they must go through to stay relevant. “People can spot a forced fight or a forced reality moment a mile away, and they need honesty,” says Dancing with the Stars showrunner Rob Wade. “I think we’re doing that well. We’re breaking down the barriers between the viewers and backstage areas so they can access the show to a greater extent now.”
Maintaining viewership is one thing, but for new series, breaking into the Emmy category is next to impossible. The last one to do so was The Voice, which debuted in 2011. In fact, the average time on the air of the other five series nominated with The Voice in 2014 is 11 years; the youthful Voice brings the average down to just under 10.
So will Amazing Race and Voice be nominated once again with Dancing with the Stars, Top Chef, Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance and Lifetime’s Project Runway? It seems likely, even though there are a lot of shows waiting in the wings, especially considering how much the genre has evolved in the last 10 years. Among the other shows Emmy voters might want to consider are Logo’s brand-building RuPaul’s Drag Race, NBC’s feel-good weight-loss series The Biggest Loser, CW’s runway competition America’s Next Top Model, ABC’s tweetable hookup series The Bachelor, Fox’s Gordon Ramsey-starrer Master Chef, Food Network’s delicious Chopped and Syfy’s Critics Choice TV Award-winning special-effects makeup competition Face Off.