It seems impossible to believe that just a few short years ago the Television Academy — or Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, as it was known then — was considering banishing the movie and miniseries category to the less-prestigious Creative Arts Emmy show, or perhaps even selling it to HBO as its own special, making it the bastard child of the primetime event. At the time, the four traditional broadcast networks were almost completely out of the TV movie business, and miniseries had seen brighter days, to be sure. But something changed when History’s Hatfields & McCoys and The Bible, among others, became cable hits, piqueing interest in the miniseries format again. We’re now in the midst of a mini explosion, which has led the TV Academy to again split movies and minis into their own separate program categories. For writing, directing and acting nominations, the two formats remain combined, but it is a significant development and promises to give minis renewed vigor and life thanks to the added Emmy recognition. Still, looking at the nominees this year for miniseries, as well as those for TV movies, the broadcast networks were correct in thinking longform wasn’t right for them. Other than a nomination for PBS’ Sherlock: His Last Vow in the movie category, movies and minis remain strictly a playground for cable networks.
There’s also controversy over what the definition of a miniseries should be. Returning shows such as American Horror Story and Luther seem to show up in the category every year, and this go-around a former drama series, Treme, suddenly is trying to pass itself off as a mini. Nevertheless, you can expect the broadcast nets to start taking it all a lot more seriously with the renewed interest Emmy is showing in these categories. Here’s the way this year’s competition likely will go down.
Killing Kennedy, National Geographic Channel
“Based on a book by Bill O’Reilly” does not sound like a recipe for success, despite a fine lead performance from Rob Lowe, playing President John F. Kennedy, and good, credible production values. Still, Killing Kennedy might suffer the same consequences as the ill-fated ReelzChannel mini, The Kennedys, because voters just don’t seem to want to go there.
Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight, HBO
This TV movie boasts an interesting premise, centering on the great boxing champ’s refusal to fight in the Vietnam War, a battle with the U.S. government that went all the way to the Supreme Court. Nicely told, it is given great street cred with the casting of Christopher Plummer and Frank Langella and directing by Stephen Frears. It should be considered the category’s true dark-horse contender.
The Normal Heart, HBO
This Critics’ Choice winner is also far and away the favorite to take home the big prize for best movie. Based on Larry Kramer’s 1985 stage play, the film tells the story of the early months and years of a mysterious illness affecting gay men, long before anyone had identified it as AIDS. Director-producer Ryan Murphy’s passion project earned strong reviews, has a long backstory in trying to reach the screen, and sports an outstanding cast. Can it lose? Probably not.
Sherlock: His Last Vow, PBS
Adding another chapter in the continuing adventures of Sherlock Holmes, this popular series of modern-day-set films has a strong cast in Benedict Cumberbatch as the titular detective and Martin Freeman as his sidekick Watson (both Emmy nominated for their performances this year). It seems overdue for a win, but has stiff competition from The Normal Heart.
The Trip to Bountiful, Lifetime
A sturdy property from writer Horton Foote, Bountiful previously has earned Oscars and Tonys and would seem to be a good bet for an Emmy, too, if it didn’t have those better-promoted HBO films or the Brits to contend with. More likely to score an acting win for the beloved Cicely Tyson than for the TV movie itself, Bountiful looks poised to endure the same type of scenario it faced in its Oscar and Tony runs, when its leading actresses, including Tyson, won its only awards.
The Winner: The Normal Heart
American Horror Story: Coven, FX
For the third season in a row, FX’s creepy hit has nabbed an impressive 17 nominations, though it has yet to win the big prize. It was wise of producer Ryan Murphy to lobby the TV Academy for placement in the less-competitive miniseries category, even though some believe AHS should compete as a regular series. Nevertheless, the only thing standing in the way of a win is another FX mini, Fargo.
Bonnie & Clyde, Lifetime
Mixed reviews won’t help this four-hour retelling of the bank-robber saga, especially considering that the biggest problem for the show — produced by Craig Zadan and Neil Meron — is the memory of a certain Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway classic from nearly half a century ago. What wouldn’t pale by comparison? This one has an uphill climb, and with only four nominations overall, it’s near the back of the pack.
The recent Critics’ Choice winner and Emmy front-runner somehow overcame the same problem Bonnie & Clyde faced in being based on a beloved film: By winning critical raves for its reinvention of the Coen brothers’ 1996 best picture Oscar nominee and doing the material on its own terms. Fargo’s only drawback could be its recent pickup for a second season, leading voters to believe that maybe it is in the wrong category.
Luther, BBC America
Idris Elba continues to shine in this show, which is no newcomer to Emmy competition but still gets by with the miniseries label for what is more aptly described as a “limited series.” When the mini category was combined with movies, Luther couldn’t beat the competition. Now that the categories are once again split, it might still have the same problem despite strong quality.
HBO ended this post-Katrina series after a four-season run that concluded with a truncated order of five episodes, one fewer than the number that constitutes a regular series in the eyes of Emmy mavens. So instead of wading into impossibly competitive drama series waters, where it belongs, Treme is slumming here, trying to convince voters it was really just a mini all along. Good luck.
The White Queen, Starz
The 1460s-set costume drama follows three ambitious women as they attempt to manipulate their way to the throne. It’s the kind of epic mini that has played well in the past with TV Academy voters, but it only received four nominations, which doesn’t indicate across-the-board support. Pulling off a surprise win could be difficult, but never underestimate Emmy voters’ love for British projects.
The Winner: Fargo