This year, the Emmys have combined the races for Best TV Movie and Best Miniseries into one category for the first time since 1991; so few miniseries qualified in 2009 and 2010 – only two were nominated each year – that separate categories were deemed unnecessary. So it’s ironic that four of the six nominees in this year’s hybrid category are miniseries.
Frontrunner “Mildred Pierce” is one of them. Director Todd Haynes‘s five-and-a-half-hour adaptation of James M. Cain‘s novel makes excellent use of its running time. It’s packed with scenes even more memorable than in Michael Curtiz‘s 1945 adaptation, which won Joan Crawford her only Oscar. This time around, the title role is played by Kate Winslet, who is all but guaranteed to win Best Movie/Mini Actress for her performance.
“Mildred Pierce” is a grand melodrama. Set in Glendale, California, during the Great Depression, it chronicles a divorcee’s ascent from struggling single mother to wealthy restaurant entrepreneur. In addition to Winslet, a whopping five of the miniseries’s supporting actors contend for Emmys, including #Brian F. O’Byrne# as Mildred’s ex-husband, Guy Pearce as her mercurial new beau, Melissa Leo as her best friend, and Mare Winningham as the waitress who mentors her and later becomes her employee. But it’s Evan Rachel Wood who makes the strongest impression, as Veda Pierce, Mildred’s spoiled, conniving daughter. Nominated for 21 Emmys overall, more than any other program this year, it is likely to win this award handily.
Its toughest competition is “Downton Abbey.” Created and written by Oscar-winner Julian Fellowes (“Gosford Park”), whose sharp-witted script makes it one of the freshest period dramas in quite some time, “Downton” is an epic of romance and class conflict at a sprawling English estate during the early 20th Century. Airing as part of PBS’s “Masterpiece Theatre,” it has the same subdued charm as the network’s previous Emmy contenders “Bleak House” and “Jane Eyre.” Much of its success is owed to its cast, including Hugh Bonneville and Emmy nominees Elizabeth McGovern and Maggie Smith. Though it’s not easy to pick a standout among the large ensemble, Rob James-Collier‘s turn as a conniving servant is also striking.
The program aired in the US in four 90-minute installments, but instead of telling a complete story it ended on a cliffhanger. That’s because “Downton Abbey” is not actually a miniseries but a continuing drama in disguise; it returns next year for a second season. Nevertheless, it’s a strong threat to win, which would make it the network’s third winning miniseries in the last ten years, following “Little Dorrit” (2009) and “The Little Prince” (2005).
Starz is recognized in this category for its first original miniseries, “The Pillars of the Earth.” The eight-part epic, based on Ken Follett‘s novel set in 12th Century England, was broadcast over six weeks last summer, but each installment is so heavily burdened with plot that there’s no breathing room, and episodes often leap years forward in time, which suggests that maybe viewers should read the book to truly comprehend what’s going on. But the cast is well-assembled. Rufus Sewell and Hayley Atwell give impressive performances. Matthew Macfadyen, Eddie Redmayne, Ian McShane, and Donald Sutherland, however, have all given far better performances elsewhere.
Without any nominations for acting, writing, or directing, a win by “The Pillars of the Earth” would be a shocking upset. The last time a miniseries won without nominations in any of those fields was “Steven Spielberg Presents ‘Taken'” in 2003, but that was such a weak year for miniseries’ that none received nominations for writing or directing.
“The Kennedys” strains credulity to its breaking point; stars Greg Kinnear, Katie Holmes, and Barry Pepper could scarcely look or feel any less like the real-life Kennedys, but the History Channel reject – which later found a home on ReelzChannel and earned a surprising 10 Emmy nominations – plods along for six hours anyway. In that time, the miniseries spans decades, resulting in expository dialogue in lethal doses; the writing, by Stephen Kronish and Joel Surnow (“24”), was justifiably snubbed.
Though episodes explore major historical watersheds, including the Bay of Pigs Invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis, the miniseries is inert throughout. The History Channel’s determination that it was “not a fit for the History brand” was perhaps a generous understatement.
Only two TV movies are in contention this year, both produced by HBO. One of them is “Cinema Verite,” which details the genesis and production of the 1973 PBS series “An American Family.” That controversial program was the brainchild of producer Craig Gilbert (James Gandolfini), who convinced the suburban Loud family to let cameras document their lives, exposing the dysfunction of a seemingly perfect American family.
Tim Robbins and Emmy nominee Diane Lane deliver strong performances as the heads of the household, and Thomas Dekker is a standout as their gay son Lance Loud. The structure is a bit too on-the-nose, transitioning with unnecessary title cards, and some scenes give in to excess sentimentality, but overall “Cinema Verite” is the kind of high-quality drama that reminds us why HBO tends to dominate Emmy’s longform categories. Altogether it earned 9 nominations, including for directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (“American Splendor”).
HBO’s other telefilm in the race, “Too Big to Fail,” captures the sudden frenzy surrounding the 2008 financial crisis, but Peter Gould‘s script has great difficulty summing it all up in 98 minutes, and though director Curtis Hanson makes a noble attempt, there’s limited dramatic urgency in a film that chronicles such a recent and widely covered event. Nevertheless, the film received nominations for both its writing and directing.
The cast played no small part in the film’s Emmy success. Previous winners Paul Giamatti and James Woods are nominated for their work as Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and Lehman Brothers CEO Richard Fuld, respectively, and so is lead actor William Hurt, who plays Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. Rounding out the cast are multiple-Emmy winners Tony Shalhoub, Ed Asner, Cynthia Nixon, and Kathy Baker.
Gold Derby experts, editors, and users expect “Mildred Pierce” to prevail, but “Downton Abbey” is a possible spoiler. “Cinema Verite,” “The Kennedys,” “The Pillars of the Earth,” and “Too Big to Fail” pose little threat.
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