In 2005, a shortened first season of USA’s “The 4400” was entered into the longform categories at the Emmys and earned a nomination for Best Miniseries; it lost to “The Lost Prince.” The next year, FX’s “Thief” — a series with seven episodes that was cancelled due to low ratings — did the same and star Andre Braugher won Best TV Movie/Mini Actor. Showtime’s “Sleeper Cell,” was also nominated for Best Miniseries losing to “Elizabeth I.”
In 2007, the TV academy amended its rules to exclude such programs from the movie/mini races dictating that, “a limited-run series with a ‘created by’ credit [as opposed to just a ‘written by’ credit] cannot enter as a miniseries.” In addition, it ruled that “a miniseries is based on a single theme or story line, which is resolved within the piece.” These changes distinguished complete, self-contained stories like 2008 champ “John Adams” and last year’s winner “The Pacific” from open-ended, continuing series such as “Thief” and “Sleeper Cell.”
However, this year the academy rolled back their strict standards for miniseries eligibility at the same time that they combined the category with TV movie. A program with a “created by” credit may now enter as a movie/mini with the prior approval of the awards committee.
At least two continuing series have received this requitsite approval: PBS’s “Downton Abbey,” a chronicle of an aristocratic family in Edwardian England, and BBC America’s “Luther,” a crime drama about a brilliant detective. Both included a “created by” credit and neither told a complete storyline. Indeed, both programs ended on cliffhangers and have been renewed for second seasons.
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Although “Downton Abbey” aired in the UK as seven episodes, and is available on DVD in that format, it was shown on “Masterpiece Theater” in four installments. Given that six is the minimum number of episodes requried to contend as a series, if it weren’t allowed to compete as a miniseries it wouldn’t be eligible at the Emmys.
“Luther” is a more unusual case. Each of the six episodes included a self-contained mystery, just as “CSI” or “Law & Order” does, while also developing two continuing subplots: John Luther’s (Idris Elba) relationships with his estranged wife (Indira Varma) and a deranged murder suspect-turned-confidante (Ruth Wilson). The first season ended without resolving either of these. Contrast that with AMC’s “The Killing,” which told the complete story of a single murder investigation. While that could be considered a miniseries by the academy’s standards, it is being entered in the drama series race.
Two other British detective series — “Sherlock” and “Wallander” — were ineligible to compete as either miniseries (they are ongoing) or drama series (they had too few episodes). So each submitted a single episode as a stand-alone movie. Other mystery franchises have entered stand-alone installments for Emmy consideration — notably CBS’s “Jesse Stone” and PBS’s “Prime Suspect” — while series such as “24,” “Extras,” and “Battlestar Galactica” have submitted self-contained stories as movies or miniseries separate from their regular-season runs.
With stories being told in different formats and at different lengths here and abroad, the line between the genres continues to blur. At the moment, a miniseries is whatever the Emmys make of it.