What is a ‘Television Movie’ anymore? AwardsWatch writer Abe Friedtanzer takes a look at what is was and what it might look like this year.
Once upon a time, the Emmy category of Outstanding Television Movie boasted top-tier content that was widely celebrated in other races. Even just a decade ago, three back-to-back winners, Game Change , Behind the Candelabra, and The Normal Heart, exemplified this, netting many nominations and a handful of trophies each. After that, two series – Sherlock and Black Mirror – claimed four consecutive awards for individual installments, but since then, there’s been an increasing tendency for this category to reward fare that isn’t honored anywhere else outside of a few minor nominations.
It’s become difficult to tell exactly what constitutes a TV Movie. Over the years, they’ve often been lumped in with what used to be known as a “miniseries” and has more recently been renamed “limited series” with the added distinction of “anthology series” also being carved out. Acting and technical elements from those formats all compete together in the other races, but there have typically been separate top prizes. The Emmy TV movie category itself has had many names, starting with Outstanding Dramatic Program in 1966, which pitted standalone TV films with individual episodes from continuing series. In 1971, the name of the category was changed to Outstanding Single Program – Drama or Comedy, with the same parameters. Outstanding Drama Special or Outstanding Drama/Comedy Special defined the category until 1991, which saw its first merge with miniseries fare. In 1992, Outstanding Made for Television Movie was the new moniker, with miniseries returning briefly to the same top race from 2011 to 2014, when Outstanding Television Movie got things to where they are today.
The most significant rule change for this category was the determination in 2019 that all submissions needed to be at least 75 minutes. This put an end to eligibility for individual episodes of past winners like Black Mirror, but has also led to less notable contenders. However, since there are more and more film festival acquisitions that go straight to Hulu, HBO Max, or some other streaming service, they now end up in contention here. This has become even more prevalent since the start of the pandemic, with Sundance titles like Sylvie’s Love and Uncle Frank premiering exclusively on Prime Video and ending up with solo Emmy nominations in the TV movie race. Gone are the days of multiple performers being honored for their work in what may no longer be a discernible art form.
Among this year’s crop on the ballot for Outstanding Television Movie are a selection of festival titles, series follow-ups, and the ultra-rare breed that actually constitutes a movie made specifically for television. The three most high-profile films in contention all made their debuts at festivals: The Survivor, the story of boxer and Holocaust survivor Harry Haft, played at Toronto last year, The Fallout, about the aftermath of a school shooting, premiered at SXSW, and Fresh, a dark story of a man with unusual appetites, started at Sundance. All three boast impressive production values and, though likely viewed by many during virtual festival presentations, have a distinct theatrical feel to them which may help them stand out from the rest.
Next up are four film continuations of series that had lukewarm Emmy receptions during their runs. Several movies that continued preexisting series have been nominated in the past, including Extras: The Extra Special Series Finale, Hello Ladies: The Movie, Deadwood: The Movie, El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Kimmy vs the Reverend.
This year, Psych 3: This Is Gus would be a surprise given that the show merited just one nomination during its eight-season run and the first two movies also appeared on the ballot in this category with no resulting nomination. Reno 911! The Hunt for QAnon could benefit from recent enthusiasm for the show with back-to-back nominations in 2020 and 2021 for short form series and star Kerri Kenney. Ray Donovan: The Movie is a way to honor a show that picked up ten nominations and one win over the course of its run, if voters still favor that world. And Zoey’s Extraordinary Christmas is the TV movie with the most to gain, since Roku’s continuation of the canceled series that earned six nominations and one win over the course of its two short seasons might lead to the streamer commissioning more musical content.
Zoey’s Extraordinary Christmas isn’t the only Christmas-themed movie in contention this year. There are a whopping 13 (!) others: Adventures in Christmasing, The Bitch Who Stole Christmas, The Christmas House 2: Deck Those Halls, A Clusterfünke Christmas, Hip-Hop Family Christmas, A Holiday in Harlem, A Kiss Before Christmas, Let’s Get Married, Miracles Across 125th Street, Our Christmas Journey, Reba McEntire’s Christmas In Tune, Single All The Way, and The Waltons’ Homecoming. For previous holiday enthusiasm, look no further than last year’s winner in this race: Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square. Parton’s Christmas of Many Colors: Circle of Love was a nominee back in 2017, and A Very Murray Christmas contended the year before, so Christmas is definitely welcome here.
There are a handful of other contenders that could muster enough attention to score a spot, including Birds of Paradise, Crush, The House, The Sky Is Everywhere, and Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers. While this category has been dominated recently by Netflix and by longtime mainstay HBO, Prime Video could also be a major player, offering a few choices that may not be typical Emmy bait but do have moderately big names attached with I Want You Back, Jolt, and The Voyeurs.
The real test of this category’s staying power will be its ability to provide nominees in other categories. The winner two years ago, Bad Education, was expected to show up in numerous races but earned only one additional nomination, for star Hugh Jackman. Last year’s slate of five nominees produced just two nominations in other categories, for choreography and music, despite strong production values and performances featured in its content. The Survivor seems like this year’s best shot with director Barry Levinson and star Ben Foster in the running, but if even they can’t get nominated, what’s to become of this category in the future?
Photo: Jessica Kourkounis/HBO