With time to elaborate on story, character and setting, these projects made the hours spent by auds more than worthwhile.
“Any Human Heart”
Why it works: This historical sweep of the 20th century through the eyes of fictional writer Logan Mountstuart is layered with the kind of mush that makes voters swoon. Jim Broadbent’s presence signals its importance.
Maybe not: Self-absorbed protag isn’t sympathetic. Despite six-hour length, often felt like “Minorpiece,” not “Masterpiece.”
Critical quote: “While it’s not the triumph that ‘Downton Abbey’ was, it’s a lovely miniseries that lingers in your imagination like a richly drawn memoir.” says Matthew Gilbert, Boston Globe.
Why it works: Olivier Assayas’ epic, five-and-a-half hour French TV miniseries blends history, reporting and drama to create an electrifying, nuanced portrait of terrorist Carlos the Jackal. Already has won numerous awards, including Golden Globe for miniseries and topping Film Comment’s annual critics poll.
Maybe not: Hybrid status — “Carlos” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and had a theatrical run — could confuse some voters. And not everyone is going to watch a 5 1/2-hour miniseries about a terrorist, no matter how strong the reviews.
Critical quote: ” ‘Carlos’ moves like a greyhound out of the gate, fleet and assured and focused on the business at hand. It’s a subtle, ultimately staggering portrayal of a bloody-minded ideologue who convinced only himself,” says Ty Burr, Boston Globe.
Why it works: Four-part Edwardian yarn from “Masterpiece” was catnip for lovers of all things English — period, estate-set and character-driven — and its taste for melodrama was assured yet understated.
Maybe not: “Masterpiece” might be competing against itself with its similarly entertaining updating of “Upstairs Downstairs,” the original of which was an obvious inspiration for “Downton Abbey.” Emmy voters may be torn over which glossy historical soap about the privileged and servant classes to honor.
Critical quote: “The cinematography is exquisite, and the attention to historical detail, from the most delicately beaded chiffon evening gown to the crudest cloth mop and feather duster, is as enticing as the characters,” says Alessandra Stanley, the New York Times.
Why it works: Comprehensive character arcs that fill in the blanks of history.
Maybe not: Hard to say what are its absolute truths and what’s embellished, but those doubts can leave auds wondering why they should care.
Critical thoughts: “A high-powered cast offers uniformly fine performances … without slipping into mere imitations,” says Glenn Garvin, Miami Herald.
Why it works: Leave it to the BBC to breathe life into a genre that long ago became an American television cliche. Part psychological crime drama, part procedural, “Luther” manages to steer clear of being the one thing viewers expect from a show like this: Predictability. Creator Neil Cross isn’t afraid to not only create deliciously flawed characters, but also have them killed off along the way.
Maybe not: Billed initially as a story of the complex relationship between a cop (Idris Elba) and a serial killer (Ruth Wilson), “Luther” might have confused some viewers when it split off into different directions. Then again, those tangents were themselves riveting.
Critical quote: “This bold British import is among the best TV I’ve seen in a mediocre fall season. Fast-paced, constantly surprising and darkly entertaining, ‘Luther’ is about as far as you can get from a cookie-cutter procedural,” says Matt Roush, TV Guide.
Why it works: Pay cabler’s five-part mini has Kate Winslet as its lead, so what else do you need to know? Boldly adapted to emphasize its contemporary social relevance and the subversive nature of its sexually forthright, bread-winning title character — and masterfully orchestrated by director Todd Haynes — this adaptation of the James M. Cain melodrama delivers abundantly on many levels.
Maybe not: One complaint was that the pace was slow; apparently, you either succumbed to the spell or you didn’t. Didn’t provide wow factor many expected.
Critical quote: “If I see a richer, more perfect TV drama this year, I’ll be surprised,” says Matt Zoller Seitz, Salon.com.
“The Pillars of the Earth”
Why it works: Eight-part mini has everything you would want in a bloody medieval saga: Royal family drama, incest, sex, matricide, swordfights, murder.
Maybe not: The endless melodrama in the series often verges on soap opera, with people walking away from sword fights unscathed and offing one another like they’re tossing dirty socks in the laundry. Granted, it’s 12th-century Europe, where the expectation of life longevity was fairly low; it nonetheless plays a bit silly and farfetched.
Critical quote: “The film is long too, though one might almost say not long enough: Overflowing with coincidence and cliffhangers, it feels overstuffed, busy to the point of daffiness,” says Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times.
Why it works: Follow-up to a PBS classic that won the Emmy for dramatic series three times. Older voters will lend their support for sentimental reasons.
Maybe not: Doesn’t quite live up to the 1970s installments in either length or depth. Abrupt ending makes you feel like you’ve attended a lavish feast that’s cut off before the second course.
Critical quote: “Though told with too much modern efficiency, feelings of affection for the old series return as you watch,” says Nancy Franklin, the New Yorker.
Merged categories leaves some perplexed
Miniseries | Made-for-TV Movies