Telepics and minis once again forced to compete against one another for six slots:
“American Horror Story” (FX)
Why It Works: The daring take on a classic genre grew more intriguing (and gruesome) with every installment. Riveting performances and intertwining storylines gave viewers plenty of water-cooler moments to share.
Maybe Not: Violent deaths, dismemberment (and reassembly), disturbing visuals and a dead guy in a rubber suit certainly didn’t play well with all viewers.
Critical Quote: “No new fall TV has left me with more conflicted feelings and thoughts than ‘American Horror Story.’ Which means, among other things, that it must be doing something right,” says Ken Tucker, Entertainment Weekly.
— Paula Hendrickson
“Appropriate Adult” (Sundance Channel)
Why It Works: Dominic West (“The Wire”) entrances as British serial killer Fred West, who develops a creepy relationship with his “appropriate adult,” a person appointed to sit in on police interviews with children or vulnerable adults. Emily Watson plays Janet Leach, who takes her role seriously and becomes another of West’s victims.
Maybe Not: The unsettling project tells a bleak story that’s based on actual events. It’s not as engrossing in its final half-hour when West and Watson no longer have scenes together.
Critical Quote: “An acting tour de force that gives the viewer a squirm-inducing close-up view of the utter banality and hopelessness of evil, the British import ‘Appropriate Adult’ is like no other crime drama I’ve ever seen,” says Matt Roush, TV Guide.
— Rob Owen
“Bag of Bones” (A&E)
Why It Works: Pierce Brosnan brought a certain charm and sexiness to the role of a blocked writer. Not to be dismissed, also, is the cinematography and pacing of this Stephen King adaptation.
Maybe Not: Though the lengthy novel gave readers rich characters and King’s trademark horror treatment holds up on each page of the book, the TV adaptation felt slightly off. Characters were oversimplified at times and some plotlines disappeared.
Critical Quote: ” ‘Bag of Bones’ is occasionally hokey, and Brosnan overworks his mad cackling, but the production is never less creepily engaging,” says Ken Tucker, Entertainment Weekly.
— Karen Idelson
Why It Works: Fans of “Downton Abbey” can experience World War I all over again: Trenches, battles, miraculous resurrections and doomed love affairs — plus, the men are handsome and the women are French.
Maybe Not: The pacing is glacial and the central twist of the romance (“You didn’t want kids! So I left you when I was pregnant and never told you there was a daughter!”) is absurd, unless you happen to like this kind of goop.
Critical Quote: “While this two-part adaptation carefully balances war scenes with flashbacks to gentler and happier times, it presents an unsparing look at a war that was little more than an exercise in execution,” says David Hinckley, New York Daily News.
— Randee Dawn
“Certain Prey” (USA Network)
Why It Works: The movie holds your attention with richly defined characters and a strong plot based on bestselling author John Sanford’s crime novels.
Maybe Not: Despite a nice pedigree, this looks like an attempt to make an assembly-line product without real distinction. Even with Mark Harmon on board, it may lack a real pizzazz to garner attention.
Critical Quote: “It all comes down to Mr. Harmon and the new-age, old-school tough guy he’s been perfecting for years — more sensitive than Mike Hammer, more brutal than Peter Gunn — a smooth combination of beatnik bad boy and take-him-home-to-mom square,” says Michael Hale, the New York Times.
— Susan Young
“Drew Peterson: Untouchable” (Lifetime)
Why It Works: Rob Lowe brings a surprising authenticity to his portrayal of the real-life Drew Peterson, a man still waiting trial for the murder of his third wife and suspect in the disappearance of his fourth. A strong supporting cast, especially Catherine Dent, adds to the telepic’s credentials.
Maybe Not: At the heart the film is still a formulaic cautionary tale of a dangerous man who seduced women into trusting him. No real groundbreaking work here, just a nice wallow into the murky lives of true desperate housewives.
Critical Quote: “A film that so deepens the dimensions of the known — all thanks to a masterful performance by Rob Lowe — it has the force and mystery of a new story,” says Dorothy Rabinowitz, the Wall Street Journal.
— Susan Young
Why It Works: Breast cancer takes center stage in these heart-tugging, unpredictable short stories. Jennifer Aniston, Alicia Keys and Demi Moore are on the impressive slate of directors.
Maybe Not: Biggest names are behind the camera, not in front of it. Unusual narrative style may make project look more like a collection of student projects rather than a legit movie.
Critical Quote: “They rarely make TV movies like ‘Five’ anymore, and I really wish they would,” says Matt Roush, TV Guide.
— Neal Justin
“Game Change” (HBO)
Why It Works: Uses the polarizing Sarah Palin as a means of exploring the way American politics has turned into showbiz. Julianne Moore goes beyond mimicry, offering empathy for a woman some would consider the devil.
Maybe Not: Preconceptions about Palin weren’t exactly challenged, much less changed. Politics aside, its filmmaking rarely rises above the ordinary.
Critical Quote: “In a way, though, HBO has something in common with the beleaguered McCain brain trust — seeking a bold pick to excite key constituencies. And by that measure, the network’s choice is flippin’ awesome,” says Brian Lowry, Variety.
— Glenn Whipp
“Great Expectations” (PBS)
Why It Works: Gillian Anderson brings an ethereal quality to Charles Dickens’ classic as Miss Havisham. The moors look like they were inspired by production design work from a Tim Burton film.
Maybe Not: Douglas Booth, as Pip, may be too pretty to be believable as a young boy who has to pine after Havisham’s adopted daughter, Estella (Vanessa Kirby, “The Hour”). Anderson’s falsetto-voiced take on Havisham may turn off some viewers.
Critical Quote: “As the story keeps unspooling, ‘Great Expectations’ becomes a worthy and sumptuous treat for ‘Masterpiece’ fans,” says Hank Stuever, Washington Post.
— Rob Owen
“Hatfields & McCoys” (History)
Why It Works: Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton dedicate themselves to depicting the grizzled leaders of warring families along the Kentucky-West Virginia border with heart and cunning. But it’s the Romeo & Juliet-style love story about Johnse Hatfield and Roseanna McCoy that helped draw record auds.
Maybe Not: There are a lot of Hatfields and McCoys to keep track of, perhaps too many for dramatic purposes. It’s particularly difficult to tell them apart in the first part of the miniseries that tries to introduce more than three dozen primary and secondary characters.
Critical Quote: ” ‘Hatfields & McCoys’ is a star-studded, gorgeously produced and astonishingly nuanced look at America’s most famous family feud,” says Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times.
— Rob Owen
“Hemingway & Gellhorn” (HBO)
Why It Works: Captures the passion and intensity of doomed love affair between two larger-than-life writers with a knowing awareness that it’s a little over-the-top at times, but appropriately so.
Maybe Not: At 160 minutes, it occasionally overstays its welcome. And given that generous running time, you’d think we might learn something new about Papa, and the writing life.
Critical Quote: “Maddeningly, irresistibly watchable. Lets you see the kind of robust lives two willful people could live, existences about which we can now only dream about,” says Ken Tucker, Entertainment Weekly.
— Glenn Whipp
“The Hour” (BBC America)
Why It Works: This British period piece focuses on the behind-the-scenes drama of a nascent live TV newsmagazine of the 1950s. It seamlessly blends political intrigue, espionage and office romance without losing a beat.
Maybe Not: Strong competition from other British minis such as “Sherlock” and “Luther” might steal some thunder and attention from “The Hour.” The fact that it aired last summer also means it’s not as fresh in voters’ minds as some other contenders.
Critical Quote: ‘This is the kind of meticulously handsome period piece one would expect to find via the BBC, mostly because it would surely struggle Stateside. ‘The Hour’ is an hour well spent,” says Brian Lowry, Variety.
— Paula Hendrickson
“Jesse Stone: Benefit of the Doubt” (CBS)
Why It Works: Not only is Tom Selleck a genuine grade-A television star, but he knows this character, taciturn Jesse Stone, inside out. Furthermore, who can argue with nearly 13 million viewers, the most of any program on the Sunday night it aired?
Maybe Not: With its deliberate pace, the franchise could be getting creaky. In this outing, the eighth and final one, Stone’s return to his old police chief job felt a little like a reunion movie.
Critical Quote: “The quality never falls below solid, probably because the movies are based on the Robert Parker novels, and Selleck plays this character now as comfortably as his golden retriever settles down for a nap,” says David Hinckley, New York Daily News.
— Barry Garron
“Jingle All the Way” (Hallmark Channel)
Why It Works: A straightforward yet affecting story combined with candy-colored stop motion that feels both classic and contemporary.
Maybe Not: Made for viewers under 7 years old and wrapped around Hallmark’s “Jingle the Husky Pup” brand, this cutesy holiday special should become a perennial favorite but may not be up to awards criteria.
Critical Quote: “Simple but engaging story about a boy who wants a puppy for Christmas, and the puppy’s tireless efforts to make it happen, navigates a sure path between mawkish and sarcastic; it invokes holiday classics like Frosty and Rudolph while feeling completely up to date,” says Mike Hall, New York Times.
— Dan Doperalski
“Luther” (BBC America)
Why It Works: Second year’s four hours hewed more toward more traditional procedural storytelling, but was no less involving. Idris Elba’s titular detective remains one of TV’s great, charismatic angry men.
Maybe Not: Lower episode order reduced show’s ability to replicate first season’s six-hour, slow-burning storyline and satisfying subplots. Elba’s cop-on-the-brink occasionally lapsed into cliche. Plus, fewer on-screen moments with Ruth Wilson was a disappointment.
Critical Quote: “No, the new ‘Luther’ isn’t as revelatory as the first round, and yet each hour is so spellbinding, you may not realize you’re leaving grip marks on your couch,” says Matthew Gilbert, Boston Globe.
— Glenn Whipp
“Of Two Minds” (Lifetime)
Why It Works: In two words: Tammy Blanchard. The Emmy-winning actress delivers a flawless performance as the schizophrenic sister barely treading the waters of everyday life when a tragedy upsets even that fragile balance.
Maybe Not: Screenplay suffers from too many implausible moments, gaping motivational holes and wraps it up in a fairytale ending. Even with the strong perfs of Blanchard, Kristin Davis and Louise Fletcher, it may be difficult for this film to rise above the competish.
Critical Quote: “This story of a woman forced, by circumstance, to deal with her schizophrenic younger sister has enough realistic twists and turns to keep it interesting and to keep it from sinking into a morass of sentimentality and feel-good smarminess,” says Michael Starr, New York Post.
— Susan Young
“Page Eight” (PBS)
Why It Works: Bill Nighy’s Johnny Worricker speaks with a brilliant simplicity that complements the darker hues of the film. Also, the intricate weaving of the plotlines are very intelligently maneuvered.
Maybe Not: Johnny’s implausible suspicion of anything and everything is laughable until it’s tedious. In addition, the hard-boiled dialogue is alternately clever and hammy.
Critical Quote: “A moody modern-day espionage tale with flawless performances by the likes of Billy Nighy, Rachel Weisz, Michael Gambon, Judy Davis and Ralph Fiennes,” says Alessandra Stanley, the New York Times.
— Michael Sullivan
Why It Works: Benedict Cumberbatch returns as the most supercilious Sherlock yet, a cross between Dr. Gregory House and Dexter Morgan. And yet his intellect is tinged with humor and humanity that makes the character acceptable to mainstream viewers.
Maybe Not: A lot goes unexplained in this season of “Sherlock,” particularly events revolving around Sherlock’s nemesis, Moriarty. Oh, and then there’s the head-scratcher of an ending.
Critical Quote: “This is TV pleasure at its most intense, without even a shade of guilt,” says Robert Bianco, USA Today.
— Rob Owen
“The Space Between” (USA Network)
Why It Works: Melissa Leo, as a flight attendant, and a 10-year-old Pakastani boy find they have a lot more in common in this Sept. 11 drama than one might realize, even if they don’t perfectly fill each other’s emotional voids.
Maybe Not: Hard not to start feeling less emotional about terrorist attacks, only because of the great amount of both TV and screen projects that cover the horrific events.
Critical Quote: “Leo displays her impressive capacity for anger, surprising wit, blue-collar irony and tragedy,” says Robert Koehler, Variety.
— Stuart Levine
Why It Works: “Titanic” spends time with characters from multiple socio-economic classes in a way that gives the characters greater depth than those in James Cameron’s version.
Maybe Not: The ship begins to sink 45 minutes into the first of four one-hour episodes, leaving viewers puzzled as to how the miniseries will fill its time. Each hour begins by flashing back to introduce characters before the fateful trip begins.
Critical Quote: “While ‘Titanic’ may not boast James Cameron-worthy special effects, it reads more like something created for the bigscreen than the small,” says Lori Rackl, Chicago Sun-Times.
— Rob Owen
“William & Catherine: A Royal Romance” (Hallmark)
Why It Works: “W&C” tells a charming fish-out-of-water story that quickly turns romantic, with a couple of chuckles from Jane Alexander as Queen Elizabeth II.
Maybe Not: Casting ranges from the bland but effective to frightening caricature and the surfacy script offers woefully little insight into the couple who would be HRHs.
Critical Quote: ” ‘William & Catherine’ is pretty slick schlock. Yes, it hews too closely to TV-movie formula, but at least its meet-cute is well-staged, its having-fun montages of swan feeding are brief and few lines are this wince-worthy: ‘For a blue blood, you’ve got quite the green thumb,’ ” says Diane Werts, Newsday.
— Randee Dawn
• Telepics find new pulse on cable landscape