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Why the TV Movie Emmy Category Needs Reinvention (Column)

The television movie category at the Emmys, through the years, has honored such landmark projects as ABC’s “Brian’s Song,” NBC’s “Roe v. Wade,” as well as HBO’s “And the Band Played On,” “Wit” and “The Normal Heart.” It’s probably time that the category be retired.

This year’s category is historically weak. Several of the nominees fall short of the bar of Emmy-worthiness (“Paterno’s” Al Pacino is substantially better than the film itself; “Fahrenheit 451,” driven by worthy impulses, is deeply misbegotten; “USS Callister” is an episode of the TV show “Black Mirror” and not a movie). And it follows two years in which episodes of TV series that snuck their way into the race — PBS’ “Sherlock” in 2016, Netflix’s “Black Mirror” in 2017 — claimed the top prize over insubstantial competition.

It wasn’t always this way. The last time the movie category fell away, it was due to the weakness of an entirely different field; the category merged with limited series at the 2011 Emmys thanks to a dearth of miniseries. But the limited-series form was only just beginning its vogue; at the first ceremony at which movies and miniseries competed against one another, “Downton Abbey” trounced the movies “Cinema Verite” and “Too Big to Fail”; the next year, the movie “Game Change” pulled out a victory over “Hatfields and McCoys” and the first season of “American Horror Story,” the show that kicked off miniseries’ current period as TV’s dominant form. The categories split up in time for the 2014 Emmys — by which time the question of which genre was stronger seemed surprisingly settled.

As limited series have taken over the tube, movies have receded. It’s hardly a surprise: The current more-is-more TV aesthetic, in which generating content to keep viewers subscribing and watching is the ultimate goal, means that a story that doesn’t lend itself to an open-ended run still benefits its tellers more by expanding into eight or 10 hours. And, when it works, the rewards of this method are massive. TV has learned stories including “The Night Of,” “Feud,” or (my favorite limited nominee this year) “Patrick Melrose” can have weeks’ worth of impact when bulked out into a run longer than a single evening.

Placing movies and limited series in competition — as they are in the acting, writing, and directing categories — is an acknowledgment that movies can no longer fill out a field of five nominees credibly.

It’s telling not only that Al Pacino, along with “Fahrenheit’s” Michael B. Jordan and “Flint’s” Queen Latifah, missed an acting nomination when competing against limited-series actors, but that TV movies as a genre got only one directing and one writing nomination.

It also signals that movies, nowadays, have a lot to learn from their slightly longer counterparts. TV movies’ historical aegis — telling stories, including socially conscious narratives and spiky literary adaptations, that don’t fit on the big screen or in series TV — has largely transferred to the limited series. Before the current craze for limited series, Hulu’s “The Looming Tower” would have fit very neatly into the woke, intellectually curious, genre-agnostic world of TV movies; so would have Netflix’s “Godless” or even FX’s “The Assassination of Gianni Versace.” Squint and “Big Little Lies’” first season, intended as a limited series, might once have fit into the long-departed Hallmark Hall of Fame franchise.

But networks and audiences alike have realized how satisfying it can be for stories that don’t fit into the series mold to take their time and reveal new dimensions. There’s a bottom-line benefit to generating more content, sure, but there’s also the facts that limited series give us far more of what we want, and TV movies have come to be understood as giving us less than a satisfying meal. For every satisfying, thoughtful “The Tale,” there’s a somewhat underbaked “Fahrenheit 451,” trading on a familiar name but falling slightly short.

Maybe “Black Mirror” has the right idea. While it’s hard to see that series’ episodes as stand-alone movies (“USS Callister,” a terrific episode of television, is 76 minutes, about as long as an installment of “Game of Thrones”), a branded set of actual TV movies, playing with the same themes but casting about to deal with new themes in wholly new ways, would be a worthy way to move the genre forward. From Hallmark Hall of Fame to HBO’s series of political docudramas including “Recount” and “Game Change,” there’s precedent for this. It just requires thinking in a creative way about ways to meet the audience where they are. Right now, the worst thing about the TV movie category is how little it reflects what TV fans actually watched this past season. Taking away token recognition might spur the sort of reinvention that makes a once-urgently relevant form destination viewing again.

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