Only three productions are vying for the miniseries crown: AMC's "Broken Trail," which scored 16 Emmy nominations; PBS' highly regarded "Prime Suspect: The Final Act," with four nominations; and USA's "The Starter Wife," which racked up 10 nods.
Directed by Walter Hill, "Broken Trail" is set in 1898, and stars Robert Duvall as Prentice Ritter and Thomas Haden Church as his estranged nephew Tom Harte. They become the reluctant guardians of five abused and abandoned Chinese women who have been sold into sexual slavery. Ritter's and Harte's attempts to look after the women are complicated by their responsibility to deliver a herd of horses while evading a group of bitter rivals intent on kidnapping the women for their own purposes.
"We needed to differentiate ourselves with high-quality original programming. Looking at movie genres, we were really strong on Westerns, and that's how we arrived at 'Broken Trail,'" said Rob Sorcher, AMC's executive vice president of programming, packaging and production.
"The package of feature film talent that was attached made all of the difference," he added. "When you have Robert Duvall as the icon of the genre and the executive producer, and Walter Hill, one of a very few guys who knows what a Western is, how to film it, and what it means to a whole generation, we really made a movie we showed on television as opposed to a TV movie."
Audiences responded in force, making the two-night event the highest-rated cable miniseries in a decade.
For Mr. Duvall, whose summers on his uncle's ranch in Montana as a young man made a lifelong impact, the original story idea about a couple of cowboys who rescue some Chinese women came to him and writer Alan Geoffrion, his neighbor in Virginia's horse country.
"'Broken Trail' is a humanitarian thing that caught people's imagination," said Mr. Duvall. "It was one of the most difficult shoots in my life, yet one of the most wonderful projects. The special time we had and the memory of doing it is still with me two years later. The Western goes out and comes back in, but it never goes away. It is ours, and truly American."
"I think it starts with Robert Duvall and then Walter Hill with his formidable resume," Mr. Church said. "What I liked about the adaptation [from two-hour feature script to four-hour miniseries] is they managed to keep it very lean, with very spartan storytelling."
"This was a passion project," Mr. Sorcher said. "It was about character and emotional story set against an epic Western landscape. You had the story of women in that time and what happened that was very emotional, powerful and moving, and which hadn't been seen in that way."
"The Starter Wife" tells the story of devoted spouse Molly Kagan, dumped suddenly by her studio executive husband and faced with piecing her life back together after the split. The six-hour miniseries was based on the 2005 novel by Gigi Levangie Grazer, who was an executive producer.
"This was probably the most exciting and satisfying work experience of my life," Ms. Levangie Grazer said. "I think the writers did a great job capturing the tone of the book."
"The writing was simultaneously really heartbreaking and spare and in the next scene would swing to really funny and large," said Debra Messing, who plays Ms. Kagan and is nominated for a lead actress Emmy. "It had a very biting sense of humor, a darkness to it that I found kind of delicious. I felt like the writers and the director, myself and the producers were all interested in making it complicated for ourselves in trying to dance from dramatic and simple to comedic and broad and back again, while keeping it in the same universe."
After 14 years on PBS, the Emmy-nominated British import "Prime Suspect" said goodbye last season with "The Final Act," the last hurrah for brilliant but troubled police inspector Jane Tennison, brought to life by the Emmy-nominated Helen Mirren.
The show has been critically acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic, and Ms. Mirren created an indelible female character who is driven, difficult, highly regarded and excellent at doing her job.
The series is lauded for creating the blueprint by which most crime procedurals operate today, with compelling crime stories and behind-the-scenes detail.
"Helen Mirren may be the primordial effective detective, handling real issues with her squad," said Kevin McDonough, United Feature Syndicate's television critic. "She's a really messed-up character who's completely relatable."
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