In Depth

Miniseries Have Major Impact

HBO’s ‘John Adams,’ Most-Nominated Show of Year, Drove Water-Cooler Conversation

Last year AMC’s original Western “Broken Trail” took home the Emmy for miniseries, nabbing acting Emmys for Robert Duvall and Thomas Hayden Church along the way.

This time around, HBO’s historical drama “John Adams” tops Emmy’s list with 23 nominations, including miniseries. “Cranford,” a story set in 1840s England, also is nominated in the miniseries category, along with A&E’s retelling of the biological thriller “The Andromeda Strain” and Sci Fi’s “Tin Man,” a reworking of Frank Baum’s 1939 novel “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” that draws a line of demarcation between the fantasy of the old Oz and the darker, somewhat psychedelic world of the new.

“Cranford,” a PBS/Masterpiece Theater production and a BBC and WGGH/Boston co-production, is set in the rural town of Cranford, whose residents must come to grips with the encroaching railroad and the ensuing band of outsiders and new ideas it will surely bring.
Based on Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel, “Cranford” was first serialized in 1851 in the magazine Household Words (editor: Charles Dickens). The series showcases a stunning trio of British talent: Judi Dench as Miss Matty Jenkins, Eileen Atkins as her sister, Deborah, and Imelda Staunton as Miss Pole.

“John Adams” (HBO; Playtone in association with HBO Films), the seven-part series based on David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, set new standards for historical adaptations. Probably not since “Roots” has an American historical miniseries attracted more water-cooler attention. Even the pre-broadcast billboards instructed us to “Join or Die.”

In light of the current political climate, the series might serve as history lesson as well as entertainment, but executive producer Gary Goetzman said, “We didn’t think about the politics of it when we started. Some projects have a certain timing, and when they come out, that gives us things to think about.

“It’s just an amazing story about a small group of men who formed the structure and system of the country that we still live in today.”

Starring Paul Giamatti (“Where would we be without Paul Giamatti?” Mr. Goetzman said), the series encompasses the life of John Adams from the days of the Boston Massacre to his time as first vice president and later second president of the United States.

“Paul carried this whole 8½ hours of programming,” Mr. Goetzman said. “The amount of pages a day, the amount of emotion he brought to the set every day, is just incredible.”

The series also stars Laura Linney, who was Emmy-nominated for her work as Abigail Adams. The filmmakers spent time developing the relationship between the future president and the woman who not only kept the homes fires burning while Adams attended the Continental Congress, but also gently pushed her husband to legislate women’s rights more than a century too early for anyone to notice.

“John Adams” also boasts British actor Tom Wilkinson, who was nominated for supporting actor in a miniseries, in the pivotal role of Ben Franklin.

“The Andromeda Strain” (A&E; Scott Free/Traveler’s Rest Productions in association with Universal Pictures and A&E Network) stars Benjamin Bratt as Dr. Jeremy Stone, the research scientist sent to ferret out the cause of a deadly plague that erupts after a satellite crashes near the town of Piedmont. (Hint: Check the satellite.) The two-parter introduces political intrigues and conspiracies, and packs a solid cast that includes Eric McCormack as investigative reporter Jack Nash and Rick Schroder as Major Bill Keene.

“Tin Man” (Sci Fi, RHI Entertainment) stars Zooey Deschanel as DG (Dorothy Gale), who goes from fighting boredom to battling flying monkeys, aided by the half-brained Glitch; Raw, who only wants a little courage; and Cain, a former cop also known as a Tin Man. The series features Richard Dreyfuss as Mystic Man, the drug-addled wizard, and Kathleen Robertson as Azkadelia, an evil sorceress who holds a big secret about DG’s past and future.