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Made-for-TV History Lessons

Aug 15, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Special to TelevisionWeek

Among this year’s nominees in the outstanding made for television movie category, contemporary stories are nowhere to be found. The nominees include Showtime’s sumptuous remake of “The Lion in Winter,” set in European castles of the 12th century; and HBO’s “And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself,” which re-creates both Hollywood and the Mexican Revolution at the start of the 20th century. (Both “Lion” and “Pancho” earned numerous nominations on the technical side as well.)

The nominations favor U.S. history too: A&E’s “Ike: Countdown to D-Day” stars Tom Selleck as World War II General and future President Dwight Eisenhower, while two other nominees, set in the recent past, deal with issues more familiar to current audiences. HBO’s “Something the Lord Made” reveals the hidden history of a heart surgery pioneer coping with racism in the Jim Crow-era South, while Showtime’s “The Reagans” explores the rise and romance of America’s 40th president.

In the outstanding miniseries category the nominations also tend toward the epic and the past. PBS’s ambitious “American Family: Journey of Dreams” features episodes set in the present day, the early 1990s and 1917, while A&E’s latest “Horatio Hornblower” entry takes the naval adventurer back to the high seas of the early 1800s.

Though every network that creates original movies and miniseries offered at least one title set in the present, the most-lauded seemed to be those with historical settings. Are Emmy voters seduced by nostalgia?

Robert Allan Ackerman, who directed and executive produced “The Reagans,” said the best material he’s seeing has a historical or literary bent. “The more substantial material seems to come from evoking the past,” Mr. Ackerman said. “The present, I think, tends to be more reflected in independent films-very edgy material that TV may find too hot to handle. The TV movie mentality is drawn very strongly to literary properties.”

It wasn’t always that way. TV movies used to be known, somewhat stereotypically, for their sensational approaches to current events-crime and injustice, homelessness, disease, whatever made headlines. The hand-wringing titles of several Emmy-nominated TV movies from the 1980s reflect the social consciousness of that era: “MADD: Mothers Against Drunk Driving,” “Roe vs. Wade,” “The Burning Bed,” “Who Will Love My Children?” “My Name is Bill W.”

Even a decade ago, the nominees were more reflective of their time. The 1994 slate of Emmy-nominated made-for-TV movies included HBO’s “Barbarians at the Gate” and “The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Cheerleader Murdering Mom”-a sly, Wall Street expose and a contemporary satire.

Social-issue movies are still going strong. In fact, some of the best-reviewed movies of the past year have had contemporary settings, but you wouldn’t know it from the Emmy nominations. Lifetime’s “She’s too Young,” about teen sexuality, was as frank, edgy and disturbing as any independent film on the subject (and certainly seen by more mothers and daughters than the similarly themed feature “Thirteen”). FX’s “Redemption: The Stan Tookie Williams Story” featured a revelatory performance by Jamie Foxx as a convict-turned-novelist on death row.

Mr. Ackerman, who last year directed Showtime’s production of Tennessee Williams’ “The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone,” said TV networks, from the Big 3 to pay cable, have ventured where film studios once did, acquiring novels and biographies and remaking classic material that resonates best with Emmy voters.

As to this year’s crop of historically set nominees, Mr. Ackerman suggested the link among them is not the past but their depth of characterization. “Television is a place where things are character-driven. Movies are becoming more and more high concept, more about effects,” he said. “The independent film world is making the kind of films the studios of the 1970s were making, and TV has become the champion of character-driven stories.”