Critic's Notebook: Sequels, Finales and Interactivity Lead TV Movie Race

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Following three consecutive wins for 'Black Mirror,' this year's TV movie contenders represent the next generation of an expanding category that used to be overrun by less-noted biopics and topical dramas.

For the past several years, outstanding television movie has been the Rodney Dangerfield of Emmy categories — it can't get no respect. To be frank, the category hasn't earned it, often rewarding obvious category fraud and uneven-at-best programming since 2016, when it handed a trophy to Sherlock: The Abominable Bride, one of the PBS series' very worst outings. Netflix's Black Mirror has monopolized the prize since, for 2017's "San Junipero" (a very good 60-minute episode of the show), 2018's "USS Callister" (an amusing but plot-hole-riddled 76-minute episode of the show) and 2019's Bandersnatch (a very bad interactive special most notable for the tech-phobic backlash it garnered its network).

Black Mirror isn't eligible for the TV movie Emmy this year, which gives the category a chance to reboot itself and maybe even reclaim some artistic reputability. The impressive strength of the likely contenders certainly helps. HBO, which has dominated the category since the 1990s, has a heavyweight in Bad Education, a convivial black-comedy retelling of a Long Island school embezzlement scandal with pitch-perfect performances from Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney. Bad Education's biggest rival for the trophy is Netflix's Breaking Bad sequel, El Camino, a wholly unnecessary but perfectly competent epilogue to the 2013 series finale that reminded fans how relatably vulnerable (and out of his depth) Aaron Paul's Jesse Pinkman became in his onetime mentor's ever-expanding meth empire.

The current political moment, with protests raging on against police brutality, seems to have resuscitated the awards profile of Netflix's American Son, a play turned film starring Kerry Washington and Steven Pasquale as the anxious parents of a missing biracial, college-bound 18-year-old, who was last seen pulled over by a cop. Shifts in social awareness also added to the resonance of Lifetime's Patsy & Loretta, the Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn biopic (starring Megan Hilty and Jessie Mueller in the respective roles) about the country singers' tragically curtailed friendship, with critics noting a more honest approach to the gender dynamics in the music legends' lives.

But the competitors to watch just might be Netflix's interactive Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Kimmy vs. the Reverend and Amazon's Transparent: Musicale Finale. Like El Camino, these projects are codas to their respective series. But unlike El Camino, which hews close to Breaking Bad's thriller beats and detail-obsessed approach to crime and cover-ups, Kimmy vs. the Reverend and Musicale Finale, in tying up emotional loose threads, mark huge genre leaps from their original shows. And with networks always clamoring for new additions to familiar IP — and occasionally willing to indulge auteurial whimsy to get them — Kimmy Schmidt's and Transparent's "TV movies," as idiosyncratic as they are, may represent the future of this Emmy category.

The biopics and topical dramas that have historically made up the bread and butter of the TV movie category will undoubtedly continue to thrive. But joining them will probably be more Musicale Finales and Kimmy vs. the Reverends: hard-to-categorize film works that reflect the medium's expanding borders. And that'll make the job of evaluating the TV movie submissions against each other increasingly challenging. How much should a postscript like El Camino or Musicale Finale be judged as a stand-alone story versus what it adds to its original series? How should such postludes be assessed vis-a-vis actual one-off movies like Bad Education? How do you even appraise a still-new-to-TV phenomenon like Kimmy vs. the Reverend (and how many times should you watch to pursue the paths not initially taken), let alone in juxtaposition to other, more straightforward submissions?

Or might the headache of trying to compare apples to oranges to choose-your-own-adventure grapes lead voters to embrace the familiar? This year's TV movie field will surely be a fascinating one, with so many disparate projects in contention. With pundits' odds on a heated race between El Camino and Bad Education — with American Son as a possible Johnny-come-lately challenger — 2020 doesn't seem to be the year that'll force the TV movie category to reckon with its absorptive amorphousness. But with frontrunners this strong, it'll probably win back some respect.

This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.