Are Limited Series Limiting Entertainment?
An Assessment on Whether A Limited Series Really is The Best Way To Tell Some Stories on TV
Last night, I ran across an extended article which asked whether certain TV series such as Reacher and The Mandalorian really need to exist in order to tell the stories they have at their core. That same article also asked whether certain stories — the prime example was Netflix’s Inventing Anna — essentially needed a multipart series to tell the story at their center.
I can’t speak with any degree of certainty as to whether the former is true because I tend to stay away from a lot of these series. But the latter question actually is one that I think is worth trying to answer.
These days all of the major pay services and all of the streaming seem to be doubling down on the limited series in order to tell seemingly complicated stories. And while a large part of this may be (in the streaming services case) simply trying to gain viewers, it is worth considering whether this is symptomatic of a larger trend. On reflection, it seems that there have been far too many limited series within the last five years that tend to spend seven or eight episodes telling a story that could have been told in a two hour movie. Far too many of these series are actually making these simple stories far more complicated in order to create limited series. I think in a way the biggest offender of this is National Geographic’s Genius series. I have tried, usually because of the high caliber of the cast, to get involved in these stories. But no matter how sweeping the life of Einstein or Picasso, you really wonder why we needed eight episodes in order to tell their life story. This became vitally clear last season when they covered the life of Aretha Franklin. As flawed as Respect was, it basically took a little more than two hours to tell the story that took eight episodes on Genius. I love Cynthia Erivo, I truly do, but she was not nearly enough of a reason to watch for so long.
But in order to give a fairer sample of this, let’s take a look at three of the biggest producers on cable: HBO, Showtime and Starz, and the three major streamers: Netflix, Amazon and Hulu. Looking at them over a period of, say, the past five years might give us an idea as to whether all of these networks are essentially overcomplicated things to boost the number of viewers.
HBO: I won’t say anything against Big Little Lies, even if it was extended into a second season and may have started this whole mess in the first place. And it is very clear that series like Chernobyl and Lovecraft Country (which was most likely going to be an anthology series had it been renewed) could only have worked had they been in the format they were in.
That said, in hindsight have been some major missteps. Sharp Objects was extremely well acted by Amy Adams and Patricia Clarkson but none of that changed the fact that it was basically seven episodes devoted to a book that in its paperback form barely was more than 300 pages. I think it might have been better served with, at most, a two part two hour movie event. Mrs. Fletcher, an adaptation of a Tom Perotta novel, had the problem of paradoxically being far too long (seven episodes to cover a 250 page novel) and not long enough (the limited series came to a climax — play on words definitely intended — before the actual novel came to an end). And while I think a more faithful adaptation of You Should Have Known would have been worthy of a mini-series, as much I thought the performances were pitch perfect, The Undoing took far too long to get to a point that everybody knew by the first episode.
On a side note, I’m not sure whether it makes much sense to turn Winning Time into a regular series. I know the Lakers had a long dynasty but I don’t think there’s much life in having another season, great cast aside.
Showtime: This is a smaller sample, but there’s an even more mixed result. I think Escape at Dannemora was an underrated masterpiece that needed the seven episodes it got. I also believe that The Good Lord Bird was an extraordinary accomplishment that told its story in just enough episodes.
Other limited series haven’t done so well. Much as I marveled at Russell Crowe’s performance as Roger Ailes and thought the rest of the cast was brilliant, I’m not entirely certain there was enough in The Loudest Voice to justify the seven episodes we got, especially since Bombshell told us everything we needed to know in less than two hours. I really think Superpumped could have told us everything we need to know about Uber in two hours and I probably would have liked it more if it had. And really, can anyone justify ten episodes for Your Honor, much less a second season?
Starz: This network has a decent track record with many of its limited series — The Pillars of the Earth, The Spanish Princess and most recently Gaslit. Where it does far less well is taken series that could far more easily be told as limited series — I’m thinking of American Gods in particular — and trying to turn them into regular series. If Becoming Elizabeth becomes a regular series, it will be another example of overextension. Don’t get me started on Outlander.
Netflix: The network that has far too many series has far too many limited series. Inventing Anna doesn’t strike me as the kind of story that deserves an hour and a half documentary, much less an eight part mini-series. Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest
A lot of the limited series I’ve watched over the years have been more than worthy of the format and time. I speak of When They See Us, Unbelievable and The Queen’s Gambit. I think that simply by producing too much material they produce too many limited series that have no point. What reason could justify a Ratched or a Halston other than the fact you opened your checkbook to Ryan Murphy? (I was actually going to put a separate listing to FX, but all in all, I think every limited series I’ve seen: Fargo and all three installments of American Crime Story have more than lived up to the billing. It’s kind of hard to understand what justifies this existence of Hollywood though.) The problem with so many limited series is the problem Netflix is facing now: too much content.
Hulu: I’ve only become aware of their material in the past two or three years and while I find much of it impressive, there’s a lot I don’t know why they made it. On the very impressive side are Little Fires Everywhere (which unlike Sharp Objects filled out the contours of a short book to make a far better limited series than the source material) Dopesick and The Dropout. If you want to include FX on Hulu, it’s hard to deny the immense quality of Mrs. America. Beyond that, however, things start to become harder to justify. I can’t in any real logic justify a seven part limited series essentially based on the Pamela Anderson/Tommy Lee sex tape. And while I really liked Nine Perfect Strangers, there was a fair amount of padding in the adaptation and there isn’t nearly enough material to justify a second season. I never saw Smart People or other shows, but I think they are starting to come up with too much material.
Amazon: Amazon alone seems to have the right idea, at least when it comes to limited series. Both A Very British Scandal and A Very English Scandal were just long enough to not wear out the viewer’s patience. The Underground Railroad perfectly managed to balance the amount of time needed for its story while leaving us wanting more. And while it’s not quite the same, Jack Ryan has been the best model to date of any of Tom Clancy’s stories of his most famous character.
To ask the obvious question: if so many of the stories are inadequate to fill six or seven hours of limited series, why aren’t more of them being told as TV movies? Well, we know the answer to that one. Ever since HBO took over sole possession of the Best TV Movie category in the early 1990s, a monopoly that they have held with only the occasional interruption from Black Mirror, there doesn’t seem to be any real benefit for any cable network to try to tell a story this way. Streaming services are making an effort, but the lion’s share of the time they will submit them for Oscars, not Emmys. Aside from Netflix, only Lifetime and Hallmark will occasionally join HBO in this category.
And it must be said that only HBO currently seems to understand what stories should be told as a movie these days. I have no doubt that when the idea for Bad Education, HBO’s 2020 eventual winner was pitched, there was discussion to try and give a project with Hugh Jackman, Allison Janney and Ray Romano as a limited series. But cooler heads prevailed and the right choice was made.
In the past year network television has been gently dipping its toe into the mini-series market yet again. NBC’s The Thing About Pam and ABC’s Women of the Movement may not have been groundbreaking compared to some of the limited series we’ve had in recent years, but they managed to accomplish what quite a few limited series this year were unable to do: they told a complicated story in the exact right way, and considering they had far less creative freedom than Netflix or Showtime would, they did a more than capable job.
I’m not saying that the networks should be the business model for limited series going forward — considering the overkill that we saw in 1980s productions such as War and Remembrance was in part the reason the expansive mini-series more or less died on network television in the first place. But at the end of the day, I do agree with one of the points made by the writer of the article that inspired this post: not every story out there needs eight hours to tell it.
Roger Ebert once wrote that ‘no good movie is too long and no bad movie is too short.” In the case of movies, he was right. Would he think the same of limited series, which he had begun reviewing in his final years as a critic? I’m not sure. But he also believed that to spend so much time telling a simple story was a waste, and when it comes to far too many limited series, he’s absolutely spot on there.