They’re Called Limited Series For A Reason
A Trend on Television That’s Nearly as Troubling as The Reboot
Late last week, I was floored to learn that Hulu had decided to renew Nine Perfect Strangers; the David E. Kelley led adaptation of a Lianne Moriarty novel, for a second season. I was a big fan of the limited series, don’t get me wrong; I thought Kelley and his writers did a superb job of adapting Moriarty’s novel for American television, and I thought the entire cast, from Nicole Kidman to Melissa McCarthy and Michael Shannon were superb. If I didn’t agree with the ending, I still thought it was a good adaptation and deserved to be a contender for Emmys. But unlike certain limited series, there seemed absolutely nowhere for the story to go when it ended.
This is indicative of a trend I’ve actually wanted to write about for awhile, one that I find particularly troubling. Why can’t networks and streaming services just let a limited series be a limited series any more? I was actually going to write about this months ago due to another inexplicable renewal. Last year Showtime decided to turn Your Honor, the Bryan Cranston led miniseries about a judge who does everything in his power to protect his son from his role in the death of a child of a New Orleans crime boss, for a second season. If anything, the decision to renew for a second season struck me as even more inexplicable. For starters, I didn’t think the first season was exceptional well done as a mini-series. I honestly believed the series poorly written, with unbelievable twists and turns, and an exceptional cast, from Cranston and other character actors such as Michael Stahlberg and Margo Martindale, completely wasted. Furthermore, even more than Nine Perfect Strangers, there was no place for Your Honor to go after the series ended. I found the ending to the first season an utter disappointment and made the entire experience seem like a waste of my time. For all the efforts of Cranston’s character, his son was killed in any way. What’s the point of watching another season of this?
I suppose I could lay this all at the feet of another David E. Kelley/Kidman adaptation: Big Little Lies. Millions couldn’t understand why, after a seemingly perfect adaptation for HBO that had resulted in huge viewership and eight Emmys for the series, HBO decided to bring the show back for a second season. And to be clear I had major doubts about it as well. That being second — and I realize I may be in the minority — I thought the second season was exceptionally well done. I thought all the performances were at least as good as the initial season, I thought Meryl Streep was unduly robbed of an Emmy for Best Supporting Actress (as well as the series and much of the cast) and I would still hope that some day that there will be a third season. (Though now that Kidman may now be attached to another season of another limited series, I don’t know when she’ll be free.) But honestly, I had no idea the sleeping giant that Kelley and the Monterey Five would awaken.
To be clear, a lot of talk to bring back popular limited series for a second season is still just that: talk. Ever since Mare of Easttown ended last spring, there has been constant discussion among Kate Winslet and the cast whether or not to bring it back for a second season, and if so under what circumstances. Sometimes it’s more fanciful: when The Undoing had its run during the fall of 2020, some talked of the idea of a renewal even though it really was a closed loop (and honestly, a very loose adaptation of the source material.) Other new seasons are based more on the idea of the anthology. When The White Lotus was renewed for a second season, it was done so with the understanding that it would be with an entirely new cast (though I’m not sure how much of this will stand considering Jennifer Coolidge is scheduled to reappear.)
But the fact is it’s becoming increasingly rare for a limited series to be just that. When Watchmen debuted back in 2019, everybody seemed to assume, given the huge raves and audiences that it was going to be a regular series. Instead Damon Lindelof and the rest of the crew stunned the TV world when they made it clear that it was going to be one and done — a decision they stuck to even after eleven Emmys. The fact that HBO didn’t force a renewal on them even after three years is kind of astonishing (and that they didn’t do the same with the equally brilliant limited series Lovecraft Country is even more bizarre.) And Watchmen was one of those shows that had a universe to work as both an anthology series and a regular one, which makes the creators standing firm even more impressive.
Does this trend go back further than Big Little Lies? Back in 2014, two very different kind of series premiered that could have very well been one and done. HBO’s still controversial True Detective astonished critics and audiences and may have very well been instrumental in winning Matthew McCounaghey his Academy award. (The fact that HBO chose to submit to the Emmys as an original series and not as a Limited series certainly cost him an Emmy as well.) Aired as an anthology in two subsequent seasons, it has never been received nearly as well for either, and though a fourth season has been promised, it remains in limbo. That same fall, Showtime debuted The Affair a critically received series, starring Dominic West and Ruth Wilson as two people who engage in an affair at Montauk and their differing points of view as to how it happened. The series eventually ran for five seasons, and was surrounded with controversy when Ruth Wilson left the show under mysterious circumstances in Season 4, later revealed to her being uncomfortable with the nudity that she felt was forced on her by the show-runners. Many critics thought the series would have been far better had it just been a limited series and many of the twists and turns as it continued — including Allison’s murder and a fifth season set in a Montauk suffering climate change — seem utterly bizarre in retrospect.
I am well aware that in an era where it has become even harder and harder to find successful series in an increasingly fragmented television landscape why so many networks and services would decide to try and strike lightning with an already established franchise. The fact that American Horror Story is now it’s in eleventh season is just one such testimony to that fact. But the idea to turn a limited series into a recurring one strikes me as featuring the same lack of imagination that so many network reboots have over the past decade. Both are involving a familiar property that had a story that was wrapped up, and is now being reopened to try and get a supposedly ready made audience. The fact that this audience is smaller than the original doesn’t seem to enter into the minds of executives in either case.
Now I grant you that in certain cases, lightning does strike twice and we get great material the next time. And I’ll admit I might very well end up watching the second season of Nine Perfect Strangers anyway. But let’s get to a point where we can acknowledge that a limited series should be limited and there is no point to a second season for some things. In other words, HBO, don’t renew The Undoing. Nicole Kidman’s busy enough. (Besides, we’re going to need her for the third season of Big Little Lies someday. If it’s a regular series, renew it.)