At the 2019 Emmy Awards, Bill Hader and Phoebe Waller-Bridge presented the award for Best Supporting Actor in a Limited Series. In their introduction, Hader described a limited series as “a television show that has been canceled.” It’s a fun joke, but even in 2019 it didn’t have the oomph it once would have. The limited series, once known as the miniseries, is no longer on the fringes of television, it takes center stage.
At the 2021 Emmys, the Best Limited Series category brought together all of the shows we watched last year: WandaVision, Easttown mare, and The Queen’s Gambit were among the biggest talking points, while I can destroy you and The Underground Railroad were two of the most impressive series produced in the past decade, receiving almost unanimous praise. While there were still popular series in the comedy and drama categories, limited series were the ones with the most competition. In a rare reorganization of categories, Best Limited or Anthology Series was announced last rather than Best Drama. The Emmys knew what race people really wanted to see.
So how did the miniseries, once the land of intense HBO historical dramas and fine British productions (and further afield, the occasional shows of network TV events or cheesy micro-soaps), came to be the medium? most popular on TV?
The root of the change, like much of the current media landscape, is Ryan Murphy’s fault.
The miniseries was almost a dead medium. In 2009 and 2010, only two productions were even eligible for the Emmys. While partly the writer’s strike fault, it signaled the fact that the 22-episode seasons were king. The category of best mini-series had to merge with that of best TV movie to save the field. It was until 2011, when Murphy’s american horror story first aired on FX. The series was a smash hit and signaled that the miniseries may have untapped potential. After just two years, the 2014 Emmys separate categories again due to an influx of new qualifying series, including the future mainstay Fargo (also on FX).
But while 2014 marked a change, Murphy’s biggest impact wouldn’t come until two years later. American Stories was not just an anthology series, but a franchise. For the first time since its release, american horror story was not present in the Emmys categories. The field had become overwhelmed, led by the blow American Crime Story: The People vs. OJ Simpson. The series has taken the country by storm and has become a centerpiece of culture. Murphy’s impact had solidified; the miniseries (now changed to the nickname “limited series” to distance it from its heavy past) was here to stay.
The popularity of these series sent a message through entertainment that limited series could be not only viable but successful. Murphy also dismantled the idea of ”prestige” that has taken hold around the genre. In the early 2000s, HBO dominated with shows like John adams and Band of brothers, alongside UK Exports on PBS. While the field continues to be dominated by severe drama, audiences react to it differently today.
After Ryan Murphy introduced the mini-series to mainstream audiences, HBO regained its grip on the now “limited” series format with Big little lies and The night of. Both series have followed the kind of in-demand detective stories that have grown alongside the popularity of real crime. While Big little lies was the more popular of the two, both dominated the televised conversation. But everyone pales from the breakout hit Chernobyl. The series was further enhanced by being the first new release from HBO after Game Of Thrones, and ultimately one of the most popular series of 2019. It was a show that spread by word of mouth, and its short episode number was a big incentive to give it a try.
With everything that becomes popular, copies emerge. American crime story leads to more real-life crime miniseries like Paramount’s Waco and Showtime’s Escape from Dannemora. american horror story leads to more anthologies like Fargo and ABC American crime. Big little lies broke the genre “secrets of women”, soon followed by that of HBO Sharp objects and Hulu Small fires everywhere. But what is remarkable is that successors have often exceeded the popularity of their predecessors. Small fires everywhere became the most-watched series to land on Hulu at the time, while Netflix Bodyguard maintained its popularity for years after its debut.
Which brings us to the limited series space we are in today. Show as Watchmen (HBO), When they see us (Netflix), and The Underground Railroad (Amazon Prime) illustrate how the legacy of the miniseries as a serious exploration tool is still alive, but audiences have grown significantly. The (now limited) mini series may also be a lighter affair, with shows like The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix) and WandaVision (Disney +) both deal with serious themes without being seen as overwhelming. Same Easttown mare, who is serious to the point of being overly depressing, became the source of entertaining “thriller” conversations during his run.
But the new popularity of limited series is already plunging into negative consequences. Producers have figured out that a limited series can create an easy buzz and travel quickly through word of mouth, leading some to push projects into the format for no reason. While WandaVision fits the category well, Disney + The Falcon and the Winter Soldier failed to capture audiences in the same way, feeling more like a film stretched into a miniseries as a promotional effort for a future film.
There is also the recent trend of limited series not to be so limit as they claim to be. The popularity of Big little lies led HBO to make a second season that stretched beyond the source material – and it wasn’t well received. Recently The white lotus, also released as a limited series, was given a season 2 and turned into an anthology. Even the succinct Easttown mare threatens a season 2 after the victory of his Emmys. Producers want to both capitalize on the popularity of having a miniseries while also enjoying the benefits of a multi-season show with ongoing social capital. The title of “limited series” leaves a door open if a show crosses the Peak TV crowds and becomes extremely popular to become a regular series, but can also be used to suppress the idea of failure if a show doesn’t make a big hit. impression. But this willingness to change the definition undermines one of the most appealing aspects of a limited series: the ability to watch and enjoy a full story without having to invest in a show that can become incomplete if canceled. .
These two new trends will only undermine the success of limited editions in the present day. Forcing shows to fit into the original miniseries settings and then expanding them beyond for no artistic reason will erode the favorable opinion and will to recommend that gave the miniseries such power. Recent limited series are so great because their creators found a way to use the serialized format of television to tell a concise and compelling story. They are less risky than a multi-season show, and when performed with confidence, they can create one of the best televisions of the 21st century.
Ryan Murphy’s New American Crime Story, ACS: Impeachment, was the first to get a mixed reaction. The last seasons of american horror story have a fraction of the social capital they once had, and now that they feature recurring characters from previous seasons, they’re no longer categorized as an anthology. The recent failures of the man whose constant success brought to this era may serve as a harbinger that the trend was just a fad. But maybe the people who have had doors open because of him have surpassed the precedent he set. Either we’ve reached the pinnacle of mini-series domination or it’s just the beginning.
Leila Jordan is the TV intern for Paste the magazine. To talk about all things movies, TV, and unnecessary trivia, you can find her @galaxieila.
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