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The Miniseries Through the Years: An Art of Lean Storytelling

The Miniseries Through the Years: An Art of Lean Storytelling
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By Hank Strickler

In recent years, the miniseries, a short-term, self-contained TV show which runs entire plots in a single season, has exploded in popularity. Big networks, historically the leaders in television, have not been at the forefront of this movement, and we shouldn’t be surprised. Juggernauts like CBS and ABC typically waver between two tragic failings. Either they are unable to commit to a show if it is not immediately successful, opting instead to spew a litany of poorly planned pilots at the public in hopes that one or two stick for more than a season, or they continue to throw money at a program well past its expiration date.

The idea of forgoing a potential cash cow for the sake of a story’s integrity is virtually unthinkable for a channel like Fox, which incidentally just renewed The Simpsons for an ungodly 30th season. As such,  these issues — networks not entrusting writers with the time needed to unfold an original storyline, but never showing restraint once they’ve hit success — have impeded the thriving of the miniseries as a format in the past.

Restraint is not a word people generally associate with HBO programming. The production giant is a subscription service, and therefore not subject to guidelines regarding the “adult” nature of what they broadcast. Showrunners often extensively explore their freedom to show charred corpses, excessive nudity, or any other content forbidden on cable and network TV due to an arbitrary, and often incomprehensible, line in the sand drawn by the FCC.


HBO’s wildly successful World War 2 miniseries: Band of Brothers

Despite this pattern of indulgence, HBO has shown remarkable self-control when it comes to their programs’ lifespans — making it an ideal purveyor of the miniseries. By nature, programming like the miniseries involves using popular storylines or characters for only one season. As much as people might enjoy American Horror Story’s Constance Langdon or Fargo’s Lorne Malvo, their plots need to wrap up quickly. It is enticing to imagine them returning for another arc, but executing a good miniseries includes planning for the story’s natural conclusion.


Lorne Malvo, the haunting villain from FX’s
Fargo, didn’t get the screen for more than one season.

That is why, for decades, most influential miniseries were documentaries, historical recreations, or adaptations — they have a built-in narrative which leads toan accepted cap that corks the show at one season. Think Band of Brothers, Roots, The Pacific — or IT, The Stand, and I, Claudius.

Recently, times have changed. TV, previously considered the lesser cousin of film, got a taste of stardom around the 2000s with HBO’s The Sopranos and The Wire, and was canonized in the 2010s by AMC’s masterpieces Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Viewers began expecting higher quality from their television and the idea of the miniseries grew appealing again. Fargo and American Horror Story started up, and with their success, the subgenre took off.

When Nic Pizzolatto shopped his script for an original miniseries called True Detective to HBO, the scene was cleared for A-list movie stars like Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson to step onto the small screen. (Note: A discerning reader might point out that HBO ultimately submitted True Detective to awards shows as a drama. In every way, it’s a miniseries. Let’s just acknowledge their choice was for marketing purposes and move on.)


HBO’s True Detective brought A-listers Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey to television.

That star power, combined with the growth of streaming services hungry for something unique, has opened the gates for a litany of successful original miniseries. The landscape has shifted. Netflix released Godless, Alias Grace, and Making a Murderer; Hulu had 11.22.63; and HBO continued their trend with The Night Of and Room 104. Of course, the genre is still populated by traditional miniseries such as American Crime on Netflix and Kit Harrington’s new vehicle Gunpowder on HBO. But there is no question the last decade has seen a major swing in the miniseries.

This subgenre will continue to grow, and maybe even overcome serialized programming as television’s dominant format. However, that will only happen if the miniseries maintains its limitations. The natural constraints inherent to a miniseries can be challenging, but they force artists to create lean, well-paced stories. When a writer only has 500 pages to put their characters through the wringer, anything unessential gets cut and the audience is left with a precise narrative that focuses on one arc.

Sprawling epics and drawn-out thrillers that last seasons can be just as genius, but brevity is what makes a miniseries unique. This isn’t dissimilar to a movie without unnecessary sequels. John McClain lost a lot of his mythos after doing four more Die Hard movies. What started as the story of a classic New York cop fighting for his life ended with a man who killed 73 baddies (per the Die Hard wikia), drove a motorcycle into a helicopter, and outmaneuvered a rogue fighter jet on foot.

Already, that illusive magic singular to a miniseries might be in jeopardy. HBO’s Big Little Lies, a perfect example of showrunners seizing the opportunities of a miniseries, has been renewed with the same cast of characters. Season 2 will likely be just as well-executed as the first, but the Big Little Lies renewal does raise questions about this subgenre’s future.

How often will a miniseries expand beyond its original limitations? If so, will it tarnish the mystique of a miniseries? If creators don’t feel constrained to one season, we may lose the little bits of genius that result. If the miniseries is going to continue on as a tool to tell unique stories, we need to know when it’s time to go.

Hank Strickler is a ShowPup contributing author.