What is the difference between a miniseries and a limited series? The taxonomy of TV may not be brain surgery, but trying to understand it will do your head in. There’s the miniseries, the limited series, the event series, the limited event series, the series, the serial, the anthology, and so on. Who cares, though, right? The TV landscape is an ever-shifting one these days, so it’s no surprise that the terminology is not fixed. Besides, this is really only a headache for the people who have to devise categories when awards season rolls around.
However – and without getting caught up in the semantics of it all – I think there is a new distinction emerging here, and it’s one that may well be significant. Broadly, it’s rinse-and-repeat versus one-and-done. Rinse-and-repeat is recurring characters in a multi-season river of narrative. One-and-done is essentially one season, a fixed number of episodes in a single, self-contained story. Rinse-and-repeat is Homeland or House of Cards. One-and-done is The Night Of or The Sinner. The danger with rinse-and-repeat is what I called in a previous post “seasonal drift”. This is the law of diminishing returns in respect of narrative credibility. Because how many major life events can happen to a single character before the whole thing becomes ridiculous? How many shock reversals? How many repetitions? It’s the m.o. of daytime soaps, and that’s fine, but if you’re aiming higher, you’d better watch out. Bloodline kicked off with a certain complexity and literary heft to it, but by season three was revealed to be little more than a soap opera flailing around for a through-line to its next season.
Sometimes seasons can be relatively self-contained. They can also vary wildly in quality. Not all seasons of Homeland, for instance, are great. There are clear dips. With House of Cards, seasons three and five are awful. This can colour one’s perception of a series as a whole, diluting its overall impact. Sometimes a series will round itself off and emerge unscathed – but these tend to be shows that were originally conceived with their endings already in mind, such as The Wire, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, and Mad Men. The thing is, no one can touch these now. They exist as complete, re-visitable works. In the open field at the moment, The Americans is holding its own, but how about Ray Donovan? Mr Robot? Ozark? The OA? Stranger Things even? Which of these will be spoiled by going too far, by outstaying their welcome, by straining narrative credulity?
Presumably, it’s about the economics. I once read that a series has to rinse and repeat for three seasons before it has any hope of paying for itself. Is this true? I don’t know. But if it is, where does that leave the recent spate of high-quality one-and-dones – the above-mentioned The Night Of and The Sinner, as well as Big Little Lies, The People Vs. O.J. Simpson, Chance, 11.22.63, Godless, and many others? Because whether or not there’s an economic argument for the one-and-done, there’s certainly an artistic one. Both The Night Of and The Sinner are mysteries that pose similar questions – and eight or ten episodes is easily enough time to tease out and ultimatley to answer these questions. The principle characters here – Nasir Khan (Riz Ahmed) and Cora Tannetti (Jessica Biel) – both achieve coherent narrative resolutions and trying to carry either of them into a second season, at least from a story-telling point of view, would be fairly preposterous. With The Night Of you could see John Turturro’s character, John Stone, getting involved in some other case. Ditto for Bill Pullman’s Harry Ambrose in The Sinner. But then you’d be rinsing and repeating. And diluting. Both Turturro’s and Pullman’s characters – thanks, in part, to superb performances – have such a pleasing roundness to them, such a novelistic wholeness, that nothing more about them really needs to be said.
So leave them alone.
Many of the one-and-dones cited above are adaptations of novels. This is relevant because novels tend to be self-contained. Regardless of size or complexity, they start, they develop, they wrap up. So if an entire novel is covered in the first season of a show, why – or how – would a second season be necessary? The first season of Chance, based on the novel by Kem Nunn, seemed fairly self-contained, but now there’s a second season, and I can’t imagine where it’s going to go. Maybe it’ll be good, but if it starts operating outside the intrinsic narrative logic of the original, as it will no doubt have to – or if it simply does a retread – then surely the odds are stacked against it?
Movie adaptations of novels often disappoint because they need to pack too much material into ninety or a hundred-and-twenty minutes – stuff gets left out, characters are elided or simplified, there isn’t enough space for the story to breathe – but a lot of texture and nuance can be folded into the eight- or ten- or twelve-hour running time of a cable or streaming “season”. In fact, this may well be the sweet spot. And not just for adaptations. HBO’s The Night Of is an original work that has a self-consciously artistic quality to it, a cinematic sensibility that is new for TV – new even in this newest of new ages. Another example is the seven-part Netflix series Godless, an epic Western that weaves multiple complex storylines, and takes its time doing so, but still manages to draw the whole thing to a very satisfying conclusion. I think the label “Limited Series” means that a studio is hedging its bets, but neither of these shows, regardless of how well they are received, needs a second season. They are self-contained and perfectly-formed just as they are.
Of course, this doesn’t necessarily apply across the board. If you have a set of books to draw on, as with Game of Thrones, then sixty or seventy hours of narrative is fine. Or if you’re on a historical timeline, as seems to be the case with Netflix’s excellent Mindhunter, then further seasons make sense. Or if what you’re doing essentially is a soap opera – and what is The West Wing if not a soap opera set in the White House? – then by all means, rinse and repeat to your heart’s content.
But there’s definitely a case to be made for the “limited” series. It really should be limited, though.
Two new excellent one-and-dones have recently been released on Netflix – Manhunt: Unabomber and Wormwood. Both of these are based on historical events – the first one is self-explanatory, the second is about the suspicious death of government scientist Frank Olsen in 1953. Given that each story is told in its entirety, over eight and six episodes respectively, there is no possibility of a second season for either. This is a good thing. Manhunt: Unabomber is a high-quality procedural, with excellent performances from Sam Worthington as profiler James Fitzgerald and Paul Bettany as Ted Kaczynski. Wormwood is an extraordinary piece of work – beautiful, self-consciously artistic, and deadly serious storytelling.