A look into why miniseries work so well and some UC Davis students’ favorite iterations of the limited series format
They go by many names: miniseries, limited series or anthologies—but are universally understood to be multiple-episode series with a set end right off the bat (they are not good TV shows that were canceled too early, sorry “Freaks & Geeks” fans). It’s honestly hard to pinpoint exactly why these short-run TV shows are extremely successful and “bingeable”—you might expect people to prefer more of what they like, but I believe that the miniseries is a perfect example of quality over quantity.
The typical miniseries has a clear and concrete storyline and character development that we just don’t really see in TV anymore, as most series are drawn out far past their due dates or created with no real end goal from the get-go. Personally, my first introduction to the limited series was one that might not technically fit the definition. However, as it was based on a play and was never intended to go past its 12 episodes, I consider “Fleabag” (2016) a miniseries. It is the perfect example of a show so well-made you might never want it to end, but when it does (on episode 6 of its second season) it makes perfect sense, and quite honestly, a season past this would feel quite forced.
Most of us are not used to the concept of a show ending when it should, since most studios will just continue to green-light season after season of a show as long as it keeps raking in money—and let’s face it, you’ll keep watching a show that you like even if it feels dead four or five seasons before it’s finally canceled because you’re loyal and might even have some hope it will get better (it won’t).
A miniseries is just like a movie, but one in which you can get a bit more from through its exploration of multiple characters, its clearer scope of the story through time and its ability to set up more of a sense of mystery while still having the time to tie up all the loose ends. This is most likely why so many of the most popular and genuinely satisfying miniseries are based on books.
If you’re trying to retrain your tired little brain to read books again like me, I’d highly suggest finding a book through a miniseries (as I did with Showtime’s “Patrick Melrose” (2018), based on a book series of the same name). Some of the most successful miniseries of the past year have been based on books—“Queen’s Gambit,” “Normal People” and “The Undoing,” just to name a few—making it clear that these heavy-hitting books are incredibly well-received as a limited series, and one film would most likely not even come close to capturing all that the novels have to offer.
Caroline Hopkins, a second-year computer science major, feels passionate about “Sharp Objects” (2018), an eerie mystery based on a novel of the same name written by Gillian Flynn (yes, the author of the infamous “Gone Girl”).
“There’s no way a movie could’ve gotten through the entire story while also maintaining all the mystery like the series did right up to the last episode,” Hopkins said.
In this instance, the miniseries format aided show-runners in cutting back and forth between present day and the main character’s childhood as she attempts to solve crimes of the past. Creating a miniseries in place of a movie for a book is clearly the perfect solution to much of the backlash book-based films receive, as these adaptations are often accused of glazing over some incredibly important but perhaps nuanced aspects of the stories simply because they did not have the time.
As miniseries have been steadily gaining popularity, it is no surprise that streaming services and film franchises would jump at the chance to cash in as well. The perfect example of this comes from Marvel Studios’ current roll-out of limited series on Disney+. No matter your stance on the plethora of content that Marvel Studios churns out, there is no denying the immense success of their first miniseries “WandaVision” and the huge anticipation of all the rest of the upcoming series.
Sarah Gougeon, a second-year plant science major, is among those thoroughly satisfied with “WandaVision,” as six years was almost too long to wait for a deeper exploration of actor Elizabeth Olsen’s incredibly complex and powerful character, Scarlet Witch.
“[Marvel Studios] did such an amazing job of really doing a deep-dive into her trauma and backstory—something they probably would’ve messed up or glossed over in a movie,” Gougeon said.
Currently, Marvel is putting out their second series, “Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” and a series on the fan-favorite villain Loki is planned to come out just after this one ends. I can’t even count the rest of the miniseries Marvel has in store on one hand—all planned to set up the next onslaught of feature-length films beginning in Spring of 2022.
In addition to using miniseries for cinematic-universe building or adapting books, they have been extremely successful in the rollout of an almost entirely unique genre: the docu-series. Out of all the streaming services, perhaps none has been as successful in producing internet-breaking, internationally successful miniseries on historical events, crimes and tiger wranglers as Netflix. With these new kinds of series, audiences are given extended looks into what are typically some extremely serious or hard to handle topics—similar to the reasons why a miniseries for books with hard-hitting themes works so much better than a movie.
Nushi Abdullah, a second-year mechanical engineering major, recently watched HBO’s most recent docu-series, “Allen v. Farrow,” which details the controversy and sexual abuse allegations against Woody Allen involving his children with the actress Mia Farrow.
“I had more time to deeply process the information that was thrown at me […] the miniseries format allowed for reflection at regular intervals,” Abdullah said.
While chunking these documentaries into multiple episodes allows for deeper insights into the events, whether purposeful or just a helpful coincidence, the ability to step away from some of these extremely heavy themes definitely lets everything sink in that much more. It would be hard to imagine some of these series as one movie—the first that comes to mind are the huge revelations and sensitive content in the series on Jeffery Epstein, “Filthy Rich.”
Whether the rise in popularity of miniseries can be attributed to a collectively shortened attention span developed over the past few years or a general impatience for drawn-out TV series, they are a great way to successfully tell a story with fully developed characters no matter the genre, form of source content or weight of the themes explored.
Written by: Angie Cummings — firstname.lastname@example.org