All Hail The Return Of The Mini-Series

Every year or so, the television industry laments the impending death of a particular television format. Before Modern Family came along in 2009, they were busy reading sitcoms their last rites. Before that it was network dramas that were on the chopping block, but then the 2004 season produced Lost, Grey’s Anatomy and Desperate Housewives, seemingly saving us all from a fresh glut of reality programming. As you might have guessed, these “the sky is falling!” prognostications tend to be gross exaggerations born out of particular genres falling into ruts. However, the mini-series was good and properly dead. So dead in fact, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences decided to eliminate the supporting actor and actress in a television movie or mini-series categories all together in 2012, saving time in the Emmy broadcast and acknowledging that television’s grand mini-series tradition was fading into obscurity. Then History came along with a pair of feuding families and Jesus to pull off a miracle of near Biblical proportions by making the mini-series relevant again.

No one expected The Hatfields & McCoys to capture a monster audience (13.9 million viewers tuned into the series’ first part), but when the Kevin Costner vehicle did, it did more than open the door for History to become a destination for scripted content, it reignited interest in mini-series across the board. The 2012-2013 television season has seen an influx of mini-series (now going by the more prestigious “limited series” moniker) from The Sundance Channel’s taut World War II spy thriller Restless and brilliant noir-flavored mystery Top of the Lake to History’s second mega hit The Bible and FX’s ongoing anthology event series American Horror Story, mini-series have dominated the pop culture conversation.

If we take the influx of prestigious British properties into account, it could be argued that PBS and BBC America are the true torchbearers of the renaissance. After all, the well-mannered ratings behemoth Downton Abbey was originally entered into the mini-series category at the Emmys, and British imports, many of them ongoing, have dominated the nominations in the short form categories in recent years. Even with the resurgence in American produced projects, don’t expect the British invasion to end this year either, not with Parade’s End, Mr. Selfridge, Call the Midwife and the excellent The Bletchley Circle all in contention. It’s not surprising that short run British series have proved so popular in the States; Luther, Sherlock and The Hour may be ongoing, but their shorter seasons demonstrated that contained stories can still captivate an audience like nothing else.

In truth, this is only the beginning of the limited series revival. In the coming months, expect to see limited series multiply. FX is prepping a television adaptation of Fargo, while Syfy will offer up Ringworld and Childhood’s End. Meanwhile, History will continue to carry the limited series banner with a Harry Houdini project and the Lifetime co-production Bonnie and Clyde. These are just a few of the projects currently in production; nearly every major outlet is mulling getting into the limited series game at the moment, including Fox. As a result, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences reversed their 2012 decision to eliminate the supporting actor categories before the rule had a chance to go into effect with this year’s ceremony.

In a season that has seen the four major networks losing viewers at an alarming rate (network television is dead!), what’s particularly striking about the sudden resurgence of the limited series, particularly History’s dynamic duo, is that people are watching them live. Both series tapped into the needs of an audience that clearly weren’t being met elsewhere and delivered a close-ended experience. Viewers knew that they weren’t going to be strung along for six seasons until the whole operation was cancelled without an ending. The beauty of the limited series is just that: it’s limited, and as such, it feels like a true event, something that demands to be watched live and discussed.

The genre’s renaissance isn’t just good news for the industry, whose reluctance to produce mini-series due to their cost-ineffectiveness appears to be mitigated by the prestige they can bring and the big names they can draw, it’s good news for viewers looking for a unique experience. Limited series tend to be riskier and creatively more daring than their ongoing counterparts because they can afford to be. They don’t have to have enough material to sustain stories for years; they only have to hook us for a few weeks, and the results can be powerful as the 1970s-1980s golden age of the mini-series can attest. The Thorn Birds, Roots and Shogun were vastly different in style and plot, but each series marked a landmark television achievement. Limited series are more likely to tackle social issues or attempt to bring to life epics that would be unsustainable on weekly budgets. They can be big, bold and enthralling– especially to audiences that are craving something new, even if that something new is one of television’s oldest, most enduring formats.

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