So, Are Miniseries the New Thing Now?
History channel's miniseries The Bible has been raking in viewers
A few weeks ago I wrote an article about television binge watching and attempted to counter the popular sentiment from television critics that this was a bad habit. One of the arguments against binge watching is that it if it becomes the viewing choice du jour, why make a long running series at all; television might as well become movies.
While I don't agree with this at all, it did occur to me that if we are going to go down a road of concentrated viewing, perhaps the middle ground is the miniseries. The miniseries might quell the thirsts of both the television critics who are so desperate to linger over details and the speed-freak watchers who wants their characters' problems solved in enough time to consume only one bag of Cheetos. And low and behold, it looks like the miniseries is on its way back.
In the past month and in upcoming weeks, several new miniseries have been airing or are slated to begin. The History Channel recently premiered two new ones; The Bible began airing on March 3 and will conclude at the end of the month. The show has gotten absurdly high ratings for a cable series, especially coming from a channel whose programming is primarily non-fiction. Additionally, the channel premiered its nine-episode Nordic narrative Vikings, to not as large an audience, but still. The channel's success with last year's Hatfields & McCoys must have come into play when purchasing these two short, episodic programs.
Other channels are jumping on board. AMC announced that it would be airing a new six-episode series called Rectify, which is produced by the brain trust behind the hit series Breaking Bad. The new series is about a man who finds himself exonerated from death row after 19 years. I'm already excited.
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And then there is the Sundance Channel's newest miniseries that has been getting a lot of buzz. Monday night, they premiered the seven-part series Top of the Lake. The show was created by Jane Campion and stars Elizabeth Moss as a detective trying to suss out a disappearance case. Some critics are loving it, some not, but it has only just begun. But wait, it also is almost ending too, and there in is where the beauty lies.
In an article that I was basically already writing, David Haglund of Slate says that the miniseries is the perfect form for television. It's not too long and it's not too short, kinda' like the baby bear of TV formats. There are reasons I agree with his sentiment and others that I don't. But what I don't think is that the miniseries should take over.
When thinking about the perfect show that may have fared better as a miniseries, Lost immediately pops into my head (Haglund mentions Sopranos, another noteworthy choice). How many of us labored through six years of empty promises and ineffectual plot twists only to find out that, what (spoiler three years later), they are all dead or not or something? I have debated rewatching this series to see if the writers really knew what they were doing from the beginning but I don't have to; I already know the answer is no. But Lost as a nine-episode miniseries where in the end they are all dead or in purgatory or something? Now, that might have been a stellar conclusion.
But then I would have to immediately retract that statement. Without the six years of slogging through some of the worst Lost episodes we wouldn't have been exposed to some of the best, and the writers wouldn't have had the opportunity to play, which is what writers should be able to do. If the writers and producers knew that this series would need to be perfectly constructed with no holes to fill as the years went on what would be ..er .. lost in the adaptation? The men in black/white? OK, you can have them. The Tailies? Could probably live without them too. Desmond? Oh, hell no. Kate and Sawyer/Jack, Charlie, Mr. Eko? You see where I am going with this. Wading through the murky, ultimately drawn-out narrative of Lost still bears repeating. In the end, it never could have been a miniseries.
That is not to say that writers shouldn't begin to think on the miniseries level. I do think we should see more of the miniseries format. There are just some stories that would be better if they had a beginning, middle and end in one fell swoop. The necessity to drag out pointless plots for the sake of extending a series is a waste of time and money, and ultimately these shows wind up getting canceled. But, as I argued previously, what makes television so outstanding these days is the attention to character and a miniseries, which is basically a concise one-season series, doesn't allow for that. Why do you think Downton Abbey moved from being an Emmy-nominated miniseries to an Emmy nominated drama; people liked it too much and they demanded more episodes.
Let's keep making television just as it's been for the past ten years because it's just getting started, and here and there throw in a great miniseries because you know that the story merits this length.
Just think, if the American version of The Office was like the British version, which was more or less a miniseries, we wouldn't have to sit through the embarrassment that was/is the past four years.
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