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Brevity is the soul of witty TV

Let us now praise the miniseries, a format that doesn’t get its due.

Kate Winslet as Mare in "Mare of Easttown."Michele K. Short/HBO

Last week, I listed my favorite shows of the year so far. A number of my choices were, in fact, miniseries, including HBO’s “Beartown,” Amazon’s “The Underground Railroad,” and, unless HBO decides to pull another “Big Little Lies” move and tack on an unnecessary second season in order to shamelessly milk its success, “Mare of Easttown.”

Some readers wondered if these miniseries actually count as series, and the answer is no. They’re even better than series, in certain ways, because of their concision, their intrinsic resistance to overstaying their welcome, and their more straightforward path from start to finish. They absolutely count in any survey of TV’s best, and I don’t think I was cheating by including them; but they offer a different kind of storytelling from what we generally think of as a “TV show,” since the writers know exactly where they’re heading, and how they’re going to get there, from the get-go.


So today I come in praise of miniseries, also known as limited series, and the brevity they have to offer. It’s relatively rare for a full-on series to achieve the kind of overall coherence and thrust of its shorter brethren. Most popular series stretch forward year after year, all middle section, the writers straining to keep the story alive and varied for as long as the ratings are there. I enjoy that kind of TV-making, of course, what with being a TV critic and all — but it’s far more open to the kinds of pointless detours and over-complication that can corrupt a show’s legacy. Even “The Sopranos,” my number one TV creation of all time, and “Mad Men,” another favorite, adopted filler plots on occasion to keep things moving.

Sure, there is the exceptional “Breaking Bad,” which never seemed to lose its way for even a minute across five seasons. Creator Vince Gilligan did alter his initial course, by choosing to keep Jesse Pinkman alive for the entire series rather than killing him off in the first season. But still, he never blew air into the narrative, and each episode felt like an essential piece of the puzzle. Likewise, “Fleabag” is a perfect piece of series TV, with a record low body fat index. There’s not a single moment in the show I’d want to cut.


In what might be sacrilege, I am sometimes grateful that “Freaks and Geeks” never did get a second season. Recently, in interviews with Collider, creator Paul Feig and executive producer Judd Apatow explained that MTV offered to pick up the show — with a smaller budget — once NBC canceled it, but the pair decided not to compromise their beloved invention. For over two decades, “Freaks and Geeks” has survived as a one-season wonder, or, if you will, an extended miniseries of 18 episodes that ends on a concluding note. It never had the opportunity to go down the tubes, like “Dexter,” or “Killing Eve,” or any number of once-excellent shows, and I am grateful for that. The lesson: In TV, it’s always better to err on the shorter side.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge in "Fleabag." Luke Varley/Associated Press

Miniseries aren’t only an alternative to unlimited series; they’ve become an alternative to movies, particularly the adaptations of books. They provide enough screen time for scriptwriters to be more faithful to the source, so that they can honor the storytelling pace of the likes of John le Carré, whose “The Night Manager” and “The Little Drummer Girl” were recently made into fine AMC miniseries. PBS’s “Masterpiece” has been a great champion of the format for decades, featuring some of TV’s strongest adaptations of Charles Dickens’s doorstoppers, most notably its six-part “Bleak House,” from 2006.


HBO is also a pioneer of miniseries, or at least prestige miniseries. The cable channel understood early on that star actors and writers would be more likely to make TV if the commitment were limited, and not, like regular old series, open-ended. They aren’t looking for gigs that could span a decade. With almost all of its miniseries from “From the Earth to the Moon” in 1998 and “Angels in America” in 2003 to “The Night Of” in 2016 and “I May Destroy You” in 2020, HBO has shown all the other TV outlets how to do it.

Gillian Anderson in ''Bleak House.'' Mike Hogan/BBC for Masterpiece Theatre/PBS

For too long, outside of HBO, PBS, and the occasional cable channel such as A&E, miniseries were bombastic action-based stories loaded up with cheesy special effects. I’m thinking of the Robert Halmi Sr. and Jr. epics such as “Noah’s Ark” and “The Magical Legend of the Leprechauns,” bloated affairs that clogged up the airwaves and gave the format a bad reputation.

But here we are, at a time when, despite the franchise fever that this fall will fill network TV with nine hours of Dick Wolf series per week, the miniseries is thriving on cable and streaming. It’s offering up a format that can take advantage of the great amount of space that TV has to offer, without succumbing to the great amount of space that TV has to offer.


Matthew Gilbert can be reached at Follow him @MatthewGilbert.