Not too long ago, the TV miniseries had become a junky format. Often produced by Robert Halmi Sr. and Jr., these four-or-more-hour-long epics merged FX-heavy action with familiar story lines, from “Noah’s Ark” and “Arabian Nights” to “Moby Dick” and “The Magical Legend of the Leprechauns,” the latter of which played like a Lucky Charms commercial run amok. They were blockbuster headaches, with only PBS “Masterpiece” and its intelligent miniseries adaptations offering a quality alternative.
But at this moment, the miniseries is one of the most creatively vital formats on TV. While we now binge ourselves into a stupor watching season upon season of TV shows, we apparently also appreciate a contained story line with a relatively small number of episodes. Perhaps the craving for miniseries — we call them limited series these days — is a reaction to all the boundless binge-watching? A-list actors are also attracted to them, since committing to a limited series is not like committing to many, many seasons of a regular comedy or drama.
Here are 10 of the limited series that I’ve admired. I’ve tried to stick to recent releases, which means some of the best of the century — “Band of Brothers,” “The Corner,” “Wolf Hall” — aren’t on the list. I’ve also avoided some of the self-contained seasons of anthology series such as “Fargo,” except for the latest season of “American Crime Story,” which is exceptional.
“A Very English Scandal” I love it when a true-crime story is adapted for TV with an eye toward historical context and character depth. Amazon’s three-parter about closeted British MP Jeremy Thorpe and his attempt to have an ex-lover murdered in the 1960s is a compelling story in its own right. But, as written by Russell T. Davies (“Doctor Who”) and directed by Stephen Frears (“The Queen”), it also brings in rich themes of political self-interest, homophobia, the cruelty of stiff upper lips, and the way justice tips toward class and money. Plus, Hugh Grant, as Thorpe, beautifully turns his charm into something nefarious, and Ben Whishaw is perfectly cracked as his victim.
“Howards End” For me, it was hard to imagine a successful adaptation of the E.M. Forster novel after Merchant-Ivory’s pitch-perfect 1992 film with Emma Thompson. But Starz’s four-parter — adapted by Kenneth Lonergan of “Manchester by the Sea” — is also wonderful, as it has the time to add layers of detail to the story and flesh out the themes of liberal guilt, class divides, and compromises in love. The relationship between Hayley Atwell’s Margaret and Matthew Macfadyen’s Henry gets plenty of screen time to develop, and Margaret’s “only connect” speech in the third episode resonates. So it turns out that there are now two extraordinary adaptations of “Howards End” in the world, each remarkable and distinct.
“Alias Grace” Netflix’s six-parter is adapted by Sarah Polley from Margaret Atwood’s 1996 novel. It’s based on the true story of a 16-year-old maid named Grace Marks who was imprisoned for a double murder in 1843 Canada, and it gives us Grace telling her story to an early psychologist. As she speaks, we and the therapist wonder what is true. Is she twisting facts to evoke sympathy, as she tells her long, compelling story of Dickensian class oppression and sexism? Is she a victim or a weasel? The period piece is beautifully filmed, and the supporting actors, including Anna Paquin, are strong; but Sarah Gadon as Grace takes it all to another level. She gives a mesmerizing riddle of a performance.
“Sharp Objects” Based on the murder-mystery novel by Gillian Flynn, this eight-episode HBO drama can be hard to watch. Partly that’s due to the themes of self-cutting, repressed memory, maternal love gone wrong, and alcoholism, and partly that’s because the grim story was so effectively told. Director Jean-Marc Vallée — who also turned the first season of “Big Little Lies” into something special — creates a powerful sense of the porousness of time as he repeatedly jumps forward and backward. And Amy Adams, as the lost journalist who’s back in her hometown dealing with her harsh mother (creepily played by Patricia Clarkson) and memories of her late sister, is phenomenal. She’s hard to look at, and hard to look away from. The ending is fully earned.
“Patrick Melrose” Stories don’t come much bleaker than Showtime’s five-episode adaptation of the five Patrick Melrose books by Edward St. Aubyn. It’s about a man coming to terms with the father who raped him as a child. Benedict Cumberbatch brilliantly plays the adult Patrick, who spends the entire first hour, set in 1982, in a drug-addled stupor, like an upper crust Hunter S. Thompson. Cumberbatch brings out the satirical tones of “Patrick Melrose,” as it disassembles the aristocracy piece by glittering piece. The narrative also effectively flashes back to his 1960s childhood, with Jennifer Jason Leigh hypnotic as his always-blotto mother and Hugo Weaving as his violent father. This is a sharply rendered, and, ultimately, redemptive nightmare.
“Picnic at Hanging Rock” Natalie Dormer is transfixing in Amazon’s six-episode adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel and Peter Weir’s 1975 movie. She plays the petty, vengeful, abusive, but above all composed English headmistress of a girl’s finishing school in the Australian bush. She rules her teen charges with an iron fist so cold it burns, and Dormer — the ambitious Margaery Tyrell in “Game of Thrones” — makes every second of the lethal stink-eye she throws at her victims count. Four women connected to the school disappear during the titular Valentine’s Day outing in 1900, but “Picnic” doesn’t unfold like a crime procedural. It’s a less straightforward tale, with surreal visual flourishes, time jumps, and a threatening atmosphere built on lurid coloring, off-kilter camera angles, and invasive closeups.
“The Night Of” HBO’s eight-episode crime drama came out in 2016, but I still think about it. Essentially, it’s an intricate episode of “Law & Order,” stretched out and deepened. Creators Richard Price and Steven Zaillian have taken the procedural formula and combined it with distinctive characters and timely ideas about our corrupt justice system. By making the murder suspect Nasir “Naz” Khan (Riz Ahmed) a Pakistani-American Muslim and the murder victim a white woman, they’ve also been able to portray rank Islamophobia in the United States. The acting is aces, with John Turturro (replacing the late James Gandolfini) delivering a humane turn as an eczema-afflicted attorney and Jeannie Berlin making sparks as the fierce prosecutor. Like “The Wire,” “The Night Of” shows how our institutions are rigged, how they can trip up ordinary people, and how they can protect the guilty.
“Escape at Dannemora” Showtime is currently airing this seven-part drama, based on the real escape of two New York state prisoners in 2015 and the complicit prison employee, Tilly Mitchell, who became sexually involved with them. As Tilly, Patricia Arquette is phenomenal, disappearing into the role of a needy, irritable woman whose hunger to feel desirable leads her into dangerous behavior. As the two murderers she helps, Paul Dano and Benicio del Toro are perfectly cast. “Escape” bears none of the superficialities and exaggerated qualities you often find in true-crime series, as it takes an unblinking look at the psychological makeup of its three main players. As a director, Ben Stiller is sure-handed with drama, and the series captures the way the characters feel imprisoned — not just by bars, but by their static, mundane lives.
“American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace” After reframing the O.J. Simpson case in season one of “American Crime Story,” Ryan Murphy took on the less well-known story of Andrew Cunanan, who murdered four people before finally shooting Versace outside his Miami Beach home. The nine-episode FX drama gives insight into the sadistic Cunanan’s motives, with a great performance by Darren Criss, but it also dives into the lives of his victims, including Chicago real estate developer Lee Miglin (Mike Farrell). Judith Light shines as Miglin’s wife, battling with shame in the aftermath of his murder, and Cody Fern is devastating as the terrified victim Cunanan kidnaps. Murphy adds context, as we see how systemic homophobia by law enforcement may helped Cunanan stay free long enough to kill more.
“My Brilliant Friend” The adaptation of the first of Elena Ferrante’s four Neapolitan novels is just right — bathed in Italian sunlight but not romanticized. Now airing on HBO, the eight-parter features miraculous work by the young actresses who play best friends Elena and Lila. They’re smart girls in a claustrophobic culture where it’s looked down on, and their struggles to prevail are both moving and comic. Director Saverio Costanzo brings us into a close relationship with the workings of their harsh neighborhood, where everyone knows everyone else’s business and where marital discord erupts into screaming fights and pans flying out of the upper floors. And the language — the Neapolitan dialect of Italian — is melodic and expressive enough to make the subtitles singMatthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.