Are Limited Series Rewriting the Rules For TV Drama?

True Detective Season 1 HBO
Courtesy of HBO

While college basketball has been diminished by the “one-and-done” rule, where players stay a single season before jumping to the pros, a similar dynamic in TV — the limited series — could become equally transformative. The question is whether the blessings stemming from such a gambit will be offset by the risks and disruptions associated with it.

As is so often the case, programmers didn’t plan this course as much as stumble onto it. Tellingly, the innovation happened when the format it supplanted, the miniseries, had fallen so out of favor that in 2011, the Emmy Awards eliminated it as a stand-alone category — merging it with movies — because organizers couldn’t field enough contenders.

Since then, limited series, which tell self-contained stories in 12 episodes or less, have exploded, from FX’s “American Horror Story” (never mind its steaming excess) to “Fargo,” “True Detective,” “American Crime,” “Secrets and Lies,” “The Missing” and now “American Crime Story,” which kicks off with the buzz-worthy “The People v. O.J. Simpson.”

While these titles have come to feature recurring elements and even casts of repertory players, they still must hit the reset button when each new “season” rolls around.

Although the formula largely snuck up on us, it’s worth pointing out how revolutionary it seems. Remember, the foundation of television has always been repetition. It’s the reason hit sitcoms run until characters that started out as twentysomethings become middle-aged (and, in real life, extraordinarily wealthy), why “Law & Order” and “CSI” have opened as many franchises as Walmart, and why NBC to this day thinks every second drama should have “Chicago” in the title.

“Most of these programs are high-quality, character-driven fare, which makes cranking out another edition more difficult than simply delivering another ‘Transformers.'”
@blowryontv on Twitter

Yet just as procedurals have adapted, incorporating more serialized and mythological elements into the mix, so the serial — having upped its game in ambition and complexity — now faces pressure from programs that don’t have to worry about sustaining their narrative juggling act for years on end. Indeed, the advantages associated with one-and-done stories have already shown signs of having a profound effect on soaps.

For starters, limited series help producers attract big-name stars (the obvious example being the first “True Detective’s” Woody Harrelson-Matthew McConaughey pairing) who might be reluctant to make an open-ended commitment to TV. Such shows also don’t face the challenge of wringing out plots beyond their natural expiration date, as ABC appears to be doing with a program like “How to Get Away With Murder,” which has creatively faded as it tries to get away with a second overheated whodunit.

Existing dramas have shrewdly adopted season-long arcs, often with sizable time gaps built between them. So “Homeland” or “Masters of Sex” can grapple with a whole new set of issues, albeit with the same basic backdrop and characters.

Because the entertainment industry is built around the comfort and security of repetition, a successful limited run usually motivates creatives to try to replicate those qualities that made the original popular. And while some programs organically lend themselves to that model, others don’t.

There are, rather, inherent dangers in starting from scratch, with the second “True Detective” serving as the poster child for faulty reinvention. Perhaps that’s because most of these programs are high-quality, character-driven fare, which makes cranking out another edition more difficult than simply delivering another “Transformers.”

Quality-wise, there’s something quite logical about this evolution, especially for those who have watched a promising pilot but thought, “What on Earth are they going to do for season two?”

As in basketball, though, introducing more churn into the game isn’t without peril. So while there’s much to be applauded in TV’s version of one and done, what we don’t know yet is what sort of percentage programmers will shoot if they can’t keep returning to the same old plays.

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  1. Jedi77 says:

    Interesting, if not inventive, article.
    It will be interesting to see what the future brings.
    For me the greatest thing about this style of storrytelling, is getting an ending.
    With whows that drag on and on, the ending either gets lost, gets cancelled, or is completely destroyed by the previous dragged on seasons.

    American Crime, True Detective, these are all shows, that in the old days, would have been continued, to their detriment. Today, the stand as prime examples of storytelling at it’s best.

    Under The Dome: would have, could have, should have been great, had it been a single season show with an ending. No need for stupid filler, no need to drag it on.
    The Last Ship: also, a good premise. Told in 12 episodes, perhaps 20 (maximum) would have made a fantastic show. But the openended storytelling currently in use, kills it. Filler, filler, filler, not enough storyprogression, and it dies.

    It’s a shame, because I don’t there is a lack of ideas. Just a lack of respect for the material.

  2. Art says:

    Flesh and Bones was amazing

  3. david k says:

    They might go back to making a character driven 2 hour film! It’s time for the film business to be reborn.
    These limited series won’t last forever. As much as I loved Fargo Season 2, there were definite signs of repition and wear there.

  4. Wade says:

    In the Variety writers’ room:

    “Hey guys, how can I bash True Detective Season 2 without actually elaborating on my points, while simultaneously adding nothing to my overarching argument?”

    “Gotcha covered, Brian!”

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