Limited Series Writers Take Big Risks in Short Runs

Emmy-contending scribes revel in the chance to tell complete stories and break rules

The Girlfriend Experience Limited Series Emmys
Courtesy of Starz

The limited series is staking a claim to 24K status in television’s current Golden Age.

While so-called “minis” once ladled out meat and potatoes narrative in appointment TV epics, today’s short form is a binge-worthy oasis of offbeat, buzzy entertainment.

This year alone, David Farr inserted radical time, place, and plot changes in adapting international bestseller “The Night Manager” for AMC. In a unique partnership, indie auteurs Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz were tapped by Steven Soderbergh for equal shares in Starz’s sexually groundbreaking “The Girlfriend Experience.” For season two of FX’s “Fargo,” Noah Hawley crafted a cold open consisting of footage from a (fake) 1950s Ronald Reagan Western, and had a UFO drop into the midst of a climactic shootout.

Whether dazzling or puzzling viewers, these scribes see freedom and opportunity traditional episodic doesn’t necessarily afford.

“If you’re coming in to write specific episodes in a big series,” says Farr (who did just that on the U.K.’s “MI-5”), “there’s a tendency for a writer to push it, hard, because you want to show what you can do.” Solo control of a single narrative affords what Hawley calls “a chance to make a movie. … It’s a complete thought you’re expressing.”

To turn John le Carré’s high-stakes espionage yarn into a complete TV thought, Farr shifted the action from 1990s Colombia to contemporary Egypt’s “Arab Spring,” and teased out a tight cat-and-mouse between an ordinary hotel manager and a wicked zillionaire arms broker.

“It takes you back and forth in time, plays with the audience in terms of withholding and giving information, which can either entice or frustrate,” he says, but he felt he could rely on the novel’s “strong skeletal structure.”

“It takes you back and forth in time, plays with the audience in terms of withholding and giving information, which can either entice or frustrate.”
David Farr

In commissioning a series lightly inspired by his 2009 movie about a high-class call girl, Soderbergh gambled on two bold indie artists getting more out of each other (and providing gender perspective) if they worked together and were left alone. Seimetz and Kerrigan divvied up directing 12 episodes equitably, wrote the episodes together before going to camera, and flipped a coin for episode 13 rights.

Kerrigan reports, “Steven’s notes were always suggestions, take what you want.” When all was said and done, “Starz didn’t give a single note,” not even on the finale’s eye-opening 18-minute sex scene among protagonist Christine, a client, and another male escort in what Kerrigan calls “this cuckold fantasy” of “intimacy, control, and performance.”
The pair enjoyed creating, in Seimetz’s words, “this strange, unapologetic character with a lot of traits you would call, in cinema or in television, much more masculine.”

Kerrigan lines them up as “selfish, contradictory, manipulative, ambitious … someone unpredictable whom the audience would hopefully be glued to.”

Christine ultimately rejects family and the law for continued escort work. “If you were working in network, you’d have her have a big law firm and she’s really successful, and she’s still escorting,” Seimetz says. “But that’s just not honest.” In an edgier art form, she can be made to act without shame. “She’s like, ‘You know what, I don’t want to face that right now. I want to focus on what makes me feel good, and what I have control over.’”

When it comes to riskiness, the sophomore season of “Fargo” probably took the cake.

Hawley calls his “Massacre at Sioux Falls” opening, with its grainy, black-and-white faux-film fakeout, “a sort of reverse ‘Sopranos’ ending. I figured half the audience would go, ‘Oh crap, I thought we were watching “Fargo”’ and they’d turn the channel to look for it.

I kept waiting for FX to say, ‘You can’t do that.’” If viewers stewed, Hawley justifies his choice as directly relevant to his story’s waiting-for-Reagan and American Indian themes.

Likewise the UFO descent, allowing a working stiff to dispatch a distracted crime kingpin. In 1979, Hawley remembers, “We’d had ‘Close Encounters’ and ‘Star Wars’; we’d survived Watergate. … There was this deep-seated sense of paranoia.”

In that context, a benign alien intervention “had an oddness-offness to it, funny and unsettling at the same. It’s one of those things that’s so unprocessable, it becomes sublime.”