×

Are Limited Series Rewriting the Rules For TV Drama?

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.

More Voices

  • Contract Placeholder Business WGA ATA Agent

    WGA, Agents Face Tough Issues on New Franchise Pact (Column)

    The Writers Guild of America and the major talent agencies are seven weeks away from a deadline that could force film and TV writers to choose between their agents and their union. This is a battle that has been brewing for a year but few in the industry saw coming until a few weeks ago. [...]

  • FX Confronts Streaming Thanks to Disney

    Kicking and Screaming, FX Is Forced to Confront Future in the Stream (Column)

    During his network’s presentation at the winter Television Critics Assn. press tour, FX chief John Landgraf made waves — and headlines — by mounting perhaps his most direct criticism yet of Netflix. Landgraf, whose briefings to the press tend to rely heavily on data about the volume of shows with which FX’s competitors flood the [...]

  • Longtime TV Editor Recalls Working for

    How a Bad Director Can Spoil the Show (Guest Column)

    I have been blessed with editing some of TV’s greatest shows, working with some of the industry’s greatest minds. “The Wonder Years,” “Arrested Development,” “The Office,” “Scrubs,” “Pushing Daisies” and, most recently, “A Series of Unfortunate Events.” I have earned an Emmy, ACE Eddie Awards, and many nominations. But whatever kudos I’ve received, over my [...]

  • Stock market Stock buyback

    Stock Buybacks Leave Firms Without Funds to Invest in Future (Column)

    Corporate giants on the S&P 500 have spent more than $720 billion during the past year on stock buybacks. Media and entertainment firms account for only a fraction of that spending, but even $1 million spent on share repurchases seems a foolhardy expenditure at this transformational moment for the industry. The record level of spending [...]

  • Hollywood Has Come Far With Diversity

    An Insider's Look at Hollywood's Diversity Efforts and How Far It Still Needs to Go

    I am a white man working in Hollywood. I grew up in Beverlywood, an all-white, predominantly Jewish, Los Angeles neighborhood sandwiched between 20th Century Fox Studios and MGM, where my elementary school had only one black student. I am compelled to write about diversity in Hollywood because “diversity” — in front of and behind the camera [...]

  • Venice Film Festival A Star is

    How Venice, Toronto and Telluride Festivals Stole Cannes' Luster (Column)

    In all the years I’ve been attending film festivals, I have never seen a lineup that looked as good on paper as Venice’s did this fall, boasting new films by Alfonso Cuarón (“Roma”), Damien Chazelle (“First Man”), Paul Greengrass (“22 July”), Mike Leigh (“Peterloo”) and the Coen brothers (“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”) in competition, [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content