Hello Interwebs! I’m a newbie to the TV mini-series. I’ve heard countless praises of limited-run shows over the years, yet never gave them a shot. Why? Sometimes lack of access; mostly lack of time. Well, that’s recently changed. I’ve discovered a newfound appreciation for the mini-series format and I want to share said appreciation with the internet. Read on to discover why the mini-series has so quickly become one of my favourite forms of storytelling.
HEADS UP: A Mini-Series is basically just a one-and-done season of TV which tells a story and then stops.
Also: No Spoilers for anything below!
I’ve been curious about the nature of limited series for some time now. But I’m a busy man with a dozen shows on the go at all times, and curiosity rarely gets me through my “list” any faster. It’s ironic, really: for every show, movie, or game I cross off my entertainment list, I always find 5 more of each… The list is really more like a bottomless pit from which I’ll never climb out. Luckily for me, my family has less on their media plate, so I get an excuse to watch other things when I join them. Basically, I watch what I watch on my time, and often only branch out when I’m with other people.
NOTE: If it sounds like I place arbitrary restrictions on myself, it’s because I do. My mind is a strange place which doesn’t often make sense. Just go with it, OK?
The point is: my family decided to get into mini-series on a whim, and I got swept up in them. My first was the Les Miserables series which came out a few years back. More recently I watched Queen’s Gambit (which was awesome). I’m currently working my way through Band of Brothers and loving it! I may have only seen 3 mini-series in my life, but that’s been enough to hook me! This unfortunately uncommon format resonates with both my creative identity and that part of myself simply looking for entertainment.
I’ve come to believe that the mini-series format is an ideal middle-ground between movies and TV. For this week’s article, I want to discuss this opinion through a comparative look at the strengths and weaknesses of both film and TV.
STRENGTHS OF MOVIES
The greatest asset a film has over TV is its compact/ easily digestible nature. Whereas television shows might drag out over 1-20 years, individual films average 2 hours each. I don’t know about you, but my time is valuable to me, and I like good self-contained entertainment. Investing in something which might take months to finish may deprive you of the chance to experience more fantastic media which happens to be shorter. I don’t generally subscribe to that particular mindset, but it might be worth considering.
NOTE: I’m not telling you how to watch your entertainment. Do whatever brings you most joy.
By virtue of their relatively limited structure, films require plenty of action and story events to keep their plots moving at a reasonable pace. When I say “action”, you may assume I mean explosions and gun-fights and martial arts, but action really just means stuff happening on screen (at least, it does in screenwriting). TV, by comparison, tends to drag plot over multiple episodes, and sometimes even multiple years– which, at its worst, turns once-intriguing premises boring. Not that movies are always riveting, but they usually pack a lot more into 2 hours than an average show will.
Beyond an investment of your time, films are largely an investment you make in quality products. Even a terrible movie produced by a major studio probably has bigger budgets and more technical prowess than the average network TV series. Streaming services are a different issue altogether… Perhaps such technical considerations don’t matter to you personally, but they do to many people. You want to know you’re spending your hard-earned money on something that won’t absolutely suck. Films are generally a safer bet compared to your average show.
ANOTHER NOTE: I’m calling out “average” or worse shows here. High-quality TV beats film in my books anyday.
Want to know more of my thoughts on that? Check out this article: WHY NARRATIVE TV IS SUPERIOR TO FILM
STRENGTHS OF TV
Television’s primary strength is in building a relationship with its audience through frequency and longevity. Over the course of an average show’s season, we experience 13-24 unique plots, and dozens of other side-stories. Multiply this for however long a show runs, and you’ve got a lot of stories. This long-form structure allows for overarching narratives in television to breathe better than in movies. Not every character in all of entertainment has life-changing experiences which can be covered adequately in 2 hours. The sheer amount of time allowed to TV shows encourages plot developments to occur organically, when they feel right. Abundance of time also ensures more major narrative moments over a series life span than any singular movie could ever pull off.
All that time an audience spends in a story world not only gives them more narrative to digest, but also more nuance. No matter a show’s quality, an audience will inevitably come to learn more about characters and settings than they could in a movie. The environment of a given TV show often breeds a sense of comfort, familiarity, and attachment within the people who regularly tune in.
Perhaps TV’s most subtle strength is its ability to creatively course correct. Most works of art are one-and-done. They are made, they are released, and they either do well or fail. TV shows are able to absorb audience feedback, gain more confidence with time, and write around the parts which don’t work (if that’s what they decide to do). TV series have the ability to mold themselves for the better over time.
STRENGTHS OF THE MINI-SERIES FORMAT OVER FILMS AND TV
The Television Mini-Series is the perfect compromise between film and TV. At an average of 8-10 episodes, mini-series are able to tell a complete story, approximately the size of some TV seasons. But here’s why they can excel where many shows fail: they don’t have to keep going once they’re done. There’s no cliffhangers, or loose plot threads, or promises of more to come. Mini-Series, like movies, are a packaged experience.
Unlike films, however, these shows have enough time built within their “package” to orchestrate organic character growth and expand multiple high-profile plotlines. Overarching narratives get to relax a little, but are rarely granted so much leeway that they become dull, like in a lot of TV shows. An ideal series story is designed compactly enough to keep the action moving, yet spread out enough to allow full audience immersion into a world.
Mini-Series are nearly like if a director got to make an 8 hour film cut. But they’re arguably better than that, because they’re also bite-sized entertainment. Because the limited-run format is still fundamentally based on traditional television, each episode is made to stand alone on its own merits, even though the series is meant to be taken as a whole. You wouldn’t pick a random hour out of a film and expect it to stand on its own two feet like you can with a mini-series.
Traditional television can sometimes feel overwhelming. I know I’ve been scared off by one or two shows in the past due to sheer volume. Let’s take a popular show, such as The Simpsons. There’s over 30 full seasons to get through if you want to see everything! And, even if you only wanted to see the “good” stuff, that’s still at least 9 season’s worth (according to much of the fanbase). Such intimidating feelings are even worse if you’re jumping onto a show’s bandwagon late and feel obligated to play catch-up. Mini-Series never have that problem. The entirety of the property is neatly packaged and sold in a relatively short window. There’s little fear for intimidation or guilt-ridden sense of obligation when beginning limited-run TV. The shows are just there to experience, fully formed and easy to get through.
One major benefit to shorter series lengths is better allocation of budget. I don’t know what the average mini-series costs, but the ones I’ve seen all have movie-level production values! There’s obviously more investment in these things than the average show, and maybe even more than most lower-tier films. This allows mini-series to rival their cinematic counterparts in terms of spectacle and technical prowess.
Because of its length and budget, this format is perfect for literary adaptations. TV shows based on a source material drag the original text out so thin that the narrative often becomes unrecognizable, while movies compact source material so tightly that they famously squeeze large segments from the final product. Mini-Series act as a sweet spot. They are the format which can adapt such works as classic novels without chopping integral moments. Does every novel deserve this treatment? I don’t know. Some properties work better in your head. But I can say with confidence that mini-series are more likely to nail an adaptation than films. They have the budget to do the work justice and the time to include all major moments.
WHY I LIKE THE MINI-SERIES FORMAT AS A CREATIVE
As a writer, the TV mini-series seems like such a freeing format. If I should gain work in the entertainment industry (fingers crossed), I love knowing that I won’t necessarily be relegated to 2 kinds of projects (film and TV, to be crystal clear). Some stories don’t need to be a whole TV show, and others are too long to tell in a movie. The limited-run series is a sweet spot which I hope to use often in my career. In fact, it may even be my preferred format. Who knows? I tend to like serialized narrative, but most of my ideas wouldn’t make for long-running shows. So maybe the mini-series is right for me!
WHY I DON’T THINK MINI-SERIES ARE COMMON
I cynically believe that networks and streaming services won’t bother investing substantial time and money into mini-series stories. I’m a believer in artistic vision, but I also want to be realistic about the nature of TV: artistry might receive acclaim and/ or get eyeballs glued to screens, but it doesn’t always equate to lucrative return on investment. For most companies, the bottom line is money. How much money can a series earn at launch and in the long-term? If people don’t watch, the powers-that-be don’t like continuing projects. Case in point: I’m a fan of multiple artistically brilliant shows which were technically fantastic but cancelled way too soon (off the top of my head: Hannibal and Firefly). Mini-Series are arguably even worse to invest in than most shows because they’re more expensive and only have one shot to make an impact. The risk might not pay off.
But some of you might be thinking: “Who cares? A good show will find an audience.” Doesn’t matter. Artistry is important to success but technically irrelevant to many financial backers. Even the richest producers don’t like throwing their money away without some assurances of success. Nowadays, the most surefire road to success is franchising. Why would corporations want to make something which, by its very nature, is limited in scope? They want to milk an intellectual property until it’s dry and can’t make them any more. That’s a major reason why many successful mini-series get sequels. However, every one which continues past its premise runs the risk of failing miserably from an artistic point of view. Some stories simply don’t have the legs for a long haul.
The TV mini-series seems to be popular right now. I suggest you watch ’em while you can. Support the format so studios want to make them. They’re awesome and I want more!
What’s your favourite Mini-series? Do you think this format is as good as traditional TV or film? If you have any ideas for future articles, or any questions, let me know. Also be sure to Like this article on Facebook and share if you enjoyed!
Till next time