I don’t know about you, but I’ve been inundated of late with people talking about Big Little Lies. Either to me or around me — like with people posting about it on their Facebook feeds or on Twitter. I feel a little excoriated because I haven’t gotten around to watching it yet, knowing as I do that it’ll be on demand for my viewing pleasure whenever I like over the next few weeks.
The thing is, it’s not so unique a situation anymore. It used to be shows like The Walking Dead or Breaking Bad that had people obsessed, ongoing series that last for several seasons and have long, winding narratives that carry characters forward over the course of years. Those days feel pretty long gone, though, because with the increasing tendency toward shorter TV seasons and more shows, the concept of a proper, classic, 22-episode order feels more and more passé.
So it’s much more about miniseries and anthologies like Big Little Lies and American Crime Story and Feud and The Night Manager and Fargo, shows that might exist from one season to the next, but with each new season comes a whole new storyline, with a whole new cast and, often, a whole new period of time in which the story is told.
Like a lot of the fun things we get around here, this one started across the pond, where the Brits often churn out smaller, four or six or eight episode runs of a show that tells a single story in a few hours and then disappears into the London fog, potentially to never be heard from again, or at least until someone over on these shores decides to remake it.
There are plenty of examples of this, of course, the best being, in my opinion, perhaps the greatest six-episode series in TV history, State of Play, starring Bill Nighy, James McAvoy, John Simms, David Morrissey and Kelly MacDonald. The Wire might be the best show ever on television, and is certainly the best one about journalists, but State of Play is a crowning achievement about politics, journalism, ethics, and so much more, and of course the American movie version was a poor, sad, lackluster attempt to capture that spirit. Then again, take something like Traffic, and you could make the argument that the Steven Soderbergh film actually improved on the British miniseries.
More recently, of course, there’s The Night Of, a show I didn’t like, personally, and about which I’ve written in this space before, but which was beloved by many who don’t share my taste or peccadilloes. I think it’s safe to say that HBO was pretty pleased with the results of translating that British show, and it certainly won’t stop bringing more of them over any time soon.
But what’s interesting about this new trend toward shorter form storytelling is the level of talent that can be drawn to it. Just look at the either season of True Detective, in which a short, eight episode season brought actors like Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson to the first, and Vince Vaughn, Colin Farrell and Rachel McAdams to the second, none of whom would normally sign on for a multi-season situation because they’re all too busy starring in movies.
Well, that’s one of the interesting things. The other is the freedom to tell a story in six hours, or eight, rather than two, and without the need to plan something out over the course of 20 or 30 or 40. Louis C.K. walked away from his Emmy-winning sitcom — for now, at least — because he wanted to do something else, and then proceeded to surprise everyone by making the 10-episode Horace and Pete and dropping it on an unsuspecting public. It was something that had never really been done before, working in secret on a project self-financed and then released without fanfare or any outside help or influence, and might never be done again.
Which, actually, is another interesting thing about this new trend, that it’s a surefire way to cut through all the other content out there that is, let’s face it, so thick that it’d be easier to swim through quicksand than to watch it all. I mean, there is so much content out there, more than any of us can ever realistically consume, it’s a heck of a lot easier to make a smaller commitment to any given show. Hence, the popularity of something like Big Little Lies, a show of which I have heard both good and bad things, but perhaps the best thing about it is that, yes, it’s only seven hours from start to finish.
Now that’s the kind of commitment most of us can make in these days of short windows of opportunity and shorter attention spans.
Don’t get me wrong, by the way. It’s not like I have begun to eschew ongoing series to focus solely on the minis, it’s just that I recognize the inherent appeal of not getting too attached to a show that might not make it to an additional season. Take a series like Rubicon, an AMC show from about five or six years back that was, simply put, one of the most fascinating I’ve seen in this century. James Badge Dale starred as an intelligence analyst who had lost his family in 9/11 and was trying to uncover a vast conspiracy that would do great damage to the United States. It was dark, dense, deliberately paced, and completely hypnotic, all at the same time. It’s possible, though, that I was the only one who watched it, so of course the network canceled it and I was left with bupkis, no second season to follow up on the loose threads left behind by the first, nothing. I mean, it’s not even available on DVD or streaming, which is a crime of a whole other sort.
Even last summer’s biggest sensation, Stranger Things, was only eight episodes and told a self-contained story. When it returns on Halloween, it’ll pick up a year or two later, and even though it’ll feature the same cast, it’s going to start fresh with a whole new storyline. A storyline, in fact, that could possibly be called a miniseries within a longer, ongoing one.
This, in the end, is the bright spot in the embarrassment of riches we have regarding the current state of the television industry. Checking in for a few weeks and then moving on to the next thing might be the best most of us can do for the time being.
Maybe the more of that we get, the happier we’ll all be.