Friday, September 20, 2013

The Resurrection of the Miniseries: An Analysis


*With the Emmys airing next Sunday night (9/22), we're going to take a look at a handful of the nominees this week.*

Not even five years ago, the state of the television miniseries was in dire straits. The primetime networks - ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, The CW if you want to be generous - had all but given up on them, leaving them to be made by cable networks like HBO. Actually, for a while it seemed like HBO and PBS were the only networks in the miniseries game. PBS aired a number of classic-literature adaptations imported from Britain as limited-run events, and HBO made enough money off of subscriptions to afford the pricy format. The last time the Outstanding Miniseries category at the Emmys fielded a full five nominees was 2004; in 2009 and 2010, the last years the category existed on its own before being merged with made-for-TV movies, there were only two nominees (one from PBS and one from HBO each year).

Flash-foward to 2013. In the Outstanding Miniseries or Movie category, four of the six nominees are miniseries. Last year there were three. The previous year saw four as well; so far, in the category's three-year history, miniseries have outnumbered TV movies almost two-to-one. They've appeared on a number of channels, including A&E, History, FX, and BBC America. This fall, the miniseries will return to primetime, as CBS prepares for the October premiere of Hostages, a "15-episode event," with more on the way. And they've been popular successes: The Bible broke ratings records for History Channel, records set the previous year by...Hatfields & McCoys, another miniseries.

So what exactly happened?

The short version is the rise of cable's dominance in "quality television." The rise of the cable drama in both awards and ratings has had networks reeling to find that same success. A common aspect of cable dramas is their episode order length, usually around 13 episodes per season. However, on the alphabet networks, such a short order for their programs is economically unfeasible; therefore, get people excited with miniseries interspersed between the regular continuous programming. It's not a bad idea.

Another likely factor: Lost. That particular series was heavy on mythology and serialized storytelling, and with an open-ended time frame, many viewers lost patience with the show while it meandered with fish biscuits and statues of four-toed feet. The lesson gleaned from this was to provide closure quickly rather than stretching things out beyond their sell-by dates (another CBS show, Under the Dome, could stand to learn this lesson; curiously, it was originally proposed as a miniseries for Showtime before CBS bought it). Miniseries, with their limited run, promise definitive closure; apart from, say, Downton Abbey, most don't move on to become series.


In this year's Miniseries or Movie category, the four miniseries are as follows: Political Animals (USA), which follows a Hillary Clinton-type Secretary of State looking to make a presidential run; Top of the Lake (Sundance Channel), Jane Campion's New Zealand murder mystery; The Bible (History), which retells stories from the, you know, Bible; American Horror Story: Asylum, which is too bugnuts insane to accurately describe with words, but centers around an asylum in 1960s Massachusetts. 

That lattermost series is the most interesting of the bunch, given that it was also nominated last year. American Horror Story positions itself as a season-long anthology series, with each new "season" telling a different story with recurring actors in new roles. It's the open-ended miniseries: one that provides closure at the end of the run, only to reboot itself the next year with a new premise. And it's becoming a more attractive format: HBO will be trotting out True Detective - in which a new case with new detectives are introduced every year, with the first go-round featuring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson - in January, and I can see a situation where Hostages takes off, and CBS figures out a way to replicate that success (they'd likely just have the same characters end up in a different hostage situation, because this is CBS, but I can dream).

So here we are: 2013, and the miniseries is thriving again. We'll see what the future holds for the format.

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