A series of disproportionate events: the rise of the TV miniseries
Freed by streaming from the tyranny of scheduling and seasons, US TV is embracing the ‘limited series’ like never before
There’s a moment during The Good Place when a fictional British sitcom appears on their television. “It’s Deirdre & Margaret!” cries a delighted Tahani (played by Jameela Jamil). “It ran for 16 years on the BBC. They did nearly 30 episodes!”
The brevity of British TV series has long been a running joke in the US (I’m sure there’s a similar Simpsons gag somewhere back in the mists of time, too). Conversely, having been in a few production offices and writer’s rooms in my time, the sheer scale of US TV shows both awes the UK’s TV industry and makes them very jealous indeed: 20-episode seasons with teams of gainfully employed writers, huge budgets and infinite possibilities that stretch out in front of the production team like a Wham bar on a hot day.
Despite always finding our quaint little series to be quite amusing and cute, however, US television – slowly being freed from the tyranny of scheduling and seasons – seems to be coming around to our way of thinking. Under the guise of ‘Limited Series’ – or what we call a ‘series’ in the UK – the US is now producing short seasons which don’t outstay their welcome: White Lotus, Nine Perfect Strangers, Ted Lasso, Mare of Easttown. Even the aforementioned The Good Place was, on average, 10 episodes shorter than the traditional US sitcom length and only ran for four seasons: their story was told, then they left. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves – it’s always more fun to look at the differences, right?
The brilliant 30 Rock, which ran for seven seasons – a relatively short time for a US comedy – came in at a grand total of 139 episodes; Only Fools and Horses, one of the BBC’s biggest and most enduring hits, lasted for 21 years but made just 64 episodes. “But it’s quality, not quantity” you say, which would be a sound argument if we couldn’t reel off a list of about 20 US sitcoms which confidently strode into triple figure episode counts and were also consistently brilliant. It’s not just comedies, of course: the golden age of TV has supplied us with countless hours of quality drama from the other side of the Atlantic, excelling in both content and deliverance to become stone-cold classics.
So why are we so different? BBC America, which is a premium cable channel in the US, once attempted to explain in a since-deleted post on its website. “There’s one very good reason for this [there isn’t]. American comedy is a producer’s medium, in which an idea is worked up, characters developed and early scripts written, and then the show is handed over to a larger group of writers to flesh out into actual scripts. British comedy is a writer’s medium [it isn’t]. The scripts are almost always written and developed by one or two people, then taken to production. And once they’ve written six episodes, they need a rest. That’s how we end up with only 12 episodes of Fawlty Towers.”
If there was “one good reason for this”, it would be money. If you have a successful show which the advertisers buy into, then why not make more? But it goes deeper: this was started long ago in the US at the dawn of television as a mass-medium, with The Honeymooners, Bilko and Bewitched. Long seasons need many writers, many writers need writers’ rooms, writers’ rooms train up writers who go on to create their own shows – the model works. Almost by accident, US TV became a writer’s medium – and now we are in the age of the showrunner, the writer is in control as never before.
Can you tell me what the shape of a Rick and Morty season looks like anymore? I certainly can’t, and it’s my job. Creator Dan Harmon picks it up and drops it at his behest. Since streaming, not the schedulers, is now dictating how we consume TV, US writers and creators no longer have to fulfil a certain quota. They’re instead happy in the knowledge that if their show works, then not only will they get the opportunity to tell more stories with greater autonomy, but their hit show will be there to consume forever, only becoming more ingrained in the psyche of the audience.
So the US episode count has come down to meet the numbers of this soggy little country, but it doesn’t mean the playing field is necessarily levelled. Far from being a “writer’s medium”, British TV is still at the behest of executives and schedules. This may change, but it looks like we’ve got about 50 years of catching up to do until British programme makers have the power to decide whether or not to make only six episodes.