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A New Wave of Miniseries Lends Clarity to a Muddled Medium

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The Emmys have never been particularly hospitable to the new. Part of that is just an awards-show problem, the consequence of a group of thousands of Hollywood types reverting to the familiar choices on their ballots. At this year’s Emmy ceremony (to air Sept. 18 on ABC), two of the seven Best Comedy nominees (black-ish and Master of None) are first-timers, but all five returning nominees have been nominated every year they were eligible (including a fifth consecutive nod for likely winner Veep and an astounding seventh for the aging Modern Family). The Best Drama list saw The Americans fill a prestige-cable slot left empty by the departed Mad Men, while Mr. Robot got its first nod, but the rest feels … stale. Sure, Game of Thrones is TV’s signature hit, but continued Emmy love for House of Cards, Homeland and Downton Abbey reveals a grievous unimaginativeness.

Meanwhile, on what has traditionally been Emmy’s undercard, intriguing things are happening. While there’s drudgery throughout both TV-series categories, the Best Limited Series field–rewarding what most viewers call miniseries–is the year’s richest, filled with the shows TV fans actually spent the season talking about.

The almost certain winner is FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson, the first installment of a planned franchise, American Crime Story, that will refresh each year with a new premise and characters. (Season 2 is to be about Hurricane Katrina.) The O.J. series isn’t just better than the bulk of the Best Drama field; what it does better reveals why miniseries are at TV’s bleeding edge.

The People v. O.J. Simpson had a discrete story–the legal aftermath of the killing of two innocents, concluding with the acquittal of their alleged murderer. It had 10 episodes to weave its tale. Tight constraints were, as is so often the case, the perfect symbiotic partner to lavishness. The series colored within clearly defined lines but did so using the most vivid of hues. The visuals, in the hands of just three directors, managed a confident cohesion–favoring sweeping camera movement across the courtroom and tight closeups–that made most long-running shows look disjointed by comparison. And the performances (including those of Emmy nominees Sarah Paulson, Courtney B. Vance and Cuba Gooding Jr.) were pitched at a zestily melodramatic level that the actors couldn’t have sustained over several seasons without subjecting viewers to emotional exhaustion.

That’s the great strength of the limited series, one first observed when HBO lured movie-industry talent to the lushly trashy first season of True Detective. A short-running show can race much harder than a long one in pursuit of deeper resonance. Every multiseason series will have down episodes; on USA right now, Mr. Robot, still figuring out what it wants to say after a first season that took swings perhaps too big to be viable long-term, is having a down season. Limited series are all-killer, no-filler. They’re as punchy as a truncated social-media update, and perfectly suited for the era of the binge. You can experience the same emotional arc that the very best dramas spend years assiduously building, all in an afternoon.

Every moment of O.J. was carefully chosen, and each episode contemplated the trial from a different, provocative angle (from gender politics to the racial makeup of the jury). On fellow Best Limited Series nominees Fargo and American Crime (both shows that reboot to tell new tales of malfeasance each season), individual cases come to implicate and destroy a vast cast of characters in a manner that proceeds with the grim logic of a morality play. The Night Manager, a nominee that aired on AMC after an overseas run on the BBC, delivers its spy story with panache and assurance, tying up all loose ends after six installments. And the flawed History update of Roots amps up the immediacy and viscerality of its images, making the most potent possible use of its limited time with the viewer. All this proves that the balance between TV series and miniseries has changed. The genre that networks once used to bid for cultural cachet (from the original Roots to Holocaust to The Thorn Birds to Angels in America) is now the one that feels most vitally alive.

And those are just the nominees. The medium is booming so much that American Horror Story, the show that helped make clear how a short run could enable bold storytelling, missed out on a nomination this year for the first time since it was eligible. I’d add another should-have-been to the nominees list: Starz’s The Girlfriend Experience, a drama that demonstrates remarkable adherence to a chilly vision of sex and surveillance generated by a pair of writer-directors. With ever more viewing options and a limited amount of time to watch television, it’s nice to know you’re in the hands of a guiding intelligence that knows what it’s doing.

Homeland, House of Cards and Downton Abbey aren’t disappointing nominees because they’re “bad” (they’re not). But all have aged in that TV-drama way where you wonder if anyone involved remembers what the plan was back in Season 1. Their turns–Frank Underwood choosing his wife as a running mate; Carrie Mathison going to Kabul, Berlin and, soon, New York City–don’t feel calculated to bring us joy or astonishment or new insight. They feel calculated to keep the shows churning for one season longer. The circumstances change, but consequences are absent.

The vogue for miniseries makes TV drama, focused on self-perpetuation at the expense of actual change, seem obsolete. I really like Best Drama nominee Better Call Saul. The Breaking Bad spin-off’s first two seasons consistently surprised me with a willingness to probe unexpected angles on what could have been a simple story of a crooked lawyer. But telling people to watch it does not–and cannot–come with an assurance that it’ll stay great.

This understanding that even the best shows may decline has been part of TV watching since the beginning, but it is now becoming unfashionable. A culture in which on-demand, bespoke entertainment experiences have conditioned us to expect perfection coexists uneasily with a business whose networks and streaming services, hungry for content, keep shows around long past their creative peak. Miniseries reward both our appreciation for the well-crafted story and our unwillingness to commit in an era of too many choices.

The optimistic view of the miniseries’ rise is that we’re in the midst of a genuinely exciting reorganization of how TV works. As recently as 2011, the best-case scenario for an Emmy-ratified miniseries–like the tartly class-conscious Downton Abbey–was to have the business side decide you had more and more stories to tell, even at the expense of what had once been a clear vision. Today a miniseries hit is able to keep all of its ideas intact while working toward another perfectly formed set of episodes. That each set will leave glutted TV viewers feeling something to which we’ve grown unaccustomed–the desire for more–is precisely the point.

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