Along with the sheer volume of ideas, voices and viewing options that we now enjoy, one of the most exciting TV trends of the past decade has been a streaming-driven liberation from standard hourlong drama and half-hour sitcom formats—a development that has brought the miniseries back in a big way. These one-season wonders are an art form all their own. They require more efficient storytelling and character development than a show designed to run for years. And since they don’t stick around long enough to wear out their welcome, they’re often more satisfying in the end. In celebration of what has become one of my favorite varieties of television—and as a supplement to my list of the decade’s 10 best shows—here’s a chronological list of the miniseries I loved most in the 2010s.
A note on criteria: Now that networks seem to be using the “limited series” designation to test out longer-term concepts—and popular miniseries like Downton Abbey and Big Little Lies have been renewed for two or more seasons—it’s harder than ever define what does and doesn’t fit into this category. To qualify for this list, however, a miniseries has to be defined as such in advance of its release. It can have sequels, like Top of the Lake and The Young Pope, but it can’t be a single, continuous story that spans multiple seasons or a series that was canceled after just one.)
Mildred Pierce (HBO, 2011)
It takes audacity to attempt a new adaptation of James M. Cain’s novel Mildred Pierce. Michael Curtiz’s 1945 film is a noir classic, driven by an iconic—and gloriously campy—lead performance from Joan Crawford. But director Todd Haynes (Carol, Far From Heaven) rose to the challenge with this miniseries, which is more character study than thriller. Kate Winslet won an Emmy for her turn as a more sympathetic incarnation of Mildred, a smart, steely, resourceful 1930s housewife who kicks out her lousy husband and goes on to become a successful restaurateur, using her estimable culinary talents to support her kids. (Evan Rachel Wood is a hoot as Mildred’s daughter Veda, a spoiled brat for the ages.) Haynes’ approach played to his strengths as a filmmaker, delving deep into the psychology of his distinctive female characters and drawing out the vintage glamor in even the dingiest domestic scenes. His humane take on Mildred made the case that no story is too sacred to retell, as long as you come to it with a fresh point of view.
Top of the Lake (Sundance Channel, 2013)
Cinema’s loss was television’s gain in the 2010s, as studios’ intellectual-property arms race and an explosion in original programming brought such big-name filmmakers as David Lynch, Cary Joji Fukunaga, Gina Prince-Bythewood, the Wachowskis, Spike Lee and Lisa Cholodenko (whose HBO miniseries Olive Kitteridge narrowly missed my top 10) to the small screen. Among the first to make the jump to auteur-driven TV was The Piano writer-director Jane Campion, with this haunting detective story set in her native New Zealand. Elisabeth Moss—in a role that presaged her versatile post-Mad Men run in star vehicles like Queen of Earth, The Handmaid’s Tale and Her Smell—starred as Robin Griffin, the archetypal big-city detective who ends up investigating a crime in her rural hometown. But that’s where the procedural conventions end. As in her mesmerizing films, Campion refuses to spoon-feed her audience plot points. The story, which concerns the disappearance of a pregnant 12-year-old, unfolds slowly and hazily, making Robin’s past as much of a mystery as the case itself. In its visual beauty as well as in the elegance with which it confronted a culture of misogyny, Top of the Lake (its reputation only slightly tarnished by an overwrought 2017 sequel, Top of the Lake: China Girl) raised the bar for TV as art.
Wolf Hall (PBS, 2015)
Masterpiece was the original prestige TV, bringing highbrow costume dramas into American living rooms decades before books—and miniseries—took over the small screen. The franchise still has much to offer, from the exploits of Poldark’s hunky 18th-century crusader to the endless reign of Downton Abbey. But its greatest British import of the 2010s was BBC Two’s Wolf Hall, a six-part adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s brilliant Thomas Cromwell novels. A fascinating figure in the court of Henry VIII, Cromwell rose from humble origins to become the fickle king’s most trusted advisor—until he wasn’t anymore, at which time he was executed. Mantel’s books are dense, detailed accounts of political machinations that feel distinctly modern in their depictions of power; screenwriter Peter Straughan (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) captured that intricacy without getting tangled up in it. Even more impressive was the cast, with Damian Lewis puffing out his chest as a spoiled Henry, Claire Foy as a snotty Anne Boleyn and Mark Rylance delivering one of TV’s most controlled, multilayered performances in the role of Cromwell.
American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson (FX, 2016)
In accordance with the 20-year cycle of revisionism and nostalgia, pop culture spent a lot of time in the 2010s re-litigating the 1990s. No story was more ripe for this treatment than that of O.J. Simpson. Released in the same year as the excellent ESPN documentary O.J. Simpson: Made in America, the first season of American Crime Story, a true-crime anthology from the extended Ryan Murphy universe that was developed by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (The People v. Larry Flynt), dissected the football hero’s extremely public trial on charges that he murdered his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman in 1994. Drawing on Jeffrey Toobin’s book The Run of His Life, the team of writers highlighted salient issues like media bias, celebrity privilege and the long history of police racism that likely influenced Simpson’s acquittal. But they also made time to devote full episodes to empathetic profiles of misunderstood characters like Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson) and Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown). Inspired stunt casting—Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran! David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian! John Travolta as a bonkers Robert Shapiro!—made the show as fun to watch as it was important to think about and set the tone for a similarly ’90s-set second season, The Assassination of Gianni Versace.
The Night Of (HBO, 2016)
One night in New York City, Muslim-American college student Nasir Khan (Riz Ahmed, in a breakout role) sneaks out and steals his dad’s cab. On his way to the party he’d been planning to attend, he meets Andrea (Sofia Black-D’Elia), a wild rich girl who invites him back to her place for an evening of drug-fueled sex. None of these misadventures are exactly beyond the pale for youthful indiscretion—until he wakes up the next morning and finds Andrea stabbed to death. His arrest is inevitable, and considering how intoxicated he was the last time he saw the victim alive, Naz can’t be completely sure he’s innocent. So when a low-rent lawyer (John Turturro, in an empathetic performance as a man suffering from loneliness and severe eczema) acts on an instinct to take the case, his first task is to discern what really happened that night. Beneath the beats of a perfectly paced mystery with two distinctive leads, scripted by veteran crime writer Richard Price and Oscar winner Steven Zaillian, The Night Of grappled with Islamophobia, economic inequality and the consequences of incarceration for an impressionable young man. In the 2010s, TV gave us plenty of snapshots of a broken justice system; this one zoomed in close enough to capture every exasperating detail.
The Young Pope (HBO, 2017)
Before The Young Pope even premiered, its title launched a thousand memes: So imagine there’s this pope, but he’s young. He’s American. And, by virtue of being played by Jude Law, he’s hot. That’s it; that’s the pitch. Little did the social media peanut gallery know that this miniseries from Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino would end up being far weirder than any joke they could crack about it. Initially an absurdist comedy about an upstart’s attempts to mold the Catholic Church in the image of his own vain, performatively reactionary, Daft-Punk-loving, diet-soda-swilling ego, the show developed—by design and in tandem with its evolving protagonist—into a deeper, more sincere and searching examination of an old religious institution’s role in the contemporary world. It didn’t hurt that these ambitious themes coexisted with the spectacles of Diane Keaton as a cigarette-smoking nun, Law trying on jewels to the strains of LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It” and sporadic appearances by a pet kangaroo. Here’s hoping that Sorrentino’s follow-up The New Pope, coming to HBO in 2020, is just as wonderfully bizarre.
Alias Grace (Netflix, 2017)
Despite all the fanfare that surrounded Hulu’s flagship drama The Handmaid’s Tale, the best Margaret Atwood adaptation of the decade turned out to be this miniseries from writer Sarah Polley (Stories We Tell) and director Mary Harron (American Psycho). Based on the true story of Grace Marks, a 19th-century Irish maid in Canada who became a cause célèbre after her conviction in the murders of her employer and his housekeeper, Alias Grace is framed as a series of sessions between Grace (a sphinx-like Sarah Gadon)—now 15 years into her life sentence—and a psychiatrist (Edward Holcroft) sent to evaluate her mental state. She has always claimed to have no memory of the day the slaughter took place, and her supporters hope that his observations will vindicate her. Their doctor-patient relationship abounds with fascinating tensions, as flashbacks provide insight into the brutal realities of a life as constrained as that of a single, impoverished immigrant woman in the Victorian era. Best of all, no one had the temerity to continue the show beyond the profoundly satisfying conclusion of Atwood’s book.
Patrick Melrose (Showtime, 2018)
Patrick Melrose is one of the most distinctive characters in contemporary fiction—an English aristocrat who uses drugs, sex and nihilism to cope with the residual trauma of the sexual abuse he suffered as a boy, at the hands of his psychopathic father. In five short, semi-autobiographical novels that span 40 years, following Patrick from his lonely, privileged youth through his middle-aged attempts to create a loving family for his own sons, author Edward St. Aubyn immerses readers in the often-addled mind of this intelligent, sardonic, wounded man and the people who move in and out of his life. Benedict Cumberbatch—a longtime St. Aubyn fan—was the perfect actor for such a difficult lead role, capturing Patrick’s wit, his depression and his long, slow evolution into a less broken person. Each book has a distinctive tone and set of narrators, and in five episodes that each cover a single novel, writer David Nicholls (2015’s Far from the Madding Crowd) and director Edward Berger (The Terror) make subtle stylistic choices that recreate those differences. “Bad News” is a harrowing lost weekend in New York; “Some Hope” moves fluidly through the social minefield of a society party. The antidote to vague, predictable antihero TV, Patrick Melrose dispelled the aura of romance that so often surrounds such narratives and replaced it with hard-won maturity.
Sharp Objects (HBO, 2018)
HBO set up Sharp Objects as the next Big Little Lies, a murder mystery adapted from a novel of the same name, with an A-list, female-led cast and Wild vet Jean-Marc Vallée in the director’s chair. But Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn’s debut tells a much darker story than its predecessor, one steeped in Southern Gothic grotesquerie rather than soap-opera cattiness. In a performance that ranks among her best, Amy Adams stars as Camille Preaker, an alcoholic, self-harming journalist who reluctantly returns to her small Missouri hometown to report on the murders of two young girls. The visit reunites Camille with her rich, manipulative mother (Patricia Clarkson, terrifying) and a young teen half-sister (Eliza Scanlen, mesmerizing) who’s living a dangerous double life. And the investigation dredges up generations-old trauma within the town over its class stratification, legacy of slavery and chronic mistreatment of women. Beyond acting, writing (from Flynn and creator Marti Noxon, among others) and direction to rival any Oscar winner, Sharp Objects capitalized on vivid sensory elements—the music of Led Zeppelin, the disorienting visual blur of intoxication, the texture of the words Camille scratched onto her skin—to create an uncommonly immersive viewing experience. The result was a psychological thriller with real, visceral resonance.
When They See Us (Netflix, 2019)
On April 9, 1989, the 28-year-old white jogger Trisha Meili was beaten, raped and left for dead in Central Park. By the end of the following year, five black and Latino teenagers from Harlem—Korey Wise, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam and Antron McCray—had been coerced into confessing and convicted of carrying out the brutal attack, despite zero physical evidence. All were eventually cleared and released, but not before they’d wasted the final years of their childhoods behind bars. With this wrenching four-part miniseries about their ordeal, writer-director Ava DuVernay recast one of the most infuriating instances of institutional racism in post-Jim Crow history, demonstrating how the false convictions irreparably altered the families and futures of children who’d done nothing wrong. Along with laying bare the mechanisms of injustice, When They See Us ensured that viewers got to know its characters as individual people. These portrayals made an immediate real-world impact. After the show appeared on Netflix, prosecutors involved in the case lost jobs, board seats and publishers—and the men formerly known as the Central Park Five are now recognized around the world as the Exonerated Five.