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The Narrative Format That's Taking Television By Storm

Nestled snugly in the borderlands of the motion-picture landscape, somewhere between feature films and soap-opera serials, lies a recently re-energized destination for television tourists: the miniseries.

 

A miniseries is exactly what it says on the packet: a short, closed-ended series that plays like an extended movie. Generally, they are around six episodes long, with each episode sitting around the 45 minute to an hour mark. It’s nothing new, stylistically speaking – its roots can be traced back to 1920’s radio – but the miniseries has come back into fashion with a bang after a couple of decades of unpopularity.

 

Historically, the format was home to the narrative outcasts of the entertainment industry. It provided space for stuff that proved too long for film but had too much closure for TV. Some of the more popular miniseries of yore were adaptations of literary classics such as Jane Austen novels and dramatizations of landmark events like the moon landing.

 

Nowadays, the miniseries exists in a narrative space packed with convoluted format distinctions. The term itself unsurprisingly fell out of fashion in the industry due to having connotations of melodrama and soppiness, and so fractured into a dizzying assortment of terms like limited series, event series, and anthology series.

 

These ‘sub-genres’ have very minor differences; for instance, a limited series has the potential to be renewed, and an anthology series can stretch multiple seasons under the same name but have distinct characters and storylines each season.

 

The major reason for these new definitions, of course, had to do with gaming Emmy categories, which was undeniably an effort to rebrand the format into something more modern and chic – ‘limited’ for instance sounding like the television marketing equivalent of slotting ‘executive’ in front of a job title.

Martin Freeman in Fargo, an anthology series based inspired by the 1996 Coen Bros. film.

 

Categorization aside, the miniseries and its ‘sub-genres’ occupy an area of television that has once again become trendy. What happened to make that change?

 

In a word: streaming.

 

As you’ve heard a hundred times, streaming changed the way we watch television. Streaming allowed for freedom of choice. Streaming destroyed the ad-break. Streaming pretty much parted the red sea of cable networks and their terrible bundle deals, leading the ordinary television viewer into the modern day.

 

But with unbridled access to whatever we want to watch, whenever we want it, we quickly took to over-consumption. Literally, binge-watching. This isn’t a moral judgement on binge-watching, more of an observation on shifting viewing habits. After all, who doesn’t enjoy losing the odd rainy Sunday to a season of good TV?

 

Binge-watching was the Collin’s dictionary Word of the Year in 2015 – incidentally, around the same time that streaming services became household staples. There have been strong arguments for and against binge-watching, with some seeing it to be compulsive and addictive behaviour, whereas others have countered that in moderation binge-watching can be a cathartic and more engaged way to watch television.

 

Whatever your opinion, the streaming giants smelled these changing viewing habits like a shark smells blood. Systems were quickly added to their services aimed at promoting binge-watching, such as auto-play and the option to skip credits and intros. The point being, as always, to maximise the amount of time and attention you spend on their platform. It’s easy to justify binge-watch something with a compelling story because you want to see where it’s going next, doubly so when the hook is shifted to the end of the episode and the next one begins to auto-play immediately.

BBC's 'Years and Years' is a chillingly plausible depiction of a near future sliding into chaos.

As our watching habits changed, so did the way television was created. No longer plagued by the need to keep viewers interested over ad-breaks by adding a punchy hook three times an episode, showrunners took to building more slow burning, character-based dramas with narrative structures closer in similarity to films than TV shows. The mould was already there from classics like The Wire or The Sopranos, but it was ripe time to modernize it to the streaming medium.

 

However, the thing about building television shows based heavily around character and storyline is that they can’t be drawn out too long. Once the arcs are completed, the show must end or risk ruining itself by becoming either dull or unbelievable.

 

This might be the cardinal sin of story-driven TV, but it’s not restricted solely to bad shows. Many fantastic shows took too long to get to the point and suffer because of it. It comes with the nature of television – often the writers don’t plan ahead too far for fear of being cancelled, and when the show becomes a hit and gets renewed the rush to make more episodes results in contradicting plot points in later seasons.

 

In a miniseries this problem is bypassed altogether. The format allows the showrunners to expand on the narrative universe while still planning for a concrete conclusion. One only needs to look as far as the successes of recent titles such as HBO’s ‘Chernobyl’ or BBC’s ‘Years and Years’ to see how the well the format has adapted to modern viewing habits.

 

Miniseries tick all the boxes for success in the current streaming ecosystem. They facilitate plot heavy narratives and cinematic production quality without the restraints of television. They also have an element of ‘binge-watchability’ because of their length and pacing. The format even made it easier to source A-list actors who traditionally avoided television because of the length of the contracts that came with it. In a nutshell, the popularity of the miniseries developed naturally within the cycle of consumer demand and content creation, essentially filling a niche that was reopened when streaming became a household standard.

 

Some say we’ve reached a second golden age of television. In reality, we’re likely still on the way up the bell curve. Expect more quality television – and even more very average television – as the streaming giants continue to battle to corner the market and fund original shows. A significant portion of these will be mini-series, until we inevitably get bored of the format and the cycle rolls on. Maybe we’ll see the sitcom make a comeback next?

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