The Miniseries: A Missed Opportunity in the Modern World
“Too much is never enough…” A phrase that becomes more and more poignant in the entertainment industry. Movies, television, video games; IPs stretched to the breaking point, just to wring the last few dollars of profit from their broken and desiccated husks.
I’ll be the first to admit that when something is good, I want more of it; as much of it as I can possibly get my hands on. However, as I approach these things from a writing perspective, I realize that there is nothing wrong with a definitive ending.
Let’s take a look at the Netflix series Daredevil. Its first season was a triumphant display of television writing matched only by the riveting performances of its actors (Vincent D’Onofrio deserved all the awards for his portrayal of Wilson Fisk). It told the origin story of one of Marvel’s most revered superheroes, and did so with the grace and style that seemed to have gone missing from television at large.
It was a smash hit, and rightfully so. It deserved every ounce of praise that was heaped on it (that hallway fight sequence, am I right?).
Inevitably, its success led to it being instantly renewed for a second season, and allowed even more superheroes to get their time in the sun. Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist – all these shows were green lit as a direct result of Daredevil’s success.
Then season 2 came out. It was good. Really good; but it wasn’t great. It was enough for most people, myself included. John Bernthal fucking nailed it as Frank Castle, bringing a humanity to the character that I’d never seen before, never even thought to look for in a character like The Punisher.
Unfortunately, once I’d seen all there was to see, the writing was on the wall. We’d gotten severely diminished returns.
The less said about season 3 the better. Whereas before, I’d watched seasons 1 and 2 to death, I watched the third season once and called it good.
A perfect encapsulation of my point is that hallway fight sequence in the first season. It was gritty, it was real, it was brutal. It was lauded across the internet (I was debating writing “the world,” but these are the times) as a masterclass in filmmaking.
Then season 2 tried to top it. A bigger set, more baddies, more intricate choreography. Sure it was visually interesting, but the magic was gone. Season 3 tried to recapture it by doing a similar fight again. This time, it just felt boring.
All these words to lead me to the point of this post: What’s wrong with the miniseries?
Let’s take a look at Chernobyl, the 2019 miniseries by HBO. By all accounts, it was a brilliantly-acted, brilliantly-directed, stunningly-shot piece of filmmaking. It told the story it wanted to tell, and got the hell out of Dodge before it wore out its welcome.
What’s wrong with that? They didn’t stretch it into five, six, seven seasons, each one more poorly written than the last (insert obligatory Game of Thrones jokes). They didn’t try to squeeze blood from that particular stone; and guess what, everyone loved it.
From a writing perspective, the miniseries is a perfect way to tell a story. Having a predefined beginning, middle, and end means that a writer has the ability to fine-tune every aspect of his/her work.
Writing open-ended series’ inevitably leads to a phenomenon I’ve dubbed “The Supernatural Effect”. In short, it is the process by which a TV series team (writers, directors, producers, the whole shebang) is forced to continually up the stakes in order to retain viewer interest.
Taken to its conclusion, what was once a tight and cohesive story becomes a bloated mess filled with loose ends, ridiculous plots, and caricature-esque characters that are a far cry from their believable roots.
While I realize this could get me lynched (Supernatural fans are notoriously rabid), I’d like to explain my development of this theory.
Supernatural began life as a show about two brothers driving back and forth across the United States, combating and destroying all the various things that go bump in the night. It was a simple, clean, and effective premise that served the show well for the first 2-3 seasons of its run.
However, as time went on, the writers were forced to up the stakes with every season. This happened to such a degree that by the end, the main characters were being killed and resurrected more than any Marvel superhero, and were routinely encountering both God and the Devil, while fighting against world-ending plots and monsters.
Now, while the argument can be made that the showrunners leaned into the ridiculousness of the plot, I would like to point out that that only happened several seasons after this type of writing began. Had they not pivoted into the kind of camp that the series became known for, I firmly believe it would’ve been canceled well before its 2020 conclusion.
Another example of this phenomenon is Once Upon A Time, the ABC series that tried to tie all of the disparate Disney properties together. The first season was universally acclaimed, but as time went on, the quality of writing continually dropped as they tried to up the stakes with every episode.
I therefore ask the question: Would both these properties have been better served if they had been written as miniseries?
Personally, I believe the answer is yes.
Though what happened to Joss Whedon’s Firefly (the recent accusations against him aside) was a travesty, its short run left us with memorable characters and a beloved universe that have endured far beyond what should’ve been possible.
When people think of Netflix’s Daredevil, they fondly remember the first (and perhaps the second) season.
I can’t help but wonder if Game of Thrones would’ve been better served as a miniseries rather than a sprawling drama that was almost impossible to satisfyingly conclude (regardless of the dumpster fire that actually concluded it).
There’s a specific phrase that Hollywood seems to have forgotten, a phrase that exists for a reason: “Always leave them wanting more.”