STREAMING SATURDAY: Limited Series or Bloated Mess?

Dear readers,

Allow me to first say that I like the idea of a “limited series.” This is something that viewers in the UK have enjoyed for decades. Rather than feeling like they must deliver 24 episodes that start in the fall, UK viewers get shorter seasons that just sort of debut when they feel like it. That’s the model that streaming services have embraced, too, and for the most part it works out.

Limited series allow for leisurely adaptations of long books, such as Little Fires Everywhere, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Nine Perfect Strangers. It’s long been a complaint that you can’t adapt a book to a movie without throwing a lot of it away, and the limited series is the remedy for that particular problem.

But it doesn’t always work.

When you’re basing a limited series on a book, it tends to make a lot of sense. But sometimes, a limited series just comes off as a bloated 6-hour movie broken up into random parts. For every Mare of Easttown which actually did a pretty good job of being a limited series, there’s an Upload, Made for Love, or The Pentaverate which really should have been leaner with its presentation.

The temptation to create a limited series is strong. Streamers measure how many minutes people watch, and how many times they press the button to start an episode. Six hours in six episodes is unquestionably more valuable than a single two-hour movie in this scenario. Note that no one is talking about what’s best for the viewer, or how to serve the source material. It’s about making you come back over and over again and interact with the service. In that way, limited series make sense. Sense for them, not for you.

And then, there are series that aren’t that limited.

Take for example Big Little Lies. This was a show that set off a rather annoying trend. I was engaged in the first season, which told a tidy story. When season two was announced, I worried it was just going back to the well for no reason. Season two turned out to be engrossing thanks to Meryl Streep’s easy-to-despise Mary Louise character. But this was lightning in a bottle, folks. The success of this show convinced every other limited series that a second season was possible, and I just don’t think it is.

You can forgive a lot if you’re into a series with a defined ending. It’s a lot harder when you end up thinking you could get stuck in a slog with an indefinite hold on your life. Nicole Kidman’s Masha in Nine Perfect Strangers was bizarre-looking and even more bizarre-sounding (where exactly did Kidman think the character was from?) but you could live with it for a few episodes. Now that the show’s coming back for season two, all I can do is hope that (a) they get a better accent coach and (b) they just work on getting Kidman to look more like a human.

The solution?

A simple solution is to just wait until the whole season is available and slam it in one sitting. That’s great but it doesn’t help you with a 6-hour commitment to the thing. As I’ve written, The Batman seemed interminably long at almost 3 hours. Watching Big Little Lies in one sitting would make me tear out my fingernails with Shailene Woodley’s amorphous acting. Everytime she said “Ziggy” my annoyance began to mount. I don’t think I could have dealt with it in one big lump.

I think the solution is a bit of restraint on the part of content providers, something they’re not really well known for. Critics could keep calling out these bloated messes for what they are, and viewers could stop tuning in. But neither is likely to make a real difference until it affects the bottom line. Until the bean counters at Netflix are forced to sit down for a 6-hour meeting in 6 parts that should have been a single 90-minute meeting, nothing’s going to change.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.