It’s evening, after dinner, time to relax and choose a film to watch from whatever platform you subscribe. This means employing about two hours on consuming a story, leaving aside the fifteen minutes (or more) it may take to select a minimally enticing movie, unless you have preselected and placed some on your list. If you know of a film which you really want to see, that’s fine; if you don’t, at this point you start wondering whether you have the stamina to sit through one hundred and twenty minutes of a possibly mediocre script with perfunctory direction and performances, the typical film rated 6 to 6’5 on IMDB. So why not watch one episode from a series? Sixty minutes at most and then early to bed, perhaps to read for a while; or stay on the sofa and play a videogame. Four hours and four episodes later, you wonder where time has gone and whether you’ll wake up on time when the alarm sounds…
Why is it easier to watch four episodes from a show rather than a much shorter feature film? For the same reason that it is easier to read sixty pages from a novel than a twenty-page short story. All self-contained narratives require an effort to master the rules of a fictional world, whether this narrative is a micro short story or a sprawling twenty-season series (serial?). With a shorter text this effort is not productive because it is spent in a short time. With a longer text, the opposite happens: once the basic narrative rules are grasped, the narrative itself can go on for many pages or many hours, with no additional effort.
When we choose a series over a film, or a novel over a short story, we’re choosing to maximize the usefulness of the effort to engage with the worldbuilding. When the two-hour film ends, we need to begin the process of engagement again with another film. With a series, the same effort stretches for hours, days, weeks, and longer, with no extra investment. Besides, watching a series also solves the problem of what to watch the following days, until the series ends or its appeal diminishes for the viewer. In short, a person watching a different film every day, or reading a different short story daily, must be willing to spend much imaginative energy, whereas someone using two hours a day to watch the same series for a month, or read the same novel, is just engaging with one story, no matter how complex the plot and the subplots can be.
I don’t like series for the same reason that I don’t like novels of more than 400 pages: there must be a limit, I believe, to the time I am willing to invest on just one story. For the reasons that I have explained, I am not too keen on short stories, which generally make me impatient even when they are just a few pages long. I do like movies, but I am finding it increasingly difficult to find scripts that interest me and, so, I am becoming far less willing to invest two hours of my time on watching a movie, particularly if I am reading an attractive book. Unless I am travelling on a train, plane or bus, or reading for work, I don’t really read more than two hours at a stretch for leisure, which means that for me the evening film is in direct competition with whatever book I may be reading. Usually, the book wins.
A solution for those who, like me, don’t like series and are beginning to hate films is watching miniseries. The difference between a series and a miniseries is not that easy to establish, though. In principle, a miniseries is limited to one season; in fact, the word ‘season’ should not even apply to this kind of narrative as a series only has ‘seasons’ if it is properly speaking a series, not a miniseries. To confuse matters even more, it is not easy to distinguish between miniseries and series by number of episodes: to give an example, the brilliant miniseries Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) consists of fourteen episodes, whereas the not less brilliant series Sherlock (2010-2017) consists of fifteen episodes distributed in four seasons. Perhaps rather than ‘miniseries’, we should use the label ‘one-season series’, even though this contradicts my previous argumentation. The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences of the USA, which awards the Emmys, prefers the label ‘limited series’, and it appears than in the UK the word series is used both for minis and for longer series.
As for the length of the episodes, there are miniseries of just two episodes which are shorter than Steven Spielberg’s magnificent film Schindler’s List (1993), which stretches to 195 minutes. The upper limit is marked by the maximum a season can last, though I should think that fifteen episodes is enough. Of course, episodes may last from twenty to ninety minutes, with most lasting forty-five to sixty minutes, so that the number of episodes is no indication of the actual length of a miniseries. War and Remembrance (1988-1989) is said to be the longest miniseries, with its 27 hours (in 12 episodes); its first episode lasts for 150 minutes! To add more data, the two highest-ranking fiction miniseries on IMDB, rated with a 9,4 (I’m here ignoring the documentary miniseries), are vastly different in length: Band of Brothers (2001) lasts for 594 minutes, Chernobyl (2019) only 330.
The miniseries was born long before the word itself, which appeared in the early 1960s (1963 according to Merriam Webster), with the serialized adaptation of novels. In The Classic Serial on Television and Radio (2001), Robert Giddings and Keith Selby attribute to John Reith, the British inventor of public service broadcasting, the idea of using BBC radio to stage plays in the 1930s. Radio drama, and the previous 1920s dramatic readings, inspired the idea of the serialized adaptation of novels for this means of communication, which started a fashion focused on 19th century literary and popular classics. The fashion moved later on to TV. Giddings and Selby note (p. 19) that BBC Television’s 1951 adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s novel The Warden in six episodes was the first miniseries; this was followed in 1952 by Pride and Prejudice. According to Francis Wheen’s Television (1985), the immense success in the USA, in 1960-1970, of British serial The Forsyte Saga (1967), from the novels by John Galsworthy, “inspired the American mini-series”, also often based on novels, both classics and best-sellers.
Sorry to use my personal memories, but, as happens, my childhood and adolescence overlap with the period in which the American and the British miniseries boomed. The key year was 1976. Then, the BBC’s adaptation of Robert Graves’s novels I, Claudius (1934) and Claudius the God (1935) as I, Claudius, and ABC’s version of Irvin Shaw’s best-seller Rich Man, Poor Man (1969) hit the TV screen with a hurricane force that I perfectly recall. I was ten when Hombre rico, hombre pobre was broadcast by TVE, in 1977, and twelve when Yo, Claudio was finally seen in Spain in 1978, and I do recall their impact with all clarity. I don’t remember having seen Anglo-Italian hit miniseries Jesus of Nazareth (1977, directed by Franco Zefirelli), broadcast by TVE in 1979, but I certainly remember the huge phenomenon that Roots (1977), based on Alex Hailey’s novel (1976), became in that same year of 1979. Next came other BBC adaptations (I was blown over by the BBC’s 1978 version of Wuthering Heights, which I watched aged thirteen, before reading the novel by Emily Brontë) and the 1980s hits: Shōgun (1980), adapted from the novel by James Clavell; The Thorn Birds (1983) based on Colleen McCullough’s romance; and the North and South trilogy of miniseries (1985, 1986, 1994), based on the novels by John Jakes.
The miniseries that possibly altered most profoundly how literary adaptation should be handled for TV was Granada Television/ITV’s elegant Brideshead Revisited (1981) based on the 1945 novel by Evelyn Waugh. The eleven-episode miniseries, which launched the career of Jeremy Irons, was broadcast in Spain in 1983. I was sixteen then and I recall being completely enchanted with everything in it. Curiously, Spanish television originally broadcast Brideshead on its second channel, which only reached a minority of viewers and then gave it a second chance on its main channel in 1984. Those were the times before the onset of the private channels (in 1990s) and long before the streaming platforms, when everyone watched the same series. Brideshead Revisited has little to do with all the other miniseries I have mentioned, being a rather subtle exploration of the mismatch between Charles Ryder and the rich but decadent family of his friend Sebastian Flyte. It is also a rather nostalgic chronicle of the end of the big British country houses (the magnificent Castle Howard was the main location), and as such a forerunner of Kazuo Ishiguro’s far more critical novel The Remains of the Day (1989). I was then an easily impressionable teen and got the very wrong impression that English culture was that smart and refined all the time, which is not the case. I also missed the deep classism, which I saw in all starkness when I taught the book a decade later to uninterested first-year students.
Going these days through lists of the best current miniseries, by which I mean of the last ten years, it seems to me that this kind of narrative is now flourishing, though it is also possibly overhyped. I did enjoy enormously The Queen’s Gambit (2020), from the novel by Walter Tevis (1983), but I found The Night Manager (2016), from the novel by John le Carré (1993), much overrated. An important problem affecting miniseries is that the platforms do not distinguish between them and the multi-season series, which means that it is easy to miss the less publicised. The impossibility of subscribing to all the streaming services also means that viewers are constantly missing what they might enjoy. This was going to be originally a post with a list of great recent miniseries to watch, but I myself have access to a very limited selection. This is a topic for another post, of course, but I wonder whether the proliferation of platforms is making piracy grow again, once computer-savvy spectators have come to the conclusion that there is no way to keep up with the ceaseless flow of appealing audiovisual products.
I’ll finish by suggesting that the miniseries might end up killing the film adaptation of novels, which is probably good news. A two-hour film can never accommodate the events of an average-length novel, much less so of any novel over 400 pages. The more flexible miniseries appears to be, therefore, a much more suitable vehicle to adapt novels, as the BBC’s beautiful version of Pride and Prejudice already demonstrated in 1995. The bad news attached to this trend is the temptation to prolong the miniseries for a second season and further, in the hope of turning it into a long-running series based on the attractive of a character or a plotline. An example is The Handmaid’s Tale (2017-) now in its fifth season, far beyond the original novel by Margaret Atwood. Showrunners try to exploit the appeal of all the popular series but it’s good to know when to stop, and this is what I appreciate best about miniseries.
I hope you enjoy them, too.
I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328, and visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the blog is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/