Cre­at­ing dif­fer­ent pro­gram­ming

Lim­ited se­ries like Big Lit­tle Lies, Alias Grace thriv­ing with big names


TORONTO — In a world of TV au­di­ence frag­men­ta­tion, dra­mas that don’t re­quire huge time com­mit­ments are thriv­ing.

Lim­ited se­ries, minis­eries and an­thol­ogy se­ries with short or one-off sea­sons — like award win­ners Big Lit­tle Lies, Fargo, Feud, The Night Of and Amer­i­can Crime Story — have racked up ac­co­lades and rat­ings, and have movie stars and net­works jump­ing on­board.

“I hon­estly be­lieve it’s the way peo­ple are watch­ing TV now,” says Mon­treal-based re-record­ing mixer Gavin Fer­nan­des, who was nom­i­nated for an Emmy for his work on Big Lit­tle Lies, which won eight stat­uettes and had an all-star cast in­clud­ing Reese Wither­spoon and Ni­cole Kid­man.

“I find peo­ple are not as com­mit­ted to seven sea­sons of Game of Thrones or what­ever. They watch Game of Thrones and if it doesn’t get wrapped up, some­times they’ll move on with­out the se­ries be­ing fin­ished … Net­flix and Ama­zon Prime are chang­ing com­pletely the way we watch TV.”

It’s also a trend in Canada, where sev­eral lim­ited se­ries have re­cently de­buted, in­clud­ing The Dis­ap­pear­ance on CTV, Alias Grace on CBC, and Bad Blood on City.

“Those six-part, 10-part, 11-part se­ries I think are in vogue in terms of how stu­dios are cre­at­ing pro­gram­ming,” says Co­lette Wat­son, se­nior vice-pres­i­dent of TV and broad­cast op­er­a­tions at Rogers, which is air­ing Bad Blood.

“We did it with Bad Blood on six (episodes) and that’s what we’re do­ing with our next Cana­dian project. We’ve got a few things in devel­op­ment and ... we think that’s the way to go for us.”

Lim­ited se­ries, like the sev­en­part Big Lit­tle Lies, are gen­er­ally de­fined as those with short sea­sons. Of­ten they’re based on books and de­but as one-offs, but some­times they get the green light for another sea­son. Minis­eries typ­i­cally only air as one short sea­son, and an­thol­ogy se­ries like Fargo have stand­alone in­stal­ments with a dif­fer­ent set of char­ac­ters and sto­ries in each episode or sea­son.

Such shows of­fer a sweet spot for ac­tors: Be­ing able to live with a char­ac­ter longer than a film, but not so long as to be­come tired of it.

“As an ac­tor, as an artist, it’s in and out, it’s more bang for your buck,” says Joanne Kelly, a Cana­dian cast mem­ber on the six-part mys­tery se­ries The Dis­ap­pear­ance.

“You go in, you have a be­gin­ning, a mid­dle and end. It’s not so ope­nended. Also, you’re not com­mit­ted to some­thing for five years right off the bat. I think it cre­ates a healthy sense of play. I think you can draw with sharper lines in six than you can in 13 or 22. I think ev­ery­body has a more def­i­nite idea of what it is, the tone and you can come out swing­ing.

“You aren’t ask­ing for ap­proval, which I think that in longer se­ries, you can get locked into that — try­ing to be like­able.”

On Bad Blood, Cana­dian star Kim Coates says they were able to “go in ar­eas of hu­man­iza­tion that are just raw and more swear­ing, and more stuff that is more true to life.”

Camille Sul­li­van, who also stars on The Dis­ap­pear­ance, says au­di­ences mem­bers also get deeply in­vested.

“You can throw some­thing harder and harsher at the au­di­ence,” says Sul­li­van. “They don’t want to sus­tain it for 22 hours, but for six hours? ‘Sure. Yeah, I’d like to go to a dark, deep place for six hours.’ ”


Left to right: Shai­lene Wood­ley, Reese Wither­spoon and Ni­cole Kid­man are shown in this im­age from Big Lit­tle Lies.

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