Brevity is the soul of series
Viewers are getting fed up with storylines that go on for years, leading to a fall in the average length of TV series, writes Tim Walker
LET’S say you’ve managed to keep up with every major US TV drama of the past 15 years: 86 episodes of The Sopranos, 60 episodes of The Wire, 192 episodes of 24 (not including the TV movie), 121 episodes of Lost – though perhaps you gave that up halfway through, so let’s say 60 episodes of Breaking Bad and counting, 78 of Mad Men, 30 of Game of Thrones. That’s more than three weeks of solid TV viewing – before you even get to Homeland or The West Wing.
Viewers are swamped by the excess of quality programming available. However, according to Michael Lynton, chief executive of Sony Corporation of America and Sony Entertainment, there is a solution – fewer series, more miniseries.
Speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival recently, Lynton said: “There is a point where people – it’s already happening – are saying ‘ Enough! Am I really going to devote three, four, five years of my life to another show about another dysfunctional guy doing another thing?’ “
That overload, he suggested, would lead to an inevitable decline in the average length of TV series, from cable’s 10 to 13 episodes and network dramas’ 22 to 24.
“What’s returning is the miniseries,” he said. “You saw it with Hatfields & McCoys. And you saw more recent examples where you say to the consumer: ‘You don’t have to devote five years of your life. You don’t even have to devote a year of your life. All of you have to give us is six hours, eight hours.’
“Great writers and directors will respond even better to a six-hour or eight- hour story arc than they would to committing their life to five years of 13 hours.”
It is true that Hatfields & McCoys, a 2012 miniseries commissioned by the History Channel and based on the tale of feuding 19thcentury clans, was a success and won several Emmys.
The History Channel followed it up this year with its 10-hour The Bible, a surprise hit watched by more than 95 million viewers.
The Bible’s success recalls that of another biblical TV hit, Jesus of Nazareth, made in the 1970s during a golden era for the miniseries form, which included the slavery epic Roots.
That era came to an end in the US because of spiralling costs but the miniseries model has proved more resilient in the UK, which produced Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy at the end of the 1970s, Edge of Darkness in the 1980s, House of Cards in the 1990s and State of Play in the 2000s.
In the US, the miniseries has been revitalised in part by film-makers disillusioned with Hollywood. In 2011, Todd Haynes, the Oscar-nominated writer and director of Far from Heaven, won praise for his five-part version of Mildred Pierce, with Kate Winslet.
Steven Spielberg, producing his third wartime miniseries for HBO, is reportedly developing Stanley Kubrick’s passion project, Napoleon, as a TV miniseries.
British viewers were recently treated to Top of the Lake, a seven-part crime drama set in New Zealand created by film director Jane Campion. She told BlackBook magazine: “The novel is probably my favourite form (of storytelling), and the idea of a six-hour series is as close to a novel as I can imagine.”
Look out for these compelling miniseries online:
● Mayday: It’s May Day and a small community waits excitedly for this year’s pagan parade to begin. Teenager and dark horse Linus Newcombe ( Max Fowler) watches woefully as the love of his life Caitlin Sutton ( Leila Mimmack), kisses a rival. On the other side of town, Caitlin’s twin and the May Queen, Hattie Sutton (Leila Mimmack), is on her journey to appear as the town’s symbol of new life. Starring Sophie Okonedo, Peter Firth and Aidan Gillen.
● Broadchurch: The murder of a young boy in a small coastal town brings a media frenzy. With Olivia Colman, David Tennant, Jodie Whittaker and Andrew Buchan.
● The Fall: Gillian Anderson (Agent Scully of The X-Files ) stars as DSI Stella Gibson. It’s a gripping psychological thriller that forensically examines the lives of two hunters within one story.
● Top of the Lake: Twelve years old and five months pregnant, Tui Mitcham suddenly disappears from her remote mountain town. Detective Robin Griffin returns home to investigate but every step closer to solving the case unearths a dangerous truth about her past. With Elisabeth Moss, Thomas M Wright, Peter Mullan and David Wenham. – The Independent
BRIEF SERIES: Kate Winslet as Mildred Pierce.
THRILLER: Gillian Anderson as detective Stella Gibson in suspenseful