Why is Every Show a Limited Series...and What is a Limited Series?
For a long time, the true test of any TV show's triumph was the number of seasons they could produce. Grey's Anatomy is currently on its 18th season NCIS is currently in the midst of its 19th season. Doctor Who has been up and running for 69 years. (I understand why you would be inclined to think I'm kidding. I am not.) There has been a definitive change, however, in this measure of televisual success and that is the popularization of the limited series.
A limited series is a show that begins knowing when it will end. It has a certain number of episodes and is not vying for the network to carry their show on for years and years to come. Limited series have been popular in the UK and, really, across the world for years. Fleabag, for example, was a limited series that blew America's socks off! We loved the content and closure that came with the continued arc of the show (even though we all would have seen more of Andrew Scott as the 'hot priest').
Within the last year, limited series have become an obsession here in the US. Shows like The Queen's Gambit, Normal People, and Little Fires Everywhere have made names for themselves within a short and defined period of time. More keep coming out. I feel like every time I sit down to write about the new shows coming out 99,999/100,000 (yes, that is exact math) are limited series. The question is why. Why now? Well, I have a few theories.
We are in it for the closure, not the cliffhanger. With a typical series that could run anywhere from a few months to decades, the twists and turns are built in order to keep an audience captivated over a long span of time. However, with the rise of binge watching culture, the objective is no longer to keep people watching for a long time. Shows such as The Office and Parks and Recreation are garnering more popularity now than when they were on the air because people keep rewatching them. This means that a show has the potential to remain incredibly profitable even after it is off the air. If that's the case, why waste the energy straining to stretch a story thinly over an unnecessarily expansive amount of time. Robin Bahr in a THR article commented, "With an economy of time and a focused story, auteurs have proved that six to 10 episodes can be sculpted into something forceful and whole" Limited-series aim for quality while a traditional series aims for quantity.
Speaking of quality, the story that a limited series follows tends to begin with an exact idea of where the story is going, what will happen in the middle, and where it will end. Traditional television shows such as The Office are unsure of the future their characters hold. The writers were never exactly sure if Pam and Jim were going to get together (I mean...OBVIOUSLY THEY WERE, but apparently it was a question). With a limited series such as The Queen's Gambit, the outline of the story, beginning, middle, and end, was known by the writers the second they began writing.
Knowing the trajectory of the entire story prior to starting allows for more specific stories to be told. For example, Colin Kaepernick is coming out with a limited series about his life. He stated in an interview:
Colin in Black and White is a scripted limited series inspired by my experience as a Black child, adopted by a white family. I did not have a lot of references or guides growing up to help me navigate some of the negative experiences or interactions I went through as a young Black kid. When we were thinking about telling this story, we wanted to explore that idea more and give people references of how these situations can impact and shape one's identity and growth.
The potentially extended series model would not serve this story well (because, what would you do? Make up more life?) However, a movie model would also not serve the story for it would require details to be cut. A two and a half hour movie is a tall ask for audience members with an increasingly diminishing attention span. Therefore the limited series allows for the best of both worlds: a clear story with a definitive end alongside time to explore all of the important details. A CNBC article from 2019, at the beginning of the miniseries spike, commented, "The boom of limited series is a sign that viewers want to see more high-quality television, said Debbie Danielpour, an assistant professor of film and television at Boston University. It shows that there is a desire to see more complicated stories". The mass creation of content is a double edged sword. While the constant consumption of new shows has led us into the media-filled Golden Age of Television, in order to stand out in this tsunami of content, your show needs to be high quality. Limited series lend themselves very well to this contained, high quality format.
That is not to say that all limited series are destined to end at their predetermined series cap. Extension within this format is still possible. For example, the phenom show Ted Lasso is a limited series that was contracted for only three seasons. However, in light of the show's smash success, creatives are reconsidering this deadline. While executives from Warner Bros and Universal now want to keep the profitable show going, Bill Lawrence, one of the writers on the show was quoted in The Hollywood Reporter saying, "[W]hen we started, we plotted out everybody's beginning, middle and end of a three-season arc. This story is going to be over next year, regardless, even if the show finds another story to tell and goes on." This three season arc does not limit the potential for the show to move forward, but it does allow the series an out as "this story" will be over within the allotted time. Rather than attempting to drag out the original story line, it allows for fresh eyes on a very well established basis.
Limited series are really having their time in the spotlight right now. Almost every show that is starting up now falls into this category. It is a time of change in the world of television, and we are just at the beginning.