Lost was the first television show I watched with the kind of religious fervor I otherwise reserved for Harry Potter books. I was 14 when it premiered and prone to obsessive fandom, and I took to the endless layers of mysteries within mysteries of Lost like a duck to water. I read the messageboards every week, when messageboards were still a thing, and moved on to AV Club recaps, when they weren’t anymore. I hatched elaborate theories about what was behind the polar bears, the time jumps, and the smoke monster. And when the show finally came to its ignominious conclusion, I sobbed hysterically in the living room of my family home — not because I was moved but because I felt betrayed. The story had crumbled into nothing in its final stretch.
Of all today’s popular forms of storytelling, television is arguably the most exciting and the most difficult to navigate. The possibilities are seemingly endless, as are the pitfalls: as I discovered while watching Lost, the faith we as viewers put in writers for years can come to naught in a single episode. Many people, by now, have remarked that we are living in a golden age of the medium, and this is undeniably true: the quality of Mad Men and Breaking Bad alone merit that distinction, and when you add second-tier shows like Homeland, Game of Thrones, and The Good Wife, the slate becomes even more impressive. (This isn’t even considering programs that are no longer on the air, like The Sopranos, The Wire, and Friday Night Lights.) Sitcoms like Community, Parks and Recreation, Girls, Louie, and the dearly departed 30 Rock have garnered similar acclaim on the comedy side of the spectrum.
Cable is the domain of most of the best-scripted television these days, and aside from the obvious fact that cable networks tend to offer more creative flexibility to their showrunners, nothing has been as instrumental to the television renaissance than shortened seasons. Ten or 13 episodes per season is the cable norm, now, not 22 or 24, a figure that’s still standard on network TV. It’s functionally close to impossible to have a coherent season of television that stretches over 24 hours: even shows like The Good Wife, that represent the very best of the network dramas, have strange off-episodes that don’t do much to advance the plot. While the quality of episodes on a show like Breaking Bad might vary, you can’t simply throw some of them away, or dismiss them as insignificant: everything that happens on a show like Breaking Bad is significant.
This model of television production takes its cue, at least in part, from the United Kingdom’s system, which relies on a combination of daily soaps and much shorter runs of higher quality shows: Sherlock gets only three episodes a series, though they each run for an hour-and-a-half, and something like The Hour, Downton Abbey, or Doctor Who usually gets between six and fifteen. That is, a show gets as many episodes as its creators and producers believe are required to tell its story. Monetary concerns are, of course, ever-present, but the general ethos to production is friendlier to writers than the grind of pumping out 22 episodes a year.
Because the problem with television is, of course, the simple fact that most shows, if they are on long enough, get bad. Lost is just one now-infamous example of a once-critically lauded show that collapsed in on itself over the course of its run. It was too complicated to sustain itself, particularly because showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse evidently did not plan much of anything in advance, and as such couldn’t resolve many of their myriad plotlines and mysteries when it came time for the show to end. Though they did ultimately negotiate a deal with ABC to set an end date for the show, that move was clearly too little, too late – but it did pave the way for other showrunners, most notably Matt Weiner, who created Mad Men, to set their own terms about the scope and duration of their narratives.
In a recent article for Slate, David Haglund has argued that the miniseries is the future of quality television precisely because its scope is so much more limited, and therefore much more manageable. He uses British television generally and Jane Campion’s currently airing miniseries, Top of the Lake — which I reviewed last week — as his chief examples. Though I’ve only seen the first two of that show’s seven episodes, it felt less like television to me than the first portion of a long movie — and, indeed, it had its premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the first miniseries to screen in full for a festival audience. (The Sundance Channel is distributing the show in the U.S.)
The miniseries is certainly an underutilized genre in American television. It is in many ways the ideal medium for the adaptation of novels to the screen: as Haglund points out, the common invocation of the word “novelistic” to describe television shows is something of a misnomer, particularly considering the fact that novels are no longer serialized. TV is open-ended in a way that novels are not — and in a way that miniseries are not, either.
But I am loath to jump on Haglund’s miniseries bandwagon if it comes with a denunciation of the open-ended TV show. There is a particular magic that comes with the development of the universe of a show over the course of multiple seasons that must be at least partially spontaneous and unplanned. The first season of The Wire is its most traditional, and was clearly intended as a way to gently introduce its audience to the particular topography of West Baltimore, while the second season swerved in an entirely different direction. It didn’t exactly work, either, and I’m sure viewers at the time thought that creator David Simon’s grand plan — to focus on one aspect of the city during each season — was too ambitious, or had simply gone awry. But the following season of The Wire is possibly the best single season of any television drama in the history of the medium: here, finally, the show became its best self, something that was made possible by a necessary fallow period.
The Wire is long gone, may its cops and gangsters rest in peace, but it was not unique: the first seasons of Mad Men and Breaking Bad are good TV, but pale versions of what would come after. And though it’s a relief to know that Weiner and Gilligan know where they are ultimately going, there’s also a kind of electric energy to watching a show like Girls, which seems to be striking out bravely into entirely unmapped narrative territory. The second season of that show was good because it was messy, because it was constantly experimenting and changing the stakes. It may seem paradoxical, but the simple fact of the matter is that sometimes, brilliant-but-flawed can be better than perfect.