Limited series are not a recent phenomenon. Roots was the first television miniseries to become a worldwide sensation. In January 1977, 36 million households tuned in to watch the finale which, at that point, became the most-watched episode in US television history. Limited series are self-contained narratives which are meticulously planned to achieve a particular storyline in a restricted number of episodes. In comparison to long-running shows, limited series often maintain a higher overall quality as their storylines have less chance to become repetitive or recycled. There has been a rise in the popularity of limited series in more recent years, they allow a reduced rather than a complete lack of commitment compared to serial shows. One does not have to catch up on multiple seasons instead they can finish the series quickly.
The 2019 five-part miniseries Chernobyl followed the explosion of April 1986 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. The show won several Primetime Emmy Awards including Outstanding Limited Series, Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series, and Outstanding Prosthetic Makeup for a Limited Series, Movie or Special. Due to the restricted nature of limited series, Chernobyl was able to dramatically structure itself in an overarching loop, linking the end to the beginning, maintaining suspense throughout. This compactness allowed the writers to delve into the accident, engaging the audience without the show becoming sterile. Imagine a long-running television series about Chernobyl in the style of the miniseries – it would not work.
Limited series also allow more scope when adapting other forms of media to the small screen, such as novels like Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre. Unlike films, the writers do not have to squeeze more than four hundred pages of content into two hours. The 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice was commended for its faithfulness to the novel whilst depicting a ‘modern’ interpretation. During the original broadcast, between ten and eleven million people tuned in to watch. Within two hours of the serial’s release, 12,000 copies had sold out and 200,000 within the first year. Most limited series gain viewership through advertisements, before the release of the show, and through post-show sales.
However, with the increase of streaming services, limited series need people to watch them rather than tuning in at a certain time. Wandavision, on Disney Plus, set after the events of Avengers: Endgame, was the first television series in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Marvel had already established the protagonists of the series, Wanda and Vision, through the MCU, and could therefore expand on their emotions without having to delve too deeply into the events which caused them or having to build new characters from the ground up. With a budget to match a major studio production, the series could focus more on the continuous story and plot that a two-hour film would have to restrict.
The innovative imitation of past sitcoms changes each episode and, due to the limited series format, the show maintains the mystery behind this. Limited series whether they are based on real events, classic novels, or a fictional cinematic universe are not summer flings that vanish. Good limited series and the stories they tell become the memories that linger in our thoughts, memories that live on.