There was a time when my favorite narrative medium was the television mini-series—what ABC used to call “a novel for television,” back when it aired the likes of Rich Man, Poor Man.
In the wake of successful mini-series from Shogun to War and Remembrance, shows became less episodic, the revolution led by Hill Street Blues. This was a good thing. This year, we see a reemergence of what is now called the “limited series” (“mini-series” is so 20th century).
The broadcast networks—the Old Guard of Television—have figured out that their ability to duplicate the success of cable shows like Mad Men and Game of Thrones is doomed because their economic model is predicated on 20+ episodes per season, not a dozen. Thus we have this grand experiment with the “limited series.”
Two score years ago, Hollywood got its ideas from best-selling novels. Today, for the most part, they are adapting limited series from other lands.
NBC’s The Slap is a remake of an Australian series based on an Australian novel about the aftermath of a birthday party where an adult male slaps someone else’s misbehaving child. The child is an out-of-control brat; his mother is totally over-indulgent at best on a good day; and the guy who did the slapping is incapable of being anything other than an arrogant ass.
The original television version retained both the form of the novel (eight chapters, each focused on a particular character) and the original order. The American version follows the form, but shifts the order of the characters.
What makes The Slap different is its overriding focus on characters rather than plot. The people complicate our thinking about what should happen because of that slap. This would explain why the series attracted the likes of Peter Sarsgaard, Zachary Quinto, and Uma Thurman, but could also explain why the ratings have declined sharply.
Secrets and Lies (ABC) is another show imported from Down Under, this time a traditional murder whodunit with the Hitchcockian twist that the key suspect, Ben Crawford (Ryan Phillippe), has got to clear himself.
Crawford certainly has a knack for making things worse. Every episode is one step forward with his investigation and a minimum of two or three steps back.
(You would think there would be a danger of watching the Australian versions or discovering spoilers online, but fortunately we have been trained by Downton Abbey to ignore everything outside the continental United States.)
The most ambitious of the limited series is ABC’s American Crime, which throws gender, race, religion, and class into a blender and hits liquefy.
Virtually every character in all of these shows embraces the current American commitment to convicting people before they have been officially indicted (it might not be justice, but it certainly saves time), and the main characters are imminently unlikable, especially the women: Melissa George as Rosie on The Slap, Juliette Lewis as Detective Cornell on Secrets and Lies, and especially Felicity Huffman as Barb Hanlon on American Crime.
If I had to put a label on this genre, it would be “car-wreck television.” Nobody is going to get out alive and once you start watching you cannot avert your eyes from the carnage. They all follow the House model, wherein characters keep finding out new things (over the course of a season versus over the span of a single episode) that force them to rethink everything.
The “one and done” nature of the limited-series attracts actors who would never commit to multiple seasons of a regular television show. A limited series is also guaranteed to have all its episodes aired, which cannot be said for a show like Allegiance that was not on long enough to prove it could be a second-rate version of The Americans.
But before we heap dirt on its grave, attention should be paid to how they dealt with the big question: Will the super-genius son working as a CIA analyst figure out mom, dad, and big sis are all Soviet agents?
Remember when Twin Peaks (if you are over 40)/The Killing (if you are under 40) got everyone hot and bothered about who killed Laura Palmer/Rosie Larsen and then got everybody really ticked off because the first season ended without revealing the killer? Well, Allegiance certainly avoided that pitfall.••
They only aired five episodes and, by the second, the son figured out enough to accuse the parents, and be told a lie, and then a couple of episodes later got enough proof on them to be told a story that was almost the truth. A couple more episodes and the true truth might have come out.
Shows these days need to grab audiences in the first couple episodes or be shown the door. But more often than not, those with ambitious scope (a.k.a., convoluted plotlines) get canceled, which is why every season less viewers are willing to try new shows in the first place.
••Two unaired episodes of Allegiance are available online (for free or $1.99—choose wisely, people). This sure beats the days when you had to luck out and catch unaired episodes of Bay City Blues on late-night NBC or wait several decades for them to air on ESPN Classic.