They say time us our most valuable asset – meaning that even the most devoted TV fans might not be willing to enter a long-term relationship with six to 10 seasons’ worth of content each time they begin a new series.
Some will happily dive into TV juggernauts such as Grey’s Anatomy – which in February last year overtook ER as the longest running primetime medical drama on US TV – Modern Family, or The Big Bang Theory. Others, however, are left searching for something a bit more compact.
Enter limited series, which enable viewers to experience excitement, drama, and resolution all in a reasonable number of episodes. There’s more than one advantage to the format: Limited series, by nature, quit while they’re ahead – rather than waiting for an inevitable cancellation to bring things to a disappointing end.
Without further ado, here are the best limited series to captivate TV commitment-phobes:
Based in the 2015 news article An Unbelievable Story of Rape – which itself looked at a series of rapes in Washington and Colorado between 2008 and 2011 – Unbelievable is a gut-punching, comprehensive portrayal sexual assault, from its impact on survivors’ lives to its place in the American justice system. Toni Collette, Merritt Wever, Kaitlyn Dever and Danielle Macdonald form a powerful cast and render the series eminently bingeable.
The Bonfire of Destiny (Netflix)
This French miniseries is a dramatisation of the 1897 fire that ravaged Le Bazar de la Charité (the Charity Bazaar), a charity fundraising event held in Paris. More than 120 people, most of them women, died in the blaze. Over eight episodes, the show depicts the fire and its aftermath through the lives of three women.
When They See Us (Netflix)
Created, directed and co-written by Ava DuVernay, When They See Us is based on the 1989 Central Park Jogger Case, which led to the wrongful conviction of five men. The Independent called it “an informative, gripping watch coming at just the right time”.
Chernobyl (HBO in the US, Sky Atlantic in the UK)
This historical drama based on the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster premiered in May 2019 to overall positive reviews – and went on to win Best Limited Series at the Golden Globes and at the Emmys. The Independent deemed it “timely, bleak, intelligent and compelling”, and “a triumph of a disaster”.
Sharp Objects (HBO in the US, Sky Atlantic in the UK)
Based on Gillian Flynn’s novel of the same name, Sharp Objects stars Amy Adams as an alcoholic reporter investigating the murders of two teenage girls in her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri. Suspenseful and tense until the very end.
Little Fires Everywhere (Hulu)
This adaptation of Celeste Ng’s novel of the same name, led by Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington, came out on Hulu in March 2020. It follows the intertwined lives of Elena Richardson and Mia Warren, two mothers in Shaker Heights, Ohio – and yes, arson is definitely part of the equation.
This acclaimed biographical miniseries centres around the relationship between director–choreographer Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell) and actress and dancer Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams). It was the talk of the 2019 awards season, so if you haven’t watched it yet, now’s the time.
Escape at Dannemora (Showtime)
Back in 2015, two convicts escaped from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, a village located in New York State. Learn all about it in this seven-part dramatisation.
Watchmen (HBO in the US, Sky Atlantic in the UK)
HBO’s TV adaptation of the DC Comics series of the same name was released in 2019 to wide acclaim. Creator Damon Lindelof has made it clear he’s not up for a second season, so feel free to wach and re-watch this one.
Feud: Bette and Joan (FX)
OK, I don’t know about you, but when I hear “Ryan Murphy”, “Joan Crawford” and “Bette Davis” in the same sentence, I tend to pay attention. Co-created by Murphy, this eight-part series documents the rivalry between both actresses, with Jessica Lange as Crawford and Susan Sarandon as Davis.
Ted Bundy: Falling for a Killer (Amazon Prime Video)
Released in January 2020, this true crime documentary series includes interviews from Ted Bundy’s former girlfriend Elizabeth Kendall, as well as her daughter Molly. Crucially, Ted Bundy: Falling for a Killer aims to reframe the story of the serial killer’s crimes by placing an emphasis on the women he harmed. A valuable addition to the true crime genre.
The Spy (Netflix)
Sacha Baron Cohen stars as the late Eli Cohen, a Mossad agent who operated in Syria in the Sixties. A good opportunity to see Baron Cohen, the man behind characters such as Ali G and Borat, play it straight in a dramatic performance.
The Plot Against America (HBO)
Winona Ryder, Anthony Boyle, Zoe Kazan, Morgan Spector and more star in this adaptation of Philip Roth’s 2004 novel of the same name. In this alternative history drama, America is Nazified and ruled by an anti-Semitic demagogue. The show has just concluded in the US to positive reviews, which have deemed it essential and timely.
Get ready for a bit of time travel: this 1977 miniseries, based on the 1976 novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family by Alex Haley, got a reboot in 2016 on the History Channel. The 1977 programme, which originally aired on ABC in the US, went on to win a Peabody Award. It’s considered a cultural phenomenon, documenting the history of slavery in America. The 2016 version aired to positive reviews and brought the Roots narrative back to the forefront.
State of Play (BBC One)
If you enjoy journalism dramas, you’re in for a treat. This 2003 six-part series centres around a newspaper’s investigation into two seemingly unconnected deaths – and the conspiracy behind it all. Starring John Simm, David Morrissey, Kelly Macdonald, Bill Nighy, James McAvoy and many more. It was later remade into a film starring Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck, which didn't quite compare to the original.
Patrick Melrose (Showtime in the US, Sky Atlantic in the UK)
Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as the titular character earned him rave reviews and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor in a Miniseries. Based on Edward St Aubyn’s semi-autobiographical Patrick Melrose novels, the series has been hailed as an insightful portrayal of addiction, trauma, and privilege.
Before the 2017 film, there was Tommy Lee Wallace’s 1990 adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, starring an unforgettable Tim Curry as the terrifying Pennywise. Much like our contemporary It Chapter One and It Chapter Two, it was released in two parts – one focusing on the younger protagonists, and one showing them as adults.
Band of Brothers (HBO)
Co-created by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, Band of Brothers is based on the book of the same name by American historian Stephen E Ambrose. It focuses on a US Army company during World War II, detailing its exploits over 10 episodes.
I, Claudius (BBC)
This adaptation of Robert Graves’s 1934 novel I, Claudius and its sequel Claudius the God aired in 1976 to critical acclaim. Powered by performances from Derek Jacobi, Siân Phillips, George Baker, John Hurt, Brian Blessed, Patrick Stewart and many more, it remains a classic four decades later.
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