Can you remember the last good TV miniseries you saw? I can. It finished airing on the Sundance Channel last week, and it was called Top of the Lake. Starring Elisabeth Moss, the gifted actress who portrays Peggy Olsen on Mad Men, and created and directed (with Gerard Moss) by legendary filmmaker Jane Campion (The Piano, Bright Star), this thing packs a punch. If you think this is going to be one of those Hallmark Special Presentations, you will be horrified. It tells the story of Robin, a tough police detective, who returns home from Australia to her hometown of Laketop, in rural New Zealand. She quickly becomes embroiled in a mystery regarding the sudden disappearance of a 12-year-old possibly pregnant girl. Robin is tough as nails, a true survivor, and takes on the local creeps in a way everyone else seems too terrified to do. Suffice it to say — it’s awesome. Think Girl With the Dragon Tattoo meets Twin Peaks.
When I think of miniseries, I think of Roots, an adaptation of Alex Haley’s novel about slavery that starred that guy from Reading Rainbow and Star Trek: The Next Generation (Lavar Burton, the one with the cool sunglasses). I think of them as a thing of the past, but they are making a comeback.
The History Channel won a whole bunch of Emmys for Hatfields & McCoys (5 wins and 16 nominations), the true story of a family feud that began when a Hatfield was murdered by a McCoy. The show was set on the border of Kentucky and West Virginia in the years after the Civil War and starred Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton. They followed that up this year with The Bible (really guys, just a miniseries?), which garnered attention after the actor who portrayed Satan was said to look suspiciously like President Obama and which was watched by over 10 million viewers each week.
Then came an announcement in March that FX was going to split its programming when it launched two new channels, FXX and FXM. The flagship channel was going to lose their hit comedy lineup (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and The League) and replace those shows with “miniseries and limited series (a limited series is a miniseries that’s 2 or 3 seasons long).”
At first I thought it sounded like a terrible idea, but then I started thinking about the experience of watching Top of the Lake. When you complain about your favorite show, what’s the thing you usually say? I know what I say. “What happened? This used to be so good. Now, it just feels like a bunch of stuff that occured after the real story ended.”
This didn’t happen for me with Top of the Lake. It can’t. It’s already over. It was perfect. It had a beginning, a middle, and an end. When it felt like someone would die, they did. The writers didn’t have to worry about keeping someone around for next season. There is no next season.
Writers think in terms of story. Stories are supposed to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. But TV has gotten us used to a story that just keeps going until one day, without fanfare or resolution, it’s canceled. What have we been watching it for? We feel cheated. With a miniseries, or a limited series, we are guaranteed an ending when we sit down for the premiere. And when it’s over, it ends with a satisfying thud. THE END. I could get used to that.