While they’ve been around for decades, the popularity of limited series or mini-series has never been higher. With the rise of streaming services and binge-able episodic content, more money, resources, and world-class talent are devoted to exploring cinematic storytelling on the small screen. The format allows storytellers the freedom to tell their narrative without time restrictions and expand beyond the confines of a feature film while still arriving at a finite conclusion. This week marked the premiere of HBO‘s latest limited series “The Plot Against America” which sees the network take another stab at alternate history hot off the heels of their acclaimed “Watchmen” series. Today, we count down the Top 10 Limited Series.
“Angels in America” (2003)
It’s a bold undertaking to adapt one of theater’s most beloved and profound works into a mini-series. However, it helps when the person adapting it is the award-winning playwright who conceived it in the first place. Tony Kushner‘s adaptation of his Tony and Pulitzer-prize-winning play “Angels in America” truthfully constructed the template by which modern-day limited and mini-series follow. Anchored by acting heavyweights Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson, and James Cromwell along with Patrick Wilson, Jeffrey Wright, Mary Louise-Parker, Ben Shenkman, and Justin Kirk at the onset of their careers, “Angels in America” proved that silver screen titans were willing to make the jump to television — an almost unspoken requirement for limited series today — amounting to must-see event television.
The series follows the intersecting lives of six New York strangers affected by the 1980s AIDS crisis. Through fantastical visits from Angels, the series is a political epic that profoundly tackles Reaganomics, the changing sociopolitical landscape of the time, and the effects of the AIDS epidemic on the LGBTQ+ community. Directed by Mike Nichols, HBO’s six one hour episodes became the most-watched TV movie of 2003 and winner of eleven Emmy Awards and five Golden Globe Awards.
“Sharp Objects” (2018)
After the smashing success of HBO’s “Big Little Lies,” the network was eager to recapture the same magic with a new series: a murder mystery based on a bestselling novel and directed by Jean Marc-Vallee. Based on the Gillian Flynn (“Gone Girl”) novel of the same name, “Sharp Objects” filled that void nicely while delivering a far darker, thrilling, and more complex examination of its characters. Boasting an all-star cast consisting of Amy Adams, Eliza Scanlen, Patricia Clarkson, Chris Messina, and Sophia Lillis, the series follows an alcoholic, self-harming journalist who returns to her hometown in Missouri to investigate the murder of two girls after being discharged from a psychiatric hospital. The end result is a visceral viewing experience that places the audience in the head of Adams’ protagonist through various twists and turns making for must-see television.
Easily the boldest and most original entry on this list, it’s hard to believe the reunion of “Superbad” co-stars Emma Stone and Jonah Hill would be in such a mind-bending sci-fi adventure. Directed by “True Detective’s” Cary Joji Fukunaga, “Maniac” is a genre-bending journey across time and space that explores the complexities of human emotions in a therapeutic family dramedy. Featuring two versatile and show-stopping performances from Emma Stone and Jonah Hill (whose chemistry is off the charts), the Netflix original series continuously captivates with striking visuals and a distinct directorial stamp in this neon-infused 80s dystopia. Following two strangers who form a life-changing connection during otherworldly pharmaceutical trials, “Maniac” wears its heart on its sleeve as these damaged individuals attempt to put the pieces back together.
“Planet Earth” (2006)
Never before has our planet come alive with such cinematic beauty. The eleven episode series from the BBC focused on the various wildlife and habitats the Earth has to offer. Captured in stunning high definition (cutting edge for 2006 and it still holds up) and brought to life through the voice of David Attenborough, “Planet Earth” was the most expensive and extensive nature documentary ever commissioned. Never before seen environments were unveiled to the world, and the seemingly ordinary was brought to life with such detail revealing elaborate, living, breathing, ecosystems. Documentaries don’t get much better than this.
“American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson” (2016)
Naturally, the most infamous court case in American history became the most talked about television event of 2016. “Glee” and “American Horror Story” creator Ryan Murphy and showrunners Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski highlighted the people, emotions, and social issues that engulfed the O.J. Simpson murder trial. While viewers were already well aware of the outcome, the series provided a look at the humanity of all parties involved allowing stars such as Cuba Gooding Jr., Sarah Paulson, John Travolta, David Schwimmer, and Sterling K. Brown to captivate with career-best work. Similar to the trial that inspired it, “The People vs. O.J. Simpson” made for enthralling TV as it sparked a conversation week to week.
“When They See Us” (2019)
Many remember the horrific incident of the “Central Park Five,” but very few have such a comprehensive knowledge of the truth surrounding the event. Fortunately, Ava DuVernay is one of those people. In a harrowing and devastating telling of five wrongly accused African American teenage boys, DuVernay leverages her star power as a filmmaker to confront audiences with the harsh reality of a rigged legal system. The four-episode series explores the lives and families of these boys facing prosecution following false accusations related to the sexual assault of a female jogger in Central Park, New York, in 1989. “When They See Us” is a series that will elicit frustration and anger with its eye-opening call to action. It cuts deep, and it’s messaging couldn’t be any more timely. While not necessarily an enjoyable watch, the series is an important one that boasts powerful performances that will move you to tears (just wait until episode four).
Adapting Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons‘ iconic graphic novel was thought to be an impossible task. Even Zack Snyder‘s film adaptation was met with mixed reception and somewhat mishandled the messaging. However, “The Leftovers” creator Damon Lindelof recognized that the key to a truly great adaptation is to capture the essence of what the original work is while being unafraid of making it your own. This is precisely what Lindelof did with his “Watchmen” sequel series. In a world where masked vigilantes and superheroes are as much a part of the history of our country as the social injustices that plague it, “Watchmen” holds a mirror up to our society as it examines the racism, white supremacy, and politics ingrained within it.
It’s difficult to escape the past, but taking the proper measures to better our future is the way forward. Lindelof and his writing team understand this and made it a key theme throughout the season. Brilliant and topical writing paired with exceptional performances from Regina King, Jeremy Irons, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, and a killer score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross make “Watchmen” the whole package.
“True Detective” (2014)
No other show on this list was as explosive right out of the gate as Nic Pizzolatto‘s “True Detective.” The HBO series was met with universal acclaim as Cary Fukunaga’s confident and inventive direction, dark and thought-provoking mystery, and unlikely yet dynamic chemistry between Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson became an overnight sensation. The gritty neo-noir followed two Louisiana State Police Detectives as they track down a serial killer over 17 years. The brilliant writing and pairing of McConaughey and Harrelson as they explore the humanity (or lack thereof) in people provided the pivotal hook to keep audiences invested and on their toes each week. But the “True Detective” phenomenon didn’t stop there as HBO proceeded to turn what should’ve been a one-season limited series into a now three-season anthology series that has yet to live up to the greatness of the first.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, “Chernobyl” has scarily only become more relevant. The series recounts the devastating and apocalyptic April 1986 nuclear plant disaster in the Soviet Union occupied Ukraine telling the stories of the first responders and those who were responsible. Terrifyingly real and disturbingly graphic, “Chernobyl” plays out more like a horror story as it recounts the panic and paranoia of the event. Through painful depictions of radiation poisoning, sickness, and deformities, creator and writer Craig Mazin (doing a career 180), forces us to witness the gruesome aftermath in such vivid detail in this cautionary tale. With spectacular performances from Stellan Skarsgård, Jared Harris, and Emily Watson, “Chernobyl” is a relentless and sobering tale about the governmental corruption, cover-ups, and a failure to listen and act accordingly. The end result is a resounding gut punch.
“Band of Brothers” (2001)
While not the first limited/mini-series ever created, “Band of Brothers” is undoubtedly the most influential paving the way for what the modern-day limited series is. A spiritual sequel to “Saving Private Ryan,” Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg teamed up to bring us the story of Easy Company in the European Theater of WWII. Even more so than “Saving Private Ryan,” “Band of Brothers” features some of the most viscerally intense and horrific firefights ever captured. Hanks and Spielberg pull no punches as we’re given a detailed look at the carnage, psychological distress, and impossible odds these men faced. The unlikeliest of soldiers become heroes, and the bonds of brotherhood are strengthened as the series explores nobility while looking death straight in the eye.
The audience is welcomed into Easy Company with such intimacy as we embark on this crusade with them and feel their excitement and pain. Each member of the large ensemble has their moment to shine (it’s fun to see young James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender before “X-Men“), and their natural chemistry will keep you invested until the end. Approaching nearly 20-years-old, the quality of “Band of Brothers” endures as it remains one of television’s finest achievements.