Short, sweet, and shocking: The best limited series of the 21st century
We’re currently living in an era of television where the idea of a limited series is at odds with audience demands. For example, shows like Big Little Lies and 13 Reasons Why were originally outlined with the potential to be standalone limited series.
However, both have plunged forward to expand on what could have (and perhaps should have) been a unique tale without more to tell. In many ways, a limited series can be more satisfying & entertaining than one that continues to sprawl out in its exploration of the one story.
The finite and often taut storytelling nature of a limited series lends the format a voracious tension and an often thoughtful set of conclusions that many ongoing TV shows can sometimes lack. In the 21st century so far, there have been a lot of phenomenal and groundbreaking limited series so good that they can be returned to and rewatched time and again. Here’s our ranking of the ten best.
10. The Honourable Woman (2014)
Featuring a standout performance from Maggie Gyllenhaal (Secretary) as a businesswoman haunted by her past, Hugo Blick’s breathless political thriller balances between being a fractured family and a tense spy thriller, making it one of the most compelling limited series of the past decade.
9. Political Animals (2012)
Bursting with a sly knowing wit and full of intriguing parallels to Hillary Clinton, Greg Berlanti’s six-episode dramedy explores the costs and exhilaration of a life in politics with a refreshingly forthright perspective.
The show is anchored by incredible performances from Sigourney Weaver (Alien) and Carla Gugino (Watchmen) and by a refusal to take itself too seriously, giving the show an occasional soapy vibe that works surprisingly well with the subject matter.
8. Feud: Bette and Joan (2017)
The first of Ryan Murphy’s anthology shows to be found on this list, the first season of Feud (which will explore a different infamous conflict in each season) provides a fascinating condemnation of the ageism and misogyny of the Hollywood system.
Jessica Lange (Tootsie) and Susan Sarandon (Thelma & Louise) are impeccable as Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, while the execution of the story is delivered with a tactile sense of empathy – even as some of the salacious details of the feud are played out.
7. Alias Grace (2017)
Based on Margaret Atwood’s 1996 novel of the same name, Alias Grace is dark, thrilling, and chilling in exploring the true story of a 19th century murder in which a poor Irish immigrant and domestic servant is convicted for the murder of her employer and housekeeper.
Alias Grace delves deep into the psychology of the case and the characters while spinning a captivating mystery. Standout performances from Sarah Gadon (Cosmopolis), Edward Holcroft (Vampire Academy), Anna Paquin (True Blood), and David Cronenberg (The Fly) lend the story depth in exploring patterns of violence and trauma.
6. The Pacific (2010)
One of the most horrifying depictions of war ever committed to the screen, The Pacific is a relentless exploration of three intertwined World War II stories from the brutal battlefields of Japan.
HBO’s ten-part show is so tense, savage, and relentless, it at times ventures into horror territory with intricate performances from Joseph Mazzello (Jurassic Park), James Badge Dale (World War Z), Jon Seda (Chicago Fire), and Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody), bringing a palpable emotional core to the story.
5. Angels in America (2003)
HBO’s miniseries was one of the first of its kind on television to attract such big names as Meryl Streep (The Post), Al Pacino (Scarface), and Emma Thompson (Love Actually) to the small screen.
That doesn’t just lend this miniseries a sense of prestige – the performances given by these A-listers and their co-stars including Patrick Wilson (Insidious), Mary-Louise Parker (Weeds), and Jeffrey Wright (Westworld) capture the urgency, poetry, and emotions of Tony Kushner’s award-winning plays.
Angels in America is provocative, grand, and tactfully humorous in its exploration of the various issues facing 80s America during the start of the AIDS crisis.
4. Band of Brothers (2001)
Executive produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg (and very clearly created off the back of Saving Private Ryan), Band of Brothers is still one of the most compelling TV events of the 21st century.
Based on the book by Stephen Ambrose and featuring infallible performances from a cast including Damian Lewis (Dreamcatcher), Michael Fassbender (Prometheus), Ron Livingston (Office Space), and Tom Hardy (Inception), the ten-part show offers a tense and vivid portrait of the terrors and tragedy of war.
3. American Crime Story: The People VS O.J. Simpson (2016)
Few anticipated that Murphy’s exploration of the notorious and divisive O.J. Simpson trial would be anywhere near as complex and masterfully executed as it turned out. The show is full of a surprising amount of restraint for Murphy (who’s known for much of the opposite with his work) and offers a shrewd and timely take on American society along with some compelling character studies.
The performances leading the show are also some of the best of modern television, with Sarah Paulson (American Horror Story), Cuba Gooding Jr. (Boyz n the Hood), and David Schwimmer (Friends) all commanding every second of their screen time.
2. True Detective (2014)
Though S2 was a disappointing dud, there’s no denying that the first season of Nic Pizzolatto’s crime anthology series is nothing short of a masterpiece. Both Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club) and Woody Harrelson (Zombieland) do some of the best acting of their respective careers while the fractured storytelling gives the show the vibe of a waking nightmare.
Director Cary Fukunaga (Beasts of No Nation) creates a dark air of mystery that’s part horror, part primetime drama, and part noir while exploring the ensuing pessimism and crisis of masculinity at the heart of the story.
1. Fargo (2014)
Though every season of the black comedy crime drama is commendable, it’s difficult to imagine one that can top the macabre heights of the first.
Following the violently impulsive and charismatic hitman Lorne (Billy Bob Thornton at his best) and easily influenced mild-mannered salesman Lester (Martin Freeman), the tale is unpredictable, unique, savage, and often bleakly hilarious as it follows a spiraling series of crimes happening to (and by) otherwise ordinary people.