Column: Enough with the limited series already

Left, Giovanni Ribisi in "The Offer." Right, Sean Penn and Martha Mitchell in "Gaslit."
Left, Giovanni Ribisi as Joe Colombo in the Paramount+ original series “The Offer.” Right, Sean Penn as John Mitchell and Julia Roberts as Martha Mitchell in a scene from “Gaslit.”
(Nicole Wilder/Paramount+; Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/Starz Entertainment)

In virtually every episode of “The Offer” on Paramount+ there is a moment when the action pauses so one character or another can deliver a paean to the power of movies.

As “The Offer” follows the epic journey of “The Godfather” from book to movie screen, this makes narrative sense. But the fact that these moments occur during a limited series infuses each monologue with what initially feels like irony and increasingly becomes something like schadenfreude.

Aided by the quasi-permanence and personal control offered by streaming services, television has sucked so much talent, viewership and money from the film industry that it’s all but impossible to imagine how the “The Godfather” would get made today. At least as a film. And even for the small-screen devout, a 10-part adaptation of Mario Puzo’s bestselling book is almost too dreadful to contemplate.


Actually, and I never thought I’d say this, a 10-part adaptation of anything is becoming increasingly dreadful to contemplate.

Like everything wonderful and good in the entertainment industry, the limited series has become so trendy that it is threatening to overpopulate itself into extinction. Everyone who’s anyone has a limited series about or starring them, although not everyone is happy about it. (Jerry West, have you heard of Olivia de Havilland?)

Although I enjoyed “The Offer” for many reasons, I came away from it with a renewed appreciation not for “The Godfather” (being a woman who has dated men, I did not need to have the importance of this film explained to me ever again) but for the powerful economy of movies. Even a three-hour movie suddenly seemed like a much more tantalizing option than yet another limited series.

The ‘Winning Time’ actor told The Times about working himself into a ‘frenzy’ to play the Laker great, who has threatened legal action against HBO.

It’s unfair to pin this on “The Offer,” which I enjoyed enough to finish even when I knew the outcome. (Spoiler: “The Godfather” is a hit.) It just happened to arrive during “Peak TV Part II: Attack of the Limited Series.”

In just this last year, we have been treated to a surging welter of what used to be known as miniseries (I guess “mini” does not sound cinematically grand enough). “Maid,” “Inventing Anna,” “WeCrashed,” “Winning Time,” “The Girl from Plainville,” “The Dropout,” “The Thing About Pam,” “Pam and Tommy,” “Dopesick,” “The Staircase,” “Gaslit.” (I am limiting my examples to nonfiction for purposes of comparison and also because if I had to list all the limited series that dropped in the last year, I would die and come back as a Wikipedia page.)


As with any form of art, some of these series are better than others. Anchored by quietly devastating performances from Michael Keaton and Kaitlyn Dever, “Dopesick” rivals the award-winning “Chernobyl” as a beautifully executed dive into both the cause and effect of a deadly crisis, in this case the opioid epidemic. “Maid” explores too-often overlooked issues of poverty, work and domestic abuse in a way that is both unsparing and hopeful. “The Dropout” reminds us that no matter the circumstance, it’s tough to beat a black turtleneck or Amanda Seyfried.

Just as cable series once coaxed film A-listers to the small screen, many of these limited series star Oscar winners and nominees — Keaton, Anne Hathaway, Jared Leto, Colin Firth, Renée Zellweger, Julia Roberts, John C. Reilly. Which makes sense. Big names are always an audience attraction and “limited” makes it easier to get big names to commit.

Although increasingly the emphasis is on “series” rather than limited. As with “Downton Abbey” all those years ago, “limited” can be a temporary descriptor. “Winning Time,” joining other previous limiteds including “White Lotus” and “The Flight Attendant,” has already been greenlit for a second season.

The limited series starring Michael Keaton and Rosario Dawson weaves culpability of big pharma with opioid addicts and law enforcement.

Beyond the logistics of wrangling Zellweger, Firth or Roberts, truly limited series offer a way to stand out amid the noise and haste of too much television because they are, well, limited. One problem with the binge model that Netflix made the industry standard is that it can be exhausting.


Television was built to foster a habit, not to provide closure, which is why so many series finales are so awful; wrapping things up was literally antithetical to an art form in which serialization was the function as well as the form. So if you’re looking for a binge that will give you a satisfactory ending, eight seasons of 24 episodes with no promise of anything like a real final act can be daunting.

A limited series, particularly one based on real events, doesn’t just guarantee an ending, it often works backward from that ending. The whole point of most of the series listed above is to see not what happened but how it happened.

If done well this can be riveting, just as seeing your favorite novel brought to life on television can be riveting. Unfortunately, too many of these very disparate tales have been put into the same size box. Creators can talk all they want about the freedom of making what amounts to an eight- or 10-hour movie, but with a few notable exceptions that is an uncomfortably long movie.

Especially when you already know the ending.

Ultimately, what separates television, even on streamers, from film is its ability to foster deep and enduring attachment. Television’s unique alchemy of continuity and endless possibility allows viewers to commit to characters and worlds in a way even franchise films cannot. (Why do you think Marvel has so many television series going?) The blur between film and television is real, but years of navigating it proves, if nothing else, that each still serves a very different purpose, fills a very different need.

Try as it might, the limited series cannot straddle that divide, which is one reason why so many morph into ongoing series.


After watching “The Offer,” I turned my attention to Starz’s “Gaslit,” drawn — as was intended — by the prospect of seeing Martha Mitchell’s story excavated from the familiar narrative of Watergate and brought to life by Julia Roberts. Not surprisingly, Roberts is mesmerizing as Martha (and whoever did Sean Penn’s John Mitchell makeup deserves a Presidential Medal of Freedom because an Emmy is just not enough).

Unfortunately, there is simply not enough Martha story to fill 10 hours. And so we are forced to snore our way through far too many scenes re-creating the break-in, reliving G. Gordon Liddy’s (Shea Whigham) insanity and enduring the queasy anguish of Dan Stevens’ John Dean, relieved only occasionally by Roberts’ Martha.

As I watched I kept thinking how much better “Gaslit” would have been as a two-hour movie, focused only on Martha and seen in theaters that had screened “All the President’s Men.”

So perhaps those “magic of the movies” soliloquies in “The Offer” were not ironic but prophetic. The film industry may not have to figure out how to get people back into the theaters on its own; the attack of the limited series may well do it for them.

Docudramas ‘Gaslit’ and ‘The First Lady’ take contrasting approaches to the facts. Only one succeeds as a fully realized story.