The limited series, formerly known as the miniseries, is the perfect hybrid beast between a movie and an ongoing TV series. A predetermined number of episodes allows enough freedom for more moving parts, intricate storytelling, and character depth. But the fact that the series will not return makes the narrative precious and should conclude in just the right way, even if that means in a deliberately open-ended fashion. The one-off nature of these makes them perfect for literary adaptations, epic events, and period pieces.
A new creature has entered the limited series bestiary though, and it is the anthology series. Ryan Murphy pretty much invented this, and it’s been messing with our definitions ever since. Because each season has its own contained story with characters specific to only that story, each season qualifies as its own limited series for the purposes of this list.
What doesn’t qualify? Those that started as limited series but then blew up enough to get a second season. (We’re looking at you, “Big Little Lies” and “White Queen.”) We’ve also limited (ha!) ourselves to scripted for now, since Ken Burns will probably deserve his own ranking down the line, once he slows down and we can catch up with his prolific output. (“Wormwood” also is a borderline docuseries, so it didn’t make the cut.)
Now that we’ve told you what’s out, here’s what’s in:
20. “Hatfields & McCoys”
In 2012, History Channel was best known for Hitler documentaries, but its first big scripted play, the Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton-starring look at one of America’s most famous feuds, established the network as a newcomer in the ever-escalating Emmy wars, receiving 16 nominations and winning Costner and Tom Berenger awards for their roles. What makes “Hatfields & McCoys” stand out even today is that while the name invokes the ideas of a certain trope, the series actually aimed to bring a human edge to the story, drawing us into these characters’ lives and making the betrayals and bloodshed all the more effective. This is what a scripted depiction of historical events should do — under the guise of fiction, confront us with the emotional reality of what happened.
19. ”The Missing” (Season 2)
While the first season of Starz’s anthology series had quite an emotional impact, Season 2 of “The Missing” elevated the game. Rather than start with a girl gone missing, as so many kidnapping stories do, the second season builds a mystery around one survivor’s inexplicable return. Told in three distinct timelines (up from two in the original season), creators Harry and Jack Williams show Alice Walker get taken and returned within the first few minutes. The moments are 11 years apart, and the rest of the season is spent filling in the gaps. Led by a compelling central performance from Tchéky Karyo as Detective Jean Baptiste (the only connection between the series’ two seasons), “The Missing” proves to be a rewarding web to unweave — and a clever subversion of expectations.
18. ”The Looming Tower”
“The Looming Tower” gets a lot of credit for being important. Not only is it so steeped in largely unknown historical facts that it functions as a 9/11 origin story, but Dan Futterman, Alex Gibney, and Lawrence Wright’s Hulu limited series is stocked with even more first-rate names beyond the two Oscar winners (and Pulitzer Prize winner) listed already.
And yet for all its significant points about responsibility, diplomacy, and bipartisan politics, the eight-part miniseries is still a human story. There’s a complex portrait of a brilliant FBI agent marred at work and at home by his personal proclivities. There’s a story of a Muslim-American who’s trying to take back his religion after it’s hijacked by extremists. And there’s a man who lost a friend to a bombing, and a boss to the exact thing both of them fought against. “The Looming Tower” uses a moving character study to tell its weighty tale, and does so with great power.
17. ”Dead Set”
Before “Black Mirror” became an international sensation, writer Charlie Brooker dreamed up this five-part series about an apocalyptic zombie outbreak as seen through the eyes of “Big Brother” cast and crew members. In a stroke of metafictional brilliance, “Dead Set” drew in people from the actual “Big Brother” universe, sparing no act of violence or layer of irony that they would even participate in something this pointed. Like a rage zombie’s disheveled wardrobe, not all of this is neat and tidy (though a performance from a pre-fame Riz Ahmed makes for a convenient anchor away from the show’s center hub). Up to the unexpected ending, it blends the usual genre tropes with an eye toward showing how mindless fandom of anything (reality TV included) can make us unthinking followers in our own right.
16. ”Feud: Bette and Joan”
From the first frames of that stellar, Saul Bass-inspired main titles sequence, we knew we were in for a glamorous but gruesome Old Hollywood treat. When silver screen legends Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) and Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) agree to co-star in “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” to revive their flagging careers, the onscreen animosity is only an appetizer for the buffet of bad blood and backstabbing that will take place in the real world.
No one excels in the first season — anthology or regular series — like Ryan Murphy. With “Bette and Joan,” he’s reached the pinnacle of his heightened aesthetic and insight into the agonies of human nature. The actresses never stood a chance against the ageism, sexism, and misogyny of the time. But even as bittersweet as the series is, it’s full of biting wit, scenery-gnawing performances, and a deep respect for its subjects.
15.”The Night Of”
The first episode of this eight-part series is a masterpiece of Hitchcockian suspense as it follows Nasir “Naz” Khan (Riz Ahmed) through a night that the audience already knows will end in jail. Despite this prescience, one can’t look away, because “The Night Of” demands our attention. Every frame, every word, every breath feels fraught with portent, and not a moment is wasted in this tale of a young man who’s on trial for killing a woman he had only met that night.
While Ahmed gives a command performance of a man who’s — probably, we’re pretty sure, he better be, but hell maybe not — innocent, his legal counsel is just as confounding. Truth is unimportant when it comes to justice, or so John Turturro’s itchy and streetwise lawyer John Stone tells his client. This sobering sentiment stealthily creeps its way through the series as doubt about anyone’s motives sets in. Hell, the series even had us guessing about that darn cat Stone adopted.
14. ”John Adams”
It’s nearly impossible to create a clear-eyed narrative about one of the Founding Fathers. So much of the origin of the United States is surrounded in mythology of its own that it’s hard to get a sense of the “real people” who helped bring about its creation. Still, this 2008 miniseries gets about as close as any story has, with Paul Giamatti as the second President. Charting his journey from public defender all the way up through being George Washington’s successor, this is an ambitious attempt to summarize the achievements and missteps of someone who looms large in the nation’s history. Directed by Tom Hooper (with his usual Dutch angle flair), there’s also a sense of genuine chemistry between Giamatti and Laura Linney as Abigail Adams. There will always be questions about which parts of a life like this to include, but to see a parade of Declaration of Independence and Constitution signers float through this narrative without it ever becoming overly stodgy or biographically stiff is an achievement itself.
When a young man is found dead in a grimy seaside casino, the lives of the family that owns the casino get upended thanks to the investigation, which gets awfully personal thanks to the determination of the lead detective on the case. Oh, and also, it’s a musical! That’s right, the cast of British TV greats, including David Tennant, David Morrissey, and Sarah Parish, sing and dance to artists like Elvis, Smokey Robinson, The Smiths, and Queen in every episode, and somehow it all works perfectly. Track this bizarre but delightful BBC gem down, and find yourself experiencing a totally different sort of British murder mystery, one that stands out as truly memorable.