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The Best Limited Series of the 21st Century, Ranked

From period pieces to crime dramas, these series made the most of their predetermined, one-and-done format.

"True Detective," "Fargo," "The People v OJ: American Crime Story"

“True Detective,” “Fargo,” “The People v OJ: American Crime Story”

HBO, FX, FX

6. ”Fargo” (Season 1)

Martin Freeman and Allison Tolman, "Fargo"

“Fargo” exists in the gray area between direct homage and claiming 1994 as a mere reference point. Keeping that macabre sensibility and optimizing a trio of incredible performances from Martin Freeman, Billy Bob Thornton, and Allison Tolman, this has the glow of a bonfire even as it burns slowly as a fuse. From Lester’s first cringe-inducing “Aw jeez,” all the way through the final moments of the next generation of Solversons, this merges a preestablished classic with a tiny little unquantifiable dose of TV magic to elevate “Fargo” from a recreation to new vision. Even though later seasons haven’t quite reached this height (the Patrick Wilson/Bokeem Woodbine-led Season 2 is phenomenal, while the Ewan McGregor experiment was less so), it still established the ultimate template for taking a film premise and making it feel like an episodic event.

5. ”True Detective” (Season 1)

Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, "True Detective"

A landmark moment for anthology series, “True Detective” had it all right out of the gate. A-list talent, a compelling central mystery, and an eerie, ambitious vision all helped make the story of Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) an instant sensation. The buzz was one thing, but the potential uncovered at HBO drove far more seasons than the series would be able to put out itself. (There’d be no “Big Little Lies” without “True Detective.”)

But what typically gets lost in all the hoopla is the first season’s core engine: two seemingly mismatched cops who find more than they bargained for when picking up an odd new case. This setup has been used time and time again in television, but the conversations between Rust and Marty (usually in the car) pushed this duo to a whole new level. They weren’t just swapping family stories; they’re kicking around the purpose of humanity and its failures as a species. They’re taking a long hard look at the guy across from them long enough to see themselves reflected back. The relationship formed by story’s end is what makes “True Detective” a lasting phenomenon, and their final words so much more than a fitting metaphor. The light’s winning, even when you can’t see it.

4.”Olive Kitteridge”

"Olive Kitteridge"

For a show that starts off by contemplating suicide, “Olive Kitteridge” proves to be a magnificent blend of bleak, hard truths and mysterious beauty. Tracking Olive (Frances McDormand) over the course of 25 years, Lisa Cholodenko and Jane Anderson’s adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Elizabeth Strout tells its story in four powerful parts (boosted by career-topping turns from its leads): We see Olive as a teacher, her husband Henry (Richard Jenkins) as a pharmacist, and their son Christopher (later played by John Gallagher Jr.) as a student. Through their various interactions and fascinations, the audience comes to know Olive as a misanthrope and Henry as the opposite. She feels contempt for the weak while he only wants to coddle it. (Henry’s love of Father’s Day cards defines him so well.) Christopher, fittingly, is caught in between and struggles over the years to understand his parents even as he strives to be more like his dad while harboring the same resentments held by his mom. Above all, though, “Olive Kitteridge” is a story in understanding; it’s an examination of humanity through a particularly sharp lens, but the stories are built around the right intentions. Olive may be harsh, but she’s trying — and sometimes that’s all you can ask for in this world.

3. ”The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story”

The People v. O.J. Simpson

Maybe you were one of those people making jokes when the show was announced: “Spoiler alert: he gets away with it!” But by the end of perhaps the best thing Ryan Murphy’s ever produced for television, we were all enthralled by the human depths that had been brought to the most infamous court case of the century by showrunners Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. From Sarah Paulson breaking our hearts with her fierce turn as Marcia Clark to folks like John Travolta and David Schwimmer low-key blowing our minds by their image-defying performances, this detail-rich examination of just what it meant to the country when a famous black football player went on trial for the murder of his ex-wife and a male companion was addictive, engaging TV on a whole new level.

2. ”Band of Brothers”

"Band of Brothers"

With a title taken from Shakespeare (and the Stephen Ambrose book it was based on), it’s no surprise that “Band of Brothers” is one war story where the individuals in this saga stand for something more than just their place in a bigger fight. Through soldiers in an army, men in a time of global tumult, and people just trying to find home, this HBO series looks at how those same individuals rose to meet the heroism thrust upon them. Through Easy Company, we see what it is like for those who in a time of crisis sought worthiness of themselves and the others they pledged their lives to. It’s a World War II story that doesn’t hide from the horrors of war, but it also finds the parts within each of these individual tales — natural military men and unlikely outsiders alike — that speak to the universal desire for dignity in the face of survival.

1. ”Angels in America”

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Stephen Goldblatt/Hbo/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5879354f)Justin Kirk, Emma ThompsonAngels In America - 2003Director: Mike NicholsHboUSATelevision

“Angels in America”

HBO/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Translating a play to the screen is never an easy task, especially when we’re talking about one of the theater world’s most epic, profound, and beloved works. But the steady hand of Mike Nichols, guided by Tony Kushner’s own adaptation of the seminal text, ensured that the extraordinary cast of Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Patrick Wilson, Mary-Louise Parker, Emma Thompson, Justin Kirk, Jeffrey Wright, Ben Shenkman, and James Cromwell were used to their greatest advantage in this ’80s-set tale about the AIDS crisis and fantastical visions of angels and the world beyond our knowing. The world only spins forward, but thanks to HBO we still have a perfect encapsulation of why this play has stayed so vibrant in our minds for decades.

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