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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.

Side-by-side stills of actor Anya Taylor-Joy in "The Queen's Gambit," Jovan Adepo in "Watchmen," and Himesh Patel in "Station Eleven."

“The Queen’s Gambit,” “Watchmen,” and “Station Eleven”

18. ”John Adams”

"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.

17. “Blackpool”

"Blackpool"

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.

16. ”The Pacific”

"The Pacific"

This 2010 companion series to “Band of Brothers” shares the same producers and one writer, but “The Pacific” is its own animal. It doesn’t follow the typical narrative of building the camaraderie in combat to an emotional peak, but instead tries to do something altogether different. The 10-episode series thrusts viewers into the fray in a far more intense and visceral way that more accurately captures the grisly, soul-crushing reality of war.

Focused on the 1st Marine Division’s battles in the Pacific that include Guadalcanal, Okinawa and later Iwo Jima, the series picks up after the events of Pearl Harbor when anti-Japanese sentiment is at its apex. It follows wherever the core trio — Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale), John Basilone (Jon Seda), and Eugene Sledge (Joseph Mazzello) — goes, and sometimes that means whole episodes that aren’t focused on the front lines. The totality of what a soldier endures is explored, including the stress, fear, hatred, and necessary dehumanization of the enemy to stave off madness. Upsetting, contemplative, and well-crafted, “The Pacific” is an underrated gem that encapsulates the multidimensional human cost of going to war.

15. ”Howards End”

Matthew Mcfadyen and Hayley Atwell, "Howards End"

“BOSH!” That explosive word, said with the intent to refute and ridicule, is used with unrepentant glee throughout Starz’s four-part miniseries adaptation of E.M. Forster’s novel of the same name. And in a way, it is the perfect embodiment of the spirit of the series: cheeky, rebellious, and altogether delightful. Oscar-winning scribe Kenneth Lonergan gets credit for his brilliant adaptation, and Hayley Atwell and Matthew Macfadyen deserve credit for bringing that playful, personality-laden dialogue to life. The central Schlegel siblings – Margaret (Atwell), Helen (Philippa Coulthard) and Tibby (Alex Lawler) – are as charismatic a bunch as you could ever want as friends if only to be able to tell them how wrongheaded they are at times. And Macfadyen’s wealthy and entitled Henry Wilcox would be thoroughly disagreeable if only Macfadyen could tamp down his natural charm a hair.

While the series is ostensibly about Margaret inheriting property from Herny’s widow and promptly being viewed with suspicion by the Wilcox children, it also offers an incisive look at class, civic responsibility, personal integrity, and societal expectations. Beyond just entertaining and thought-provoking, “Howards End” is also a visual treat, from the lush images of turn-of-the-century England and the cozy interiors to the colorful wardrobe preferred by the equally vibrant Schlegels. While the 1992 film adaptation starring Emma Thompson deserves all of its acclaim, Starz’s successor may have just eclipsed it and become an instant and more enduring classic.

14. “Sharp Objects”

Medium-close shot of a woman with wet red hair standing in front of a mirror with her back facing it; still from 'Sharp Objects."

“Sharp Objects”

Anne Marie Fox/HBO

13. ”Alias Grace”

Sarah Gadon, "Alias Grace"

While “The Handmaid’s Tale” got all the glory over on Hulu, Netflix’s adaptation of another Margaret Atwood novel is just as stirring and feminist in its own way. Loosely based on the real-life story of Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon), a servant who was accused of the double-murder of her employer and his housekeeper, the series explores issues of 19th century class of class and gender in Canada. The horrors of Grace’s lot are reflected in the Southern Ontario Gothic stylings from the novel: strong spirituality and a possible haunting by Grace’s one and only friend. There is that feeling that answers are just beyond reach on the other side of the veil.

Through it all, Gadon is mesmerizing as the heroine who at first elicits sympathy and later arouses suspicion in viewers. Was her tale true or is it just as calculated as Scheherazade’s tales that stretched over 1,001 nights? Adapted by Sarah Polley and directed by Mary Harron, “Alias Grace” is an eerie and beautifully wrought yarn that both celebrates and questions the art of storytelling.

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