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Most of the time, telling someone that big things come in small packages is just a convenient way to justify the last-minute purchase of a Starbucks gift card as a birthday present.
When you’re creating television shows, however, it turns out that big things actually can come in small packages. For proof, one need look no further than the limited series that aired in the past year. Whether it’s the inequities of the criminal justice system (The Night Of), domestic abuse (Big Little Lies), immigration and anti-Semitism (Genius), human trafficking (American Crime), police shootings (Shots Fired), sexism (Feud: Bette and Joan) or racial unrest (Guerrilla), short-order shows explored some of the biggest ideas on TV.
“For me, this [limited-series] format is the exact right way to tell a story,” explains John Ridley, executive producer of ABC’s American Crime and Showtime’s Guerrilla. “Thankfully, I’ve lived long enough for this space to become viable. Doing films is wonderful, but sometimes two hours isn’t enough time. Between American Crime and Guerrilla, I’ve been able to do as few as six episodes and as many as 13. It’s largely dependent on how many we feel the story requires, and that’s what makes this the most potent space on television.”
Adds Tim Minear, who served as executive producer for FX’s Bette Davis vs. Joan Crawford limited series Feud: “When I worked on traditional series, the question was always how you sustain a compelling story over 100 episodes. A lot of stories don’t lend themselves to five years. What the rise of limited series has opened up are options for the stories you want to tell. It’s not that you can’t do that in a continuing series, but what we can do is more than just a ‘very special episode’ or arc. We can fanatically delve into something.”
The fact that limited series arrive complete with a beginning, middle and end also allows their message to have an impact in a more immediate way. HBO’s The Night Of is a perfect example. This eight-episode series about what happens to a Muslim New Yorker (Riz Ahmed) after being accused of murder would probably have been far less effective if it had been told during the course of 20-plus episodes and several seasons.
“This was always a closed-ended series in our minds,” explains Steve Zaillian, who co-wrote each installment and directed seven of them. “We felt this kind of murder case was something you could follow from the night of an arrest to the verdict. It gave us a chance to look at, if not every aspect of the criminal justice system, at least the most fascinating ones.”
Zaillian has extensive experience writing feature films, including winning an Oscar for Schindler’s List, so he admits he was “wired to tell stories in two hours” and approached The Night Of as a long movie. “Richard [Price, his co-writer] and I thought of this as a 450-page script that we then broke up into eight episodes.”
This laser focus helped Zaillian and Price dig more deeply into their research. Having a clear vision of the story they wanted to tell, they started interviewing former Rikers Island workers and detainees to “show in a realistic way every aspect of the system.” They began work on the series in 2009, unaware of how their project would end up tapping into post-election tensions in American life.
“At the time we started, there was no Muslim ban, and while there were hate crimes around the country, it was nothing like we have now,” explains Zaillian. “The story just took us where it did, and because there are always problems and flaws in the [justice] system, this turned out to be incredibly relevant.”
The same thing happened with National Geographic Channel’s Genius. In theory, it was a limited bio series about Albert Einstein and without any particular political agenda, according to executive producer Ken Biller. Still, to show Einstein as someone more than the wild-haired physicist most people recognize, Biller knew Genius had to “embrace the relevance it had in terms of science and politics.” This meant diving headfirst into the anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant sentiment that Einstein experienced in Europe.
“I felt like, while audiences have seen the results of anti-Semitism, they have rarely seen a dramatization of the rise of those sentiments and how they bubbled through society,” says Biller. “It’s hard to do a project based on someone people know because drama hinges so much on the suspense of not knowing what’s going to happen, so our goal was to invent an unexpected outcome. Ordinarily, writers can just ask themselves what a character they’ve created would do next. In the case of Einstein, we know the answer to that, so since we had to hew to his history, we worked more with the ‘why’ than the ‘what.’ “
Sometimes, though, dealing with historical events makes it more difficult to get viewers personally invested in the “why” because the “what” is a part of the past. That’s why Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood set their Fox limited series Shots Fired in the here and now. They wanted their 10-episode event — inspired by such police shootings as the 2014 incident in Ferguson, Missouri — to throw viewers immediately into the deep end of America’s racial divide.
“Dealing with those issues is very challenging anyway, and sometimes when you do it in a period piece — like setting the story during the ’60s civil rights movement — audiences might go, ‘Wow! It was terrible back then,’ ” explains Reggie. “But now there’s more urgency than ever to the problems. We wanted Shots Fired to open doors for more contemporary social justice dramas. We wanted to give voice to a lot of people out there that feel under siege by law enforcement and don’t feel like they’re being heard. And we hoped this could help make sure that 50 years from now, we’re not still talking about this same thing.”
Having a specific and recognizable story and then twisting it — Shots Fired begins with a black police officer shooting and killing an unarmed white man — was the Bythewoods’ approach to broadening the discussion of race so a wider audience could feel involved. And with more nuanced storytelling, says Gina, this or another topical limited series can become more than just something people watch for four or six or 10 weeks.
“Reggie and I are unapologetically secure in our belief that art can change the world,” she says. “It can not only entertain, but also raise consciousness. Since Shots Fired aired, we’ve heard about how people were able to see things from different perspectives. In fact, we recently talked to an ex-police chief who’s now with the Department of Justice, and he said he wants to use the series as a learning tool for police officers. For a show to be able to do that and change perspectives and change training is what you hope for when you make it.”
Some limited series, such as Shots Fired, know exactly what emotions their sensitive material might provoke. Then there are series like Feud, which discovered its deeper sense of purpose as production went along. At first, the notion of a biographical look at the battle between screen icons Davis and Crawford sounded more like a glitzy soap opera, but according to Minear, nobody involved ever wanted to make a “glamorous Hollywood biopic.” Instead, the goal was to “tell the unique story about women of a certain age in Hollywood and let viewers extrapolate that to other areas of life.” He could sense the story was resonating with women across America in part because many of the eight episodes were shot before and after the presidential election.
“Everyone assumed at the time that we’d have our first woman president,” recalls Minear. “It almost seemed like we were commenting on that with our story, and then the election happened. Suddenly, it’s not like we were telling a different story — but it was clear there were reverberations between what we were talking about and what was actually happening in the country. People started to feel the importance of what we were dealing with. I don’t know that people took what we were saying more seriously as the national conversation changed, and we didn’t want to come across as didactic or preachy. Still, we felt we were saying something relevant without dishonoring the memory of these two women.”
Given Crawford’s post-Mommie Dearest reputation in particular, it would have been easy for Feud to make her the villain of the series. Instead, according to Minear, executive producer Ryan Murphy did his research and learned “about her Dickensian upbringing, seeing her story as a tragedy.” This revelation allowed Feud to take on the sort of sympathetic tone it needed to make the Davis-Crawford story relatable to viewers who don’t happen to be faded movie stars.
Like Feud, HBO’s Big Little Lies featured women with more layers to them than might at first seem apparent — in this case, wives and mothers in an affluent seaside town who cling to secrets as big as their exquisitely decorated homes. However, while it helped to have the seven-episode series featuring “stories about women and authored by a woman,” executive producer Bruna Papandrea is convinced Lies had “a point of view that we think both men and women connected to. There has been a dearth of material from that perspective, so the appetite was there.”
Upon reading Liane Moriarty’s 2014 novel Big Little Lies, Papandrea sent it to executive producer Per Saari. He and his producing partner, Nicole Kidman, immediately saw the potential for a closed-ended series that could cut across demographic lines (and give Kidman the meaty role of abused wife Celeste).
“Nicole and I have, through no design of our own, tended to gravitate toward stories about family, about relationships, about the human condition,” says Saari. “We enjoy exploring facets of who we are and sharing stories from different perspectives.”
Unlike many recent limited series, Big Little Lies worked on two levels at once. There was the dark humor of series writer David E. Kelley juxtaposed with storylines that explored taboo topics like adultery and spousal abuse. Creating a project with two distinct tones, according to Saari, has earned Big Little Lies the nickname “Latte” from fans, because “there’s delicious foam on top but a gentle charge of caffeine below. Fans of Liane’s book seemed relieved we retained that balance between the deliciousness and the substance below the surface.”
Ultimately, despite all their layers of drama and deceit, the characters’ lives still at least vaguely resembled those of the series’ viewers. American Crime and Guerrilla, though, took the opposite approach. Rather than bring an audience inside a somewhat familiar world, executive producer Ridley established arenas that were foreign to most viewers. The third season of American Crime explored the world of forced migrant labor and human trafficking, using four languages to tell its story, including a little-known Mayan dialect. Ridley knew going in that this decision “was going to alienate a big part of the audience, but to us, that was the point. Can you imagine what it’s like when that’s your daily life, that you aren’t able to express yourself to everyone?”
He also took a chance with Guerrilla, putting a different sort of mixed-race couple — a black man, Marcus (Babou Ceesay), and an Indian-British woman, Jas (Freida Pinto) — front and center in his tale of radical activists in 1970s London. “Race isn’t just about black and white intolerance. It’s not just binary,” explains Ridley. “There were some people who displayed their intolerance with the story, and that helped me realize we’d made the right decision. I get that people just want to be entertained, but if I’m not disrupting and irritating people, I’m not sure I’m doing my job.”
There’s certainly a risk when you’re not doing “straightforward entertainment,” he adds. You might not be asked to do another season of your show. Doing a limited series mitigates that risk somewhat, since the stories were already designed to come to a conclusion. However, while Ridley admits he’d love to do more seasons of the now-canceled American Crime, he has no regrets because he got to deliver the stories he wanted to tell. “If you have a closed mind and heart, and the only experiences you want to see are your own, I don’t expect you to get past the first 10 minutes of the show,” he says. “Still, there is a value in reminding people who want to experience another dimension: ‘Here are some past and current sociological events you should look into.’ “
This story first appeared in a June standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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