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Limited Series Should Be Limited

What’s behind second seasons for one-and-done shows like ‘The Night Manager’ and ‘Taboo’?

(AMC/HBO/FX/Ringer illustration)
(AMC/HBO/FX/Ringer illustration)

Despite what awards shows would have you believe, the words we use to talk about pop culture have meaning. Transparent is not a comedy. Viola Davis and Rooney Mara are not supporting actresses. And limited series end, because the fact that there’s a limited number of episodes is right there in the name.

But these days, facts just aren’t what they used to be. Which is how we ended up with an executive producer of a show that picked up two Emmys and a Golden Globe in categories designated for miniseries and made-for-TV movies hinting that a second season of The Night Manager may be on the way.

“It’s entirely possible and we’d love to do it,” Stephen Garrett told Deadline Hollywood. He also offered the crucial caveat that “there’s not even a script,” but the mere possibility that there might be a second season is more than we expected — nay, were promised — just over a year ago when the show first premiered stateside on AMC. “The Ink Factory, BBC and AMC are in the early stages of developing a potential second series of The Night Manager, but nothing is definite yet and we have nothing to announce,” the show’s broadcasters and production company subsequently clarified in a statement. The key word here, of course, is “yet.”

This is the second “just kidding!” from the makers of a previously concluded series inside of a week. BBC One and FX waited mere hours after Taboo’s American finale to announce that what once was Tom Hardy’s very special sojourn into television wasn’t so special after all. We’ll be treated to more of James Keziah Delaney’s sub-verbal grunts in no time. And that’s not all. In July, The Night Of’s Steven Zaillian told the Television Critics Association that the show “was designed as a stand-alone piece.” Great! Also, “We’re thinking about it and if we come up with something we all feel is worthy of doing, we’ll do it.” Oh. Meanwhile, Paolo Sorrentino and Sky Italia are working toward a deal for a follow-up to The Young Pope, and Top of the Lake: China Girl hits later this year, turning Jane Campion’s 2013 event series into a multivolume work.

Explaining why all this is happening is pretty easy: This is awards gamesmanship, pure and simple. In recent years, the miniseries categories of Emmys and Golden Globes alike have grown increasingly stacked, due in no small part to loopholes like the one American Horror Story, True Detective, and American Crime easily slipped through. And yet it’s still considered easier to go up against shows like these than the likes of The Crown and Mr. Robot, so it’s in the interest of The Night Manager to conveniently withhold news of these “conversations” until after its stars and producers have brought home a few trophies.

And it should be said that some of these follow-ups make more sense than others. What Zaillian has in mind sounds closer to a voguish anthology series than a true second season, and revisiting the same character in a new setting four years later, as Campion is with Top of the Lake, is closer to a movie sequel or a televised series of crime novels than a continuing series.

But a limited series magically morphing into a just-plain-series, as both Taboo and The Night Manager are doing before our very eyes? This is madness. What the networks and creators making these decisions don’t seem or want to realize is that in Peak TV times, finality isn’t a drawback. It’s a virtue. Whether it’s a miniseries or a movie, one of the biggest selling points a piece of entertainment can have these days is not demanding a protracted time commitment. We enter into Taboo or The Young Pope or HBO’s current smash Big Little Lies with the comforting assurance that we’re not signing away a hundred hours of our future lives. We know what we’re getting, and it’s more than enough.

Renewing shows where renewal wasn’t supposed to be a possibility puts that contract through the shredder. Suddenly, miniseries are sprawling, endless, and overwhelming — just like the rest of TV, when they’re supposed to be a respite from it. At its worst, the Great Un-limiting even threatens to put profit over the needs of the story. (I thought the ending of The Young Pope was pretty much perfect, though I’m curious what Sorrentino has planned next.) But while the results of this development in TV’s unstoppable expansion remain to be seen, the feeling of bone-deep exhaustion it inspires is undeniable.

At least we can rest assured that Big Little Lies is safe. There’s no way in hell Nicole Kidman is becoming anyone’s series regular.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.