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Marvel, Miniseries, and the Challenge of Formatting Television

TV has never had more options for how, and for how long, to tell its stories, an exciting array of possibilities that also leaves room for error

Getty Images/Netflix/Marvel Studios/Ringer illustration

Form follows function, the saying goes. First coined by architect Louis Sullivan in his 1896 essay “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered,” the slogan has since broadened into a first principle of design as a whole: Whatever purpose you want an object to serve, its look and shape should serve that goal first and foremost; factors like aesthetics or novelty, it’s implied, ought to be secondary at best. Sullivan was talking about physical form, but the same concept applies to more intangible ideas like artistic media.

For most of television’s history, there simply weren’t many forms to choose from. But with the rise of cable and streaming has come both an explosion in formats and a dramatic shift in incentives. Miniseries and TV movies are longtime staples of the medium, but for the most part, traditional broadcast series are designed to go on for as long as possible, the better to serve as a vehicle for ads; a show’s longevity is usually a function of viewership and budget, not the creator’s intent. With cable channels and streaming services funded by subscriptions, the calculus for starting or ending a show is different, driven by buzz for an overall brand rather than the performance of specific titles. (The two are certainly related; they’re just not as synonymous as they once were.) And particularly on streaming services, which don’t have strict time slots to fill, the possibilities for a story’s eventual structure are endless. Form follows function, yes. But what happens when there’s a practically unlimited supply of forms a narrative can take—from feature film to continuing series to everything in between?

That open-ended question and its many answers have led to a phenomenon I’ve come to think of as “form confusion.” As a critic, I’m used to asking whether a show’s writing, acting, and direction help serve its overall aims. But in recent years, I’ve lost count of the times I’ve watched a limited series that would work better as a movie, or a movie that would work better as a limited series, or a season that could use a few extra episodes to fill out its arc. Now length, too, is a subjective variable, as open to evaluation as any performance. It’s a trend inherently linked to the broader collapse of film and TV as separate fiefdoms, as streaming eats away at theatrical exclusivity and TV grows increasingly saturated with finite, self-contained series. TV has never had more options for how, and for how long, to tell its stories, an exciting array of possibilities that also leaves room for error.

There’s no better case study for form confusion than the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the now-slightly-misnamed leviathan that’s lately come to include two limited series (WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier), a recurring series (Loki), and a feature film (Black Widow) simultaneously released in theaters and the service Disney+, also home to the TV shows. At just six episodes, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was overstuffed with ambitious themes it inevitably underserved; as a posthumous retcon of a thinly drawn heroine, Black Widow cried out for more of the character detail it was supposedly meant to deliver. The MCU has long echoed TV’s serialized structure in its blockbusters, but by warehousing The Avengers in the same virtual space as shows like the upcoming Hawkeye, Disney+ highlights just how many tools Marvel now has at its disposal, and invites debate as to how well it’s choosing them. Would The Falcon and the Winter Soldier have benefited from a few more hours to flesh out its argument about race and patriotism? Would Black Widow have served its purpose more effectively if we’d seen more of Natasha’s life as an assassin in training?

But with its deep pockets and cultural dominance, the MCU isn’t subject to one of the main market forces behind form confusion: the decline of the mid-budget movie and the subsequent migration of projects that might otherwise become one into TV, where they’re reborn as glitzy event series. One of the most successful miniseries of the past year, chess drama The Queen’s Gambit, is essentially the seven-hour version of an inspirational sports movie, the kind that made for innumerable hits in the ’90s but has since gone all but extinct. (Creator Scott Frank’s previous Netflix show, Godless, had a similarly transplanted feel, but for the old-school Western.) The Queen’s Gambit was a massive success, earning a rare press release touting its viewership and, more recently, 18 Emmy nominations. The saga of embattled prodigy Beth Harmon, played with transfixing intensity by Anya Taylor-Joy, nonetheless drags in spots; all those sequences of Beth staring at the ceiling tend to add up, and the in medias res opening feels artificially inserted—a “wait and see” for viewers who won’t witness Beth in her prime for hours yet. The show’s pacing is hardly a fatal flaw. It simply highlights a common issue in what’s become TV’s most overcrowded space.

If a miniseries is successful, it also faces the temptation to dilute its own success. The most infamous example is, of course, Season 2 of Big Little Lies, an unforced error of a follow-up that turned the poster child for TV’s star-driven new era into a source of Meryl Streep GIFs and little else. Not all extensions of what was initially sold as a self-contained series are disastrous. Perry Mason was once a case-of-the-week show; now, it’s more like case-of-the-season, a slowed-down procedural in lieu of just an origin story. There are also instances like Killing Eve, the spy drama that proved unable to sustain its cat-and-mouse game after the departure of creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and acknowledged as much three seasons too late. Killing Eve may not have been billed as a miniseries from the start, but it increasingly looks like it would have worked best as one in hindsight.

The understanding that a series is only as limited as its network and talent want it to be is now so ingrained that speculation about a renewal is practically a badge of honor—a sign that a show left fans wanting more. The latest beneficiary of such rumors was Mare of Easttown, whose creator, Brad Ingelsby, gave an answer just ambiguous enough to keep the possibility in play. (Mare, too, could feel like it was drawing out its central mystery to fill its seven-episode order; a shorter version might have had fewer red herrings.) The natural corollary to whether a show will get a second season, of course, is whether it should. NXIVM docuseries The Vow already stretched its found footage into an interminable nine hours. Do we really need more of Keith Raniere’s noxious rants?

Not every factor in a series’ duration is creative, or even purely financial. The coronavirus pandemic threw production into a tailspin, prematurely canceling series like GLOW and forcing some to change formats on the fly. Unable to film its second season, HBO’s Euphoria instead turned to a pair of special episodes that moved the show forward without reconvening the full cast. The Euphoria specials made for an inadvertent contrast with Netflix film Malcolm & Marie, director Sam Levinson and star Zendaya’s other quarantine project. Both projects were status updates on long-term relationships at a crucial turning point, but where Euphoria fans had the benefit of already knowing the protagonists well, Malcolm & Marie’s title pair felt thinly drawn, lacking in nuance and context.

Could Malcolm & Marie have worked better as a miniseries, the better to shade in a complicated push-and-pull? Perhaps; perhaps not, since Master of None’s anomalous new season (subtitled Moments in Love) took a similar concept, broke it up into five episodes, and also fell short. In fact, my own response to Moments in Love was to lament that it felt like a feature artificially distended into a piece of TV. It’s not that there’s some fail-safe formula for determining which rapidly disintegrating box makes the best home for a nascent idea; life would be much simpler if there were. The point is that form confusion is everywhere, and easy answers are not.

Length isn’t always a function of a story’s format. The concept also applies to how one is released, and over what period of time—a question that largely applies to multi-part series on flexible streaming services. Netflix may have popularized the binge, while one episode a week remains the preferred rollout for conventional networks. But there are now many options in between: a “demi-binge” of a few episodes followed by a weekly release, a strategy favored by the likes of Hulu and Apple TV+, or HBO Max’s decision to drop Hacks’ episodes in pairs, or even Netflix turning the Fear Street movies into a three-week event. As the Marvel series and Mare of Easttown have shown, a weekly release can still build word of mouth; a binge can also bury shows fantastically ill-suited to marathon viewing, like Barry Jenkins’s searing adaptation of The Underground Railroad. And yet there’s still a certain ubiquity to an all-at-once drop that strikes a nerve. For a few days in late June, the Netflix melodrama Sex/Life was all but inescapable, however silly its twists and turns.

History is full of shows that outlast their welcome or don’t get the chance to fulfill their promise; Showtime, for instance, is notorious for letting successful series get long in the tooth. The difference is that, in the streaming age, such decisions aren’t always made on behalf of a particular project. Sometimes a show gets to control its own destiny, with all the responsibility that comes with it. Between medium, duration, and release strategy, there’s more leeway than ever to make choices that either don’t suit the material or doom it to be overlooked by an audience it doesn’t connect with. (The response to The Underground Railroad was curiously muted considering the fame of its director and source text.) But sometimes, form confusion takes a simpler form. The sitcom Girls5Eva looks and feels like the best kind of network sitcom, even though it airs on the streaming service Peacock. Given its style, one might expect a more extended run than just eight episodes, a batch brief enough to inhale in an afternoon. The show fits plenty into its abbreviated run, and a Season 2 is already in the works. You just wish, selfishly, there were more.