The TV miniseries is perhaps the most unsung of the motion picture formats. A sort of middle ground between the short-form movie and the much longer traditional television show – even ones that only last a single season – the miniseries is a potent tool for visual storytelling despite its marginalization. Sure, classics like The Thorn Birds or Roots are cemented in our cultural history, talked about as though they’re films, but the format is generally not mentioned in the same breath as its more popular brethren. Though there are a decent number of them and have been for some time, they’re treated like a novelty; how many times has a recommendation come with a seemingly shocked, “It’s a miniseries!” Regardless, it’s a terrific format for telling a character-driven story, which is why it’s often the vehicle through which novels are translated; if you grew up in the 90s, there was a Stephen King miniseries adaptation seemingly once or twice a year – including the first filmed version of It. And why not? It’s the perfect method to translate some of his tomes, giving the characters more room to breathe than a movie without having to stuff them full of filler like a regular TV show.
But there’s a right way and a wrong way to execute a miniseries – or, more accurately, right ways and wrong ways – and that’s where Marvel comes into the discussion. Now that Avengers: Endgame has capped off the Infinity Saga, Marvel has begun producing several miniseries on Disney+ to continue their famed cinematic universe alongside the new movies. This was a terrific idea; they’d be able to tell stories that could sit with the audience a bit longer than their movies, letting people fall in love with new characters – or discover new layers to older ones – in the same way they did Tony Stark and the rest of the big-screen stars in a less-risky venture (which is to say, a production that doesn’t cost $200-300 million and necessitate a huge opening weekend). In a miniseries, more time could be spent on having the characters simply be the characters without needing to make way for a big action scene every fifteen or twenty minutes. (You can say a movie doesn’t need all that action, but I would argue it’s largely expected of superhero cinema; if you’re selling spectacle, audiences need a little bang for their buck.) And the benefit of choosing the miniseries over the series proper is that you can streamline the story, telling a focused, character-driven narrative without lots of other moving parts or bogging down the momentum with stand-alone “The Case of the Missing Cat” episodes.
And yet, two of the three miniseries that have streamed so far have been misfires. (Moon Knight is currently airing, and while I haven’t checked it out yet, we won’t know if it’s a win or a loss till it’s over.) WandaVision successfully told a contained story about Scarlet Witch and her magic-fueled grief over losing Vision; whether or not each specific plot point worked, it held together as a narrative, with proper pacing and character work that flowed easily through its nine episodes. But then there are The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Hawkeye, where the pacing is all over the place, the characters are flat – or at least not much more developed than they were in the movies – and the plots were cluttered with seemingly random elements that could never adequately be paid off in the allotted time. (Though WandaVision had more episodes than the other two, the total running time is not a whole lot different, especially with The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.) I reviewed all of these miniseries episode by episode – a shameless plug, but I’m not a proud man – and in the latter two, I remarked several times that they felt like they were going too quickly and too slowly simultaneously. That’s because there were simply too many plotlines and story elements, and they stumbled over each other as they unfurled.
The problem is that the people behind Hawkeye and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier didn’t understand the miniseries structure and found themselves caught between those of a movie or a full TV show. The central premise of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was Sam Wilson wrestling with assuming the Captain America identity that Steve Rogers bestowed on him, with Bucky Barnes along for the ride. So, starting with that element, we’ve got Sam passing on becoming the new Captain America, with Bucky representing Steve’s wishes and John Walker representing the alternative that Sam’s decision created. Then, Karli Morgenthau and her Flag Smashers show up; this is fine, as they represent a problem two prospective Cap successors can handle differently based on their unique values. Then, the seams begin to strain with Sam’s family drama and that boat, which has little to do with anything, so Bucky must be forced into it. But everything comes crashing down when Sam and Bucky need to break Baron Zemo out of prison, use him to go to Madripoor, meet the minions of a mysterious criminal mastermind called the Power Broker, team up with Sharon Carter, track down a missing scientist, and then get back to the main story. Oh, and the Dora Milaje from Black Panther show up for good measure. Is it a wonder that none of these threads have a satisfying resolution?
Hawkeye, similarly, begins with a fine premise: Clint Barton has to go back into action to stop a crime ring with ties to his Ronin activities, led by a woman whose life he destroyed. A straightforward story about a fallen hero atoning for his past sins is perfect for Clint, and the breathing room a miniseries gives would allow for plenty of introspection from a good man who’s made terrible mistakes. The flashbacks to his tenure as Ronin also serve this plot and theme, showing us the crimes that were mostly implied in Endgame. (Yes, he killed off that Yakuza crew in the movie, but this would be a chance to show some of the more morally ambiguous vigilantism he perpetrated.) Even having a companion makes sense, especially one who looks up to him as Kate does; watching an idol fall from grace in real time complements Clint’s penance perfectly. But things begin to go wrong when the companion takes over the story, and Hawkeye morphs from a Clint redemption tale to an origin for Kate Bishop’s version of Hawkeye. Suddenly, the main plot is diluted. Then, the villains get overly complex, with Clint after an item pilfered from the destroyed Avengers compound, Kate’s mother involved in the criminal activity (with her prospective stepfather as a red herring), the Kingpin pulling her strings, and Black Widow’s sister as an X-factor trying to kill Clint. Throw in some Central Park LARPers and a one-eyed dog, and you’ve another dud that crumbled under the weight of its unending plot threads.
For a modern example of how to properly execute a miniseries, look at independent studio The Ink Factory and its adaptations of legendary spy author John le Carré’s novels. Formed in 2010 by Stephen and Simon Cornwell – two of le Carré’s sons – The Ink Factory has turned two of his books into miniseries that were joint productions with BBC and AMC: The Night Manager in 2016 and The Little Drummer Girl in 2018. Both consist of six hour(ish)-long episodes, and though they retain the complexities of a le Carré novel, the plots themselves are quite straightforward. In The Night Manager, the titular hotelier, Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston), is recruited by British Intelligence to infiltrate the inner circle of Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie), an arms dealer who sells weapons of war to terrorists and dictators. New threads pop up – Roper’s increasingly disenchanted girlfriend, betrayals from MI6, troubled clients – but each one serves the main story and Pine’s character arc. There are elements that would never have been able to play out in nearly as much detail were The Night Manager adapted as a movie; Pine’s road to establishing his criminal alter ego would have been greatly shortened, and his backstory as a night manager in Cairo would have little to none of its power. Conversely, a full television show would be too long and necessitate tangents and complications that would slow an already deliberate pace to a dehydrated crawl. The miniseries format is ideal, and as a result, The Night Manager is spectacular.
Maybe just as good is The Little Drummer Girl, wherein Charlie Ross (Florence Pugh, who is so wonderful in this you’ll curse Marvel for making her embarrass herself as Yelena), a vapid young English actress, is also recruited – though more forcibly than The Night Manager’s Pine – by the Mossad to ingratiate herself with a Palestinian terrorist group that’s been plying its murderous trade across Europe. Along the way, she and her handler, Gadi Becker (Alexander Skarsgård), develop an attraction that’s complicated by the danger in which he must put her. Like The Night Manager, The Little Drummer Girl consists of six episodes about an hour each in length, and there are story threads and complications to go along with a host of characters supporting the main three – Charlie, Gadi, and Israeli spymaster Martin Kurtz (Michael Shannon), a methodical chess player of a spook whose basic decency does not prevent him from using Charlie like a tool to accomplish his mission. But, as a miniseries, all of these elements have the time to develop, to feel complete, and to work in tandem with the main plot instead of piling onto it like the Marvel ones. Again, the miniseries is the ideal format; the romance between Charlie and Gadi is believable because we see it grow in detail, and the various aspects of Charlie’s training come across as arduous and meticulous with enough screen time to devote to them – time that wouldn’t be available in a film and necessitate shortcuts. For example, one of the reasons Charlie is selected is because she has a photographic memory; while the miniseries explores how this works through her training and the learning of her complex cover story, a movie would use it as shorthand to bypass these sequences entirely, losing a vital part of the plot. (The Little Drummer Girl was once adapted as a movie in 1984. I’ve never seen that version, and after experiencing this one, I don’t know if I care to because I can’t imagine it being nearly as good.) Also like The Night Manager, this isn’t a fast-paced story, and a drawn-out TV show would get dull fast. As a miniseries, it works perfectly.
Interestingly (and unfortunately), The Ink Factory may be about to make its first misstep, and it’s the opposite of the one Marvel has been making. Next on the John le Carré miniseries docket is one of his most famous novels, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. The problem here is that there isn’t enough material to sustain a miniseries. The literary versions of The Night Manager and The Little Drummer Girl have 564 and 532 pages, respectively; in comparison, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold has 225 pages. They’ll have to stretch that story like Reed Richards to make it fill up six hours of television. (The only thing I can imagine them doing is incorporating the sections of the more recent A Legacy of Spies which add details to the career of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold’s hero, Alec Leamas, but even that isn’t nearly enough for a miniseries.) In fact, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold was already made into a movie, and it was perfectly done, not missing a single beat of the novel in less than two hours – and with a marriage of actor and character in Richard Burton’s Lemas so perfect it’s a fool’s game to attempt to equal it. The Ink Factory used to understand this; their first forays into le Carré adaptations were A Most Wanted Man in 2014 and Our Kind of Traitor in 2016, based on books that were 321 and 306 pages. Those movies were stellar (impressively so in Traitor’s case, as the novel from whence it came is dull as dishwater), and they would have floundered as miniseries. So too, I fear, will The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.
With their next miniseries – assuming the ones that have already been produced are lost causes, which may be unfair but is also smart gambling – Marvel should make the writers’ room watch The Night Manager and The Little Drummer Girl (and fire anyone who considers this a chore) and learn from them. Streamline your story as best you can, make all subplots, supporting characters, and twists serve it, and use the padded screen time to explore the characters and their arcs rather than jam in as many references and distractions as possible. With a good structure in place, they can then concentrate on making the stories the best they can be, but that’s a whole other article.