The question of “Seriously, what is a limited series” has been percolating for years. The mystery only grew in intensity with the popularity of series like 2017’s Big Little Lies, this summer’s Sharp Objects, and, finally, Maniac, which debuted on Netflix in late September 2018. Emma Stone and Jonah Hill-starring Maniac, like the previously-mentioned shows, was billed as a limited series.
With everyone hopping on the Maniac train, it’s high time we explain what exactly a limited series is. Essentially, it’s peak TV’s answer to the tired-sounding “miniseries” label of yore. As FX chief John Landgraf told The Hollywood Reporter in 2014, “‘Miniseries’ is tainted. It became synonymous with this big, cheesy melodrama that would galvanizs people back when the networks were in that business.” While “miniseries” are expected to be over-the-top three-night period pieces and adaptations filled with bad English accents, trendy-sounding limited series are allowed to be sexy, prestige, and star-studded.
So, a limited series is basically a miniseries in shiny, upscale packaging. Rather than three or four nights, a limited series can span a number of episodes, though they usually come in between four and 10 instalments. The only rule is, a limited series has to actually be limited. Its story must end when its final episode ends. If the program returns for a second season, it must explore completely new territory, complete with a new cast of characters (but the same actors can stay on, just ask Ryan Murphy). The same mandate stands for any subsequent seasons.