Short-run TV series enjoy advantages their multi-season counterparts lack: free from the constraints of long-term plots and character arcs, they can empty the creative tank in one condensed burst.
Showcasing the best miniseries ever reveals one truth: TV has gotten better over the years. As the number of available platforms – network, cable, streaming services. – exponentially expands, the medium has found fertile ground for experimentation and niche-catering, resulting in a list top-heavy with recent releases.
10 Watchmen (2019)
Watchmen is a cinematic sequel to a same-named mid-1980s DC Comics collection. Notably, it brought broader awareness of the racially-motivated destruction of Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Greenwood neighborhood – the so-called “Black Wall Street” – in 1921. The massacre left 36 dead, over 800 hospitalized and nearly 200 mostly Black-owned businesses looted or burned.
Watchmen occurs 34 years after the 1986 comic series. In Tulsa, police must conceal their identities – wearing masks like Afghan soldiers fearing Taliban retribution – to remain anonymous from a white supremacist group that recently engaged in a Kristallnacht-esque uprising called the “White Night.”
Watchmen hinges on a truly out-there event: fearing mankind was hurtling toward nuclear war, a vigilante faked an alien squid attack on New York City that left millions dead. While the tragedy tricked adversarial nations into uniting against an (imaginary) extraterrestrial enemy, those privy to the scheme shunned the act. A would-be whistleblower is then vaporized by a powerful being, Doctor Manhattan, who subsequently flees the planet.
Confused yet? We haven’t mentioned that Robert Redford is president, and some weirdo on a far-flung moon lives with clones he incinerates for entertainment purposes.
Effectively weird and visually stunning, Watchmen accomplishes the difficult task of appealing not only to comic fans, but anyone who enjoys sci-fi or dystopia. It achieves this by staying grounded in character development – especially police detective Angela Abar. Regardless how strange Watchmen gets, it stays tethered to Abar who, like the audience, struggles to digest an at-times confusing plot.
9 The People Vs. OJ Simpson (2016)
Based on legal media specialist and cyber-meeting masturbation enthusiast Jeffrey Toobin’s 1997 bestselling book, the enthralling story of the trial of the 20th Century is the best non-documentary true crime miniseries ever produced.
Surprisingly, despite a star-studded cast that included Cuba Gooding Jr. as Simpson, Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark, and Sterling K. Brown as Chris Darden, the ten-part drama may have placed higher on this list were it not for some flat performances, most notably by David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian and John Travolta as lead attorney Robert Shapiro.
Still, it’s difficult to totally tank a dramatized miniseries about the most dramatic celebrity trial in US history. The show shines brightest in scenes following the trial’s most compelling twists – racist cop Mark Furman’s n-word bombshell, the mishandling of both physical and DNA evidence, the infamous glove try-on – because the audience gets invited behind the scenes to see the participants’ plotting and reactions.
The show also doesn’t shy away from reasonable judgments, criminal trial acquittal be damned. Despite the prosecution’s setbacks, both the show’s overall tone and the frequent hesitancies of Simpson’s defense lawyer superteam give a clear impression: that the chance of Simpson actually being innocent are somewhere between slim and none.
8 From the Earth to the Moon (1998)
Somewhat forgotten amid 1998’s more outrageous spacebound adventures – Armageddon and Deep Impact – the exhaustively researched story of NASA’s decade-long quest to land a man on the moon was visually stunning, well-paced and tremendously acted by its ensemble cast.
Co-produced by Tom Hanks and Ron Howard, From the Earth to the Moon plays out in 12 episodes, each from a different director. The result is a comprehensive collection where the tone is broken up – a sort of scattered cohesiveness that works to keep the at times tech-heavy plot from becoming too monotonous.
Far from a hackneyed, all guts-and-glory tale of heroism, From the Earth to the Moon starts with Apollo 1 – an unmitigated disaster in which a pre-launch cabin fire killed all three crew members.
The miniseries’ fifth instalment, called “Spider,” is particularly riveting. After the previous episodes take viewers through 1968’s Apollo 8 mission – punctuated by a dramatic, live mid-mission reading from the Book of Genesis – the action returns to 1961, telling the story of one man’s efforts to convince NASA higher-ups that the most effective means of landing men on the moon involved separate landing craft engaging in a lunar orbit rendezvous. The decision was instrumental in the gradual buildup to Neil Armstrong’s famous first steps on July 20, 1969.
7 The Night Manager (2016)
A BBC miniseries adaption of a 1993 novel, The Night Manager is the six-episode tale of Jonathan Pine, an ex-soldier who oversees the night shift of a luxury Cairo hotel during Egypt’s 2011 Arab Spring revolution. He gets involved with the mistress of a local bigwig, who it turns out is neck deep in smuggling illegal arms, including chemical weapons. He divulges this to the UK government and tries to get asylum for his lover, but she is ultimately murdered.
Four years later, we rediscover Pine as a (you guessed it) night manager at a luxury hotel, this time in Switzerland. In true “just when you think you’re out” fashion, Pine comes across information intended for the same crime boss the UK government had been pursuing back in Egypt. An intelligence contact, Angela Burr, implores Pine to help her investigation. When he refuses, she cites his service in the Iraq War, where he apparently witnessed the mass casualties chemical weapons could inflict.
That was just the first episode. And while The Night Manager could have then tumbled down a rabbit hole of action genre cheesiness, what transpires over the ensuing five instalments more resembles “Homeland” at its best. Surprising deaths, inventive espionage, contextual backstories and ulterior motives combine with strong acting performances for a highly compelling show.
6 Lonesome Dove (1989)
Ironically, the best Western-themed miniseries ever aired when most viewers were weary of the genre. Due to the overabundance of cookie-cutter, cheesy and racially condescending Westerns in the 1950s and 60s, by the late 1980s they were unfashionable in American film and television.
Despite this, US broadcast network CBS invested a whopping $20 million into a four-part miniseries debuting in February 1989. The casting spoke for the effort’s lofty goals: starring the legendary Robert Duvall, Lonesome Dove also featured Tommy Lee Jones in his prime; Danny Glover from 1987’s wildly popular Lethal Weapon; Anjelica Huston; and Diane Lane.
The All-Star cast did not disappoint. In one of the best performances of his outstanding career, Duvall as Augustus “Gus” McCrae leads a team of residents from the sleepy, aptly-named Texas border town of Lonesome Dove on a thousand-mile journey to a more promising life in largely unsettled Montana. Here, Lonesome Dove’s creators take a well-tread Western motif – the epic journey – and simply do it better.
Horse thieves, Indian kidnappers, fatal snakebites, conniving murder—all tried-and-true Western mainstays that Lonesome Dove portrays at the risk of perceived staleness. But a strong plot, great actors and a less patriotically patronizing tone made the miniseries a 26 million-viewer sensation, transcending the genre’s general done-to-deathedness.
Credited with breathing new life not only into Westerns but miniseries overall, Lonesome Dove was nominated for 18 Emmys, winning seven.
5 Chernobyl (2019)
The 1986 meltdown at Ukraine’s Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was among history’s most cautionary lessons on the dangers of state censorship. In the hours following the reactor explosion, local USSR officials did what totalitarian regimes frequently do: downplayed the disaster to protect themselves from unforgiving higher-ups and international embarrassment.
The Chernobyl coverup was swift and strict: disregarding the steadily worsening public health threat, officials forbid evacuation and suspended outside communication, at once trapping and silencing area residents.
Given the disaster’s cascading tragedy of both malfeasance and misjudgments, the miniseries’ creators had cinematic troves to work with: initial impact, eerie suspense, snowballing catastrophe. It succeeded by artfully breaking down the scale into humanizing microcosms, taking viewers on the journey into the radioactive rabbit hole along with the characters. In one powerful scene, a Soviet official remains skeptical even after a scientist notes the telltale glow emanating from the reactor – a surefire sign that the roof is blown open and radioactive waste is spewing into the atmosphere.
The drama builds as more stopgap measures are tried in vain, costing more gruesome radiation exposure deaths. As the disaster’s magnitude becomes more evident and evacuations commence, the miniseries wisely portrays not the obvious human panic but a heartbreaking result: the killing of abandoned pets, whose exposure could leak into unaffected areas should they be left behind.
Watching Chernobyl now, one can’t help but compare it to China’s suppression and secrecy in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, supported by the lying mainstream media and those of a certain political bent.
4 Angels in America (2003)
A 2003 TV adaptation of the 1991 play of the same name, Angels in America recalls one of history’s most tragic subculture settings: the gay community at the inception of the AIDS epidemic.
The background: as AIDS began to proliferate in the early 1980s, the then-new disease was largely limited to gay men. As the virus’ deadly scope steadily widened without complete understanding of exactly how it spread (Could it travel through the air? On surfaces?), straight people feared for their lives while castigating the gay community for its perceived sinful promiscuity.
In America, Ronald Reagan was exactly the wrong president to meet this moment. His administration (and admittedly the entire media) initially dismissed the unfolding disaster as a “gay plague,” and the president himself didn’t even mention AIDS until 1985 – the year in which Angels in America is set.
Amid this complex landscape, Angels in America is a fairly simple tale of love and loss. Protagonist Prior Walter tells his lover, Louis, that he has AIDS. Louis soon leaves him, leaving Walter dying and alone; during fever dreams, Prior is visited by victims of pandemic’s past. In what is essentially the “B” story, a married Mormon attorney and infamous McCarthyism co-conspirator Roy Cohn portray unfortunate reasons – religion, politics, power – to remain closeted in 1980s America.
Angels in America is one of just two programs ever to win every major Emmy Award for which it was eligible, including all four acting categories.
3 Roots (2016)
No, the date above isn’t a typing error. Roots’ 2016 remake was better than the original 1977 miniseries. According to one reviewer: “The New Roots Is More Scathing, and Pulls Fewer Punches.”
Still, the 1977 version would easily make this list were it not for its contemporary counterpart. Roots is, simply, among the most heartbreakingly compelling accounts in screen history, a decades-long saga exemplifying the subjugated survival of a people based solely on skin color.
Poised to attend university in Timbuktu, young Kunta Kinte is captured by a rival African tribe and sold to European slave traders. After a near-mutiny during the trans-Atlantic crossing, forced labor at a Virginia tobacco farm and an unsuccessful escape attempt, Kinte slowly resigns himself to physical restraint while refusing spiritual constraint. Here, while the original Roots certainly broke new ground, the remake was better acted and more vividly depicted.
Cinematically, slavery is the ultimate landscape for a “defiance despite dashed hopes” motif. Kinte fights for the British in the American Revolution… then re-loses his freedom once the colonies gain theirs. He has a daughter and teaches her about her heritage… but this heritage is violently usurped when her owner rapes and impregnates her.
Two generations of brutality later, that baby’s granddaughter becomes the first of Kinte’s lineage to be born free following the Civil War. Roots’ power lies in humanizing slaves amid the inherently inhuman institution of slavery, whose impact is felt to this day and continues out of plain-sight in places such as communist China so we can absolve ourselves of guilt when trading with such nations.
2 The Pacific (2001)
While its concurrent counterpart, 2001’s Band of Brothers, was brilliant, The Pacific ekes out a victory for best war miniseries ever.
It’s a close call. Band of Brothers compellingly recalls the ordeals of Easy Company, a paratroop unit dropped behind Nazi lines ahead of the D-Day Allied invasion of Normandy. The company suffered frighteningly high casualties, and Band of Brothers humanizes their heroism poignantly.
Just one drawback: Band of Brothers was too stylistically similar to 1998’s Saving Private Ryan. By 2001, war-torn Europe was well-trod cinematic territory.
No so for The Pacific, which depicts the horrific island-hopping US Marines endured to dislodge the entrenched, surrender-averse Japanese from heavily defended tropical tracts. Amphibious landings – grisly, high-casualty affairs repeated ad nauseum – give way to jungle fighting whose paradise-like settings belie the hot, humid deathtraps they represented.
Episode names read like a list of thousand-yard-stare-inducing campaigns that left thousands dead. Guadalcanal. Pavuvu. Peleliu. Iwo Jima. And finally, the desperate Japanese stand at Okinawa, whose Shuri Line saved the worst for last.
Interestingly, where Band of Brothers deals with the fear of being the last to die in a nearly-won war, The Pacific portrays the dread of a never-ending conflict, as the prospect of the ultimate battle – an invasion of mainland Japan – hangs like a Sword of Damocles over the Marines until the deus ex machina atomic bombs suddenly end the war. Everyone thought they would die… until they didn’t, and this bravery amid certain doom is portrayed grippingly.
1 John Adams (2008)
America’s least celebrated Founding Father is the focal point of the best miniseries in television history. John Adams is not only the greatest period-piece short series ever, but also the most engaging biopic miniseries – a two-for-one that helps set it apart from other excellent efforts.
It is also the best-acted, if only because it features a splendid actor – Paul Giamatti – giving perhaps his most outstanding performance in a career full of them. From idealistic Boston lawyer to passionate independence advocate to unpopular president, Giamatti as protagonist shows the guts and guile of the arrogant, rigid but nonetheless essential statesman Adams truly was.
The show is at its strongest when extended monologues allow Giamatti to humanize Adams’ often superfluous erudition and Puritan inflexibility. From representing the British soldiers tried for the so-called Boston Massacre (and gaining an acquittal despite widespread anti-Crown sentiment), to pleading with fellow colonies to declare themselves independent states, to becoming the first American to meet with King George III in a diplomatic fashion, Giamatti transcends Adams’ notorious unlikability to display the honor and dedication with which he served the nation he was so instrumental in birthing.
Adams’ life was so intriguing, and Giamatti so brilliant, that a miniseries with a bellicose pivot point – America’s Revolutionary War – had zero battle scenes save for a naval conflagration Adams survived en route to France, where he ruffled French feathers arguing for military alliances with his trademark impatience and cantankerousness.