Finding a great 10 season, 160 episode TV show is always awesome. A new show to take up all of your time, yay! But, to be honest, some shows overstay their welcome. So many stories can be told in way less than 100+ episodes, yet the pursuit of the almighty dollar keeps us flush in seasons. That's when you naturally start to see a dip in quality and, ultimately, the regurgitation of the same old stories time and time again. There is a form of television that solves all this, though, and that's the beloved miniseries. All of the best miniseries do one big thing: tell a concise, full story in (usually) 10 episodes or less. What's not to love?
Miniseries were created for those of us who are low on time and have the attention span of a goldfish. They're full of rich stories that aren't drawn out for the sake of more episodes. The limited runs allow showrunners to plot the beginning, middle, and end of their stories and perfect them. It's rare in the world of television to know exactly when your show may end so miniseries provide predictability that keeps episodes tight and stories on track. Plus, it helps avoid the ridiculous storylines that come with shows that have been on way too long (looking at you, Grey's Anatomy). Here are the best miniseries of all time for when you don't have tons of binge-watching time — or the attention span to get deep into a show!
Margaret Atwood is having a resurgence at the moment. Her work is cropping up everywhere and you likely know her best as the author of the source material for Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale. That wasn't her only work adapted for television, though! Alias Grace is based on a real murder but the events depicted are completely fictionalized. The story follows Grace (Sarah Gadon), an Irish immigrant who is convicted of a murder she has no recollection of committing, and the psychiatrist who becomes obsessed with her. At only six episodes, this is one of the best short series on Netflix!
Crime dramas are always fascinating. But often times the premise runs stale before there's any payoff. The Night Of doesn't fall into that trap, keeping viewers captivated through all eight of its episodes. Naz (Riz Ahmed) begins a night out innocently enough but ends it in a prison cell waiting for his arraignment for the murder of a young woman. The miniseries tells the story of what happened that night and the reverberating consequences of the case. It's a compelling mystery with a payoff that comes sooner rather than later, leaving you satisfied as it concludes.
Before the 2017 adaptation of the Stephen King story reintroduced It to the world, there was the 1990 miniseries that brought the story to life. Tim Curry stars as Pennywise, the clown form of "It," in this terrifying two-part, three-hour saga. While many of the miniseries of the last few years have been on streaming platforms and premium channels, this was a primetime event airing on ABC. It may be a bit more dated than the film adaptation, but it's a must-watch for any fan of King's novel. Or, just to see Curry become nightmare fodder as creepy Pennywise!
Ryan Murphy has become the king of anthology storytelling. With the ability to tell similar stories but still reset every season, he's managed to deliver compelling seasons of TV throughout his many shows. Feud, one of the newer shows in Murphy's repertoire, brings one of the most legendary Hollywood rivalries to the small screen. The story of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford's crazy feud, notably during and after the filming of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, is catty, dramatic, and basically made for TV viewers. Honestly, by the time the season ends, you'll almost be wishing for more episodes as you frantically Google all about their real-life competition!
This miniseries boasts one of the most star-studded casts of any miniseries ever. Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, Patrick Wilson, and Emma Thompson all star in this story about the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. A gay man living with the disease is visited by an angel and becomes a prophet amid rising political tensions, the changing landscape of the country, and the spread of one of the most deadly diseases in history. So, not altogether a happy tale. But, the complex story is regarded as one of the best miniseries of all time and swept its categories at the Golden Globes and the Emmy Awards of that year.
This documentary miniseries is quite different than most of the true-crime minis that have premiered over the last few years. The story of Robert Durst was first told in a Ryan Gosling film titled All Good Things. The director of that film was eventually approached by the real Durst, who admired the film. Their meeting led to several interviews and this inevitable documentary. Durst is notable for being associated with many murders over the years, namely the deaths of several of his wives. The truly crazy thing? The day before the finale aired, Durst was charged with first-degree murder after seemingly confessing to the crimes when he forgot he was wearing a mic!
There have been plenty of adaptations of L. Frank Baum's beloved novel The Wizard of Oz. This miniseries, though, is unlike any other depiction of Oz that came before it. The three-part series focuses on a relative of Dorthy Gale, played by Zooey Deschanel, who ends up on Oz and must save the kingdom from evil. Oh, and she has three new friends that come along for the ride. While the plot is fairly similar to the original film, the tone is nowhere near it. This is a grittier, darker, and more visually stunning trip to Oz. It's definitely one of the best miniseries for The Wizard of Oz fans that are all grown up!
Miniseries are the perfect medium for telling historical stories. Movies can be too short to tell a well-rounded picture, but full TV shows can give too much space to tell a story that, in real-life, ends. John Adams chronicles Adams's (Paul Giamatti) political career and hand in founding the United States. The series is split into seven parts, with each one covering anywhere from four to 23 years of the man's life. We'll be real here, paying attention in history class while learning about Presidents can be boring. But watching perfectly crafted miniseries about them? That's the way I want to learn everything.
This is one of the best miniseries that isn't about history, a mystery, or some real event. It's just the story of a woman and the complicated life she lived. The miniseries begins with an elderly Olive (Frances McDormand) planning to commit suicide while reflecting on the hardships of her life. The four episodes of the miniseries bring viewers through years of Olive's life, full of strife and tragedy. Shockingly, or perhaps fittingly, Olive doesn't come across as particularly likable. She's real and flawed beyond measure. But her true-to-life nature helps create a story that completely absorbs you.
You can't have a list of the best miniseries without including Roots. This is the original miniseries and one of the first to nail the concept for television. It's why we're still watching it four decades later! Roots tells the story of Kuna Kinte (John Amos), a man sold into the slave trade and sent to the U.S. from Africa. He encounters the Civil War, living life in slavery, and the long-overdue emancipation of slaves in the country. It's one of the most celebrated miniseries in history and still holds the record for second-most watched season finale ever on TV with 100 million viewers! For perspective, today, 17 million viewers watching is considered outstanding!
The feud between the Hatfield and McCoy families is legendary. Their bitter rivalry was so deep that their feud has become a metonym for any type of intense vendetta. This three-part series dives into the nonsensical fighting between the families that devolves into violence and destruction. Bill Paxton and Kevin Costner give masterful performances as heads of the McCoy and Hatfield families, respectively. It's also widely regarded as one of the best miniseries when it comes to historical detail. You'll feel transported into the era like you're smack dab in the middle of the feud!
This anthology series based on the film of the same name managed to pull off a perfect season of television with its first season. The ten-episode story introduces viewers to small-town husband Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman). After a chance meeting with a stranger, Lester sets into motion a series of violent and shocking events that upend his entire Minnesota town. It's the supporting characters that really make this season of television feel lived in. There's bumbling Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks), unexpected hero Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman), and dangerous and disturbing Lorne Malvo (Bill Bob Thornton). The trademarks of the midwest are splattered all over this authentic and totally bonkers miniseries!
This is the inside story about 9/11. No, it's not a crackpot conspiracy theory series. It's a deep look into the rise of Al-Queda in the 1990s, mounting tension between the FBI and CIA during that time, and how it all unwittingly led to the September 11th attacks. The series explores the many governmental entities that fought each other for information, sometimes actively fighting against their best interests, for the same end goal: prevent an attack on American soil. In the end, they didn't succeed as history shows us. The miniseries is based upon a book of the same name that charts the rise of Al-Queda and the U.S.'s involvement. It's one of the best miniseries to show a recent historical event (no powdered wigs here!) and do it in a way that has never been done before.
The real-life story of OJ Simpson's rise and fall is so captivating that it barely needs to be dramatized for TV. Whether or not you think he did it (uh, he did it), the saga of his Bronco chase, arrest, trial, acquittal, and subsequent later-life spiral are all fascinating. When Ryan Murphy was crafting the first season of American Crime Story (another anthology series from him), he chose to begin with a doozy. In The People vs. OJ Simpson, viewers are treated to an exploration of the prosecution and defense in his case. It's a masterful look at an event people know so well. Oh, and let's not forget that Cuba Gooding Jr. was pretty much born to play Simpson!
Gillian Flynn is a pro at crafting perfect mysteries. Gone Girl was one of the biggest things in the world after Flynn's novel was adapted into a film that proved her thrill-writing prowess. But, to be honest, Flynn's work is so slow-burning and deftly crafted that a movie runtime almost doesn't do it justice. A miniseries is a perfect medium for a Flynn original. More time than a movie to flesh out the story, but not too much to draw it thin and convolute the mystery. Sharp Objects tells the story of Camille (Amy Adams), whose journey to her hometown to investigate the disappearances and deaths of young girls sets her down a dangerous path. Flynn's brilliant plot along with the dark, haunting visuals of the series meld perfectly for one of the best miniseries of 2018.
There will never be a war miniseries quite like Band of Brothers. The ten-episode saga tells the story of the "Easy Company," a part of the United States Army's 101st Airborne Division during WWII. While the events are dramatized (it's a TV show, after all!), many of the things that happen are based on real events and the brothers in arms are all based on real people. In many episodes, there are modern-day interviews with the real Easy Company men who are being portrayed on-screen. The care taken in preserving historical accuracy while still making a war epic entertaining make this one of the best miniseries of all time. This series makes sitting through 10+ hours of WWII history feel like nothing! Blending history and entertainment is hard, but no miniseries gets it right better than Band of Brothers.