The perfect mini series is an elusive beast. In the pre-Sky and Netflix era, you’d get the DVD and it would last you a few weeks (back then, reading books was still a thing), lend it to friends, and fawn over it at dinner parties for the next few months. Yet back then we were watching less, didn’t have much choice, and consequently, weren’t so picky. The rise of on-demand TV was like moving from small town to the big city: our standards jumped, except this time, the dumped girlfriend was ITV, and the new belle was Sky Atlantic. When there’s so much new TV to choose from, it’s rather difficult to pick.
My criteria for the perfect mini series are that it has to stand in and of itself, last six to eight episodes (although this can stretch longer when based off a book or event), and most importantly, the viewing can be accomplished in a weekend. The following are a few of my favourites:
The Night Manager (2016)
In recent years, nowhere was this formula most perfectly distilled than The Night Manager. Starring Tom Hiddleston as Jonathan Pine – a hotel manager turned spy – it felt like an audition reel for Bond, playing Hiddleston off against Hugh Laurie as the charmingly amoral posho arms dealer Richard Roper. Roper’s Majorcan estate will make you yearn for the Med, but not enough to envy those who cross him. If only this standard were the norm for the BBC, rather than the exception.
Queer as Folk (1999-2000)
Back when Channel 4 weren’t so achingly right on, this portrayal of three men in Manchester’s gay village showed what could be done when you don’t treat your subject matter with kid gloves. The cast features Aidan Gillen (Littlefinger in Game of Thrones) and Charlie Hunnam (Jax in Sons of Anarchy) in breakthrough roles, and is worth watching if only for its fantastic depiction of 1990s gay Manchester.
American Vandal (2017-2018)
“Who drew the dicks?” That’s the question put forward in this pitch-perfect parody of the true crime genre, asked with complete sincerity. School prankster Dylan Maxwell is accused of drawing penises on 27 teachers’ cars, and consequently expelled. His classmate Peter Maldonado isn’t convinced of his guilt, and launches a detailed investigation. Another TV series unjustly cut short, the second instalment tries to find out who added laxatives to a Catholic school’s lemonade.
As wildfires creep ever closer to the Chernobyl power plant, threatening another addition to Apocalypse bingo, this series is well worth watching. “3.6 Roentgen. Not great, not terrible” will become a common refrain in your household as you watch this misery-fest, recoiling at the effects of both high radiation and institutional corruption. The outcome of watching can go one of two ways: you’ll either feel even more dreary, or you’ll revel in not being confined within an irradiated soviet apartment block. Let’s hope it’s the latter.
American Crime Story (2016)
This true crime series dealt with the O.J. Simpson murder trial for its first series, and the murder of Gianni Versace (and the ensuing manhunt) in the second. In both cases, the casting is spot on (I can’t speak for accuracy but the acting is very good), and the direction captures the 90s aesthetic well. The series are frustratingly lengthy, and there are the inevitable tedious emotional sub-plots, but there are definitely more reasons to see it than not.
Dead Set (2008)
I’d have loved to have been in the meeting for this pitch: what would happen to the contestants on Big Brother if there was a zombie outbreak? Another product of the E4 era where the series were actually good (see also: Glue; Misfits; Skins), this miniseries pits the reality TV ego against zombie bloodlust. You decide what’s more toxic.
This choice is a bit of a cheat as there are three series, but the episodes are so few (six a series) and so short (just over twenty minutes each), and fly by so quickly that it might as well be a miniseries. The show sees actor (and brilliant singer) Johnny Flynn’s Dylan trace down his previous sexual partners after discovering he has chlamydia. Don’t let that put you off though, as the show is one of the most heart-warming and entertaining series to slip under the radar in recent years. I still don’t forgive them for changing the series name from Scrotal Recall to Lovesick after the first season though.
Huge in France (2019)
A hugely successful and famous French comedian (“I’m called the Seinfeld of France”) moves to LA to become closer to his estranged son. Surprise, surprise, he’s not as well-known over there as he might think, and his jokes don’t work as well in English. The episodes are only half an hour long, touching, funny, and wholly addictive.