Miniseries are like small-screen purgatory: They don’t quite have the heavenly aura of the everyday TV show nor the demonic dullness of most made-for-TV movies. This puts them in a generally awkward position for viewers and critics alike. If a miniseries succeeds, people complain there wasn’t enough content created. If it fails, people complain it took up too much prime air time and should have been a telefilm. Either way, the miniseries leaves something to be desired. This is no fault of the works themselves. Rather, it’s the fault of the misclassification of miniseries into other genres for the purposes of criticism.
Two of my favorite miniseries of the moment are “The Lost Room,” a then-SciFi Channel original starring Peter Krause (“Six Feet Under”) and the recent remake of “The Prisoner” on AMC starring Ian McKellen (the “Lord of the Rings” films) and Jim Caviezel (“The Passion of the Christ”). The latter is particularly fresh in my mind, as Gandalf and Jesus shed those former roles to duke it out in a power struggle for a village that may or may not even be real. “The Lost Room” concerns the contents of a motel room, all of which have gained supernatural powers after an unexplained universe-altering incident. Both are strange head trips. Both are incredible. But both were panned by most critics.
Now, my taste may not always be perfect. But disagree with me twice, shame on you, critics. I know in my heart of hearts that these miniseries are fantastic, artful, original works. They are impressive in their sheer scale, great production value, excellent casts and innovative premises that set them apart from most things on TV. To put it simply, they’re just plain good. So something must be going on here. How are some of the greatest critics, on which this nation relies to maintain its cultural fortitude, so very, very wrong? I say it’s a matter of background.
Regardless of whether or not I am (somehow, miraculously) incorrect about these two miniseries in particular, criticism of miniseries needs to be re-analyzed. It is unlikely that most TV critics are adequately qualified to review movies (see my review of “Up” to gauge for yourself) and equally uncertain that film critics could review TV. They are different media, each with aspects that critics of the other aren’t as likely to consider. But what is a miniseries if not a hybrid of the two? A miniseries is, essentially, too much of a film for the TV critics and too much of a TV show for the film critics.
For instance, one of a TV critic’s main questions is that of sustainability. The critic must assess not only the show’s quality on an episode-by-episode basis, but its ability to carry on smoothly through multiple episodes. With a miniseries, this is a moot point.
The film critic, on the other hand, is not trained in such matters as the cliffhanger. Also, cinematography is incredibly different on a movie than it is on a TV show, and miniseries here tend to again strike a middle ground. You have the grand panning shots often reserved for film mixed with the casual-feeling character chase shots of a traditional sitcom or drama.
In recent history, the miniseries that have garnered the most critical acclaim are those on the more cinematic side. HBO in its infinite infallibility has created some of the most highly praised miniseries of the past 20 years. “John Adams” and “Empire Falls” both come to mind as hype machines. They were all over the Emmys, and ads for the latter were plastered all over my home town of Washington, D.C. But we shouldn’t just let HBO continue this domination over miniseries. As HBO says, “It’s not TV. It’s HBO.” Well HBO, miniseries are at least partially TV, and should be critically assessed as such.
It seems necessary to create some hybrid critics, or perhaps some particularly specialized ones. It takes a combination of both the TV and film disciplines to accurately judge a miniseries. Or, we can simply have critics whose sole domain is the elusive miniseries, but why anybody would go for a career in reviewing one of the least frequently produced art forms is a question with no good answer. I’m not saying that a TV or film critic can’t be right about a miniseries — I think our review of “The Prisoner” on the arts blog, The Filter, was quite accurate — but to avoid any critical mishaps, we should train a new generation of miniseries critics for the future.