The Best Limited Series of the 21st Century, Ranked

·3 min read

Are there any sweeter words in the age of too much TV than “limited series?” It’s a category that guarantees minimal time commitment with maximum return — be it weekly watercooler gossip or a delicious binge. The limited series is the perfect hybrid between a movie and a longer-running TV series, with intricate stories, complex characters, and just the right amount of moving parts. The fact that a series will not return makes the narrative precious and the ending paramount, even if that means leaving things deliberately open-ended. This one-off nature makes them perfect for literary adaptations, epic events, and period pieces.

What doesn’t qualify? Those that started as limited series but then blew up enough to get a second season. (We’re looking at you, “Big Little Lies” and “White Queen.”) We’ve also limited (ha!) ourselves to scripted for now, since Ken Burns will probably deserve his own ranking down the line, once he slows down and we can catch up with his prolific output. (“Wormwood” also is a borderline docuseries, so it didn’t make the cut.) Even anthologies such as “True Detective” and “Fargo” eventually got the boot because the limited series category has never been richer or more impressive than it is now.

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Now that we’ve told you what’s out, here’s what’s in.

Liz Shannon Miller, Hanh Nguyen, Ben Travers, and Christian Blauvelt contributed to this list.

20. “Hatfields & McCoys”

"Hatfields & McCoys"
"Hatfields & McCoys"

In 2012, History Channel was best known for Hitler documentaries, but its first big scripted play, the Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton-starring look at one of America’s most famous feuds, established the network as a newcomer in the ever-escalating Emmy wars, receiving 16 nominations and winning Costner and Tom Berenger awards for their roles. What makes “Hatfields & McCoys” stand out even today is that while the name invokes the ideas of a certain trope, the series actually aimed to bring a human edge to the story, drawing us into these characters’ lives and making the betrayals and bloodshed all the more effective. This is what a scripted depiction of historical events should do — under the guise of fiction, confront us with the emotional reality of what happened.

19. ”The Looming Tower”

THE LOOMING TOWER -- "Losing My Religion" - Episode 102 - Following the simultaneous embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, the FBI begins its investigation on the ground while the CIA starts working on a retaliation plan. John O'Neill (Jeff Daniels), shown. (Photo by: JoJo Whilden/Hulu)
THE LOOMING TOWER -- "Losing My Religion" - Episode 102 - Following the simultaneous embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, the FBI begins its investigation on the ground while the CIA starts working on a retaliation plan. John O'Neill (Jeff Daniels), shown. (Photo by: JoJo Whilden/Hulu)

“The Looming Tower” gets a lot of credit for being important. Not only is it so steeped in largely unknown historical facts that it functions as a 9/11 origin story, but Dan Futterman, Alex Gibney, and Lawrence Wright’s Hulu limited series is stocked with even more first-rate names beyond the two Oscar winners (and Pulitzer Prize winner) listed already.

And yet for all its significant points about responsibility, diplomacy, and bipartisan politics, the eight-part miniseries is still a human story. There’s a complex portrait of a brilliant FBI agent marred at work and at home by his personal proclivities. There’s a story of a Muslim-American who’s trying to take back his religion after it’s hijacked by extremists. And there’s a man who lost a friend to a bombing, and a boss to the exact thing both of them fought against. “The Looming Tower” uses a moving character study to tell its weighty tale, and does so with great power.

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