Limited series like ‘Big Little Lies,’ ‘Alias Grace’ thriving with big names

In a world of TV audience fragmentation, dramas that don’t require huge time commitments are thriving.

Limited series, miniseries and anthology series with short or one-off seasons — like award winners “Big Little Lies,” “Fargo,” “Feud,” “The Night Of” and “American Crime Story” — have racked up accolades and ratings, and have movie stars and networks jumping onboard.

“I honestly believe it’s the way people are watching TV now,” says Montreal-based re-recording mixer Gavin Fernandes, who was nominated for an Emmy for his work on “Big Little Lies,” which won eight statuettes and had an all-star cast including Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman.

“I find people are not as committed to seven seasons of ‘Game of Thrones’ or whatever. They watch ‘Game of Thrones’ and if it doesn’t get wrapped up, sometimes they’ll move on without the series being finished…. Netflix and Amazon Prime are changing completely the way we watch TV.”

It’s also a trend in Canada, where several limited series have recently debuted, including ”The Disappearance” on CTV, “Alias Grace” on CBC, and “Bad Blood” on City.

“Those six-part, 10-part, 11-part series I think are in vogue in terms of how studios are creating programming,” says Colette Watson, senior vice-president of TV and broadcast operations at Rogers, which is airing “Bad Blood.”

“We did it with ‘Bad Blood’ on six (episodes) and that’s what we’re doing with our next Canadian project. We’ve got a few things in development and … we think that’s the way to go for us.”

Limited series, like the seven-part “Big Little Lies,” are generally defined as those with short seasons. Often they’re based on books and debut as one-offs, but sometimes they get the green light for another season. Miniseries typically only air as one short season, and anthology series like “Fargo” have stand-alone instalments with a different set of characters and stories in each episode or season.

Such shows offer a sweet spot for actors: being able to live with a character longer than a film, but not so long as to become tired of it.

“As an actor, as an artist, it’s in and out, it’s more bang for your buck,” says Joanne Kelly, a Canadian cast member on the six-part mystery series ”The Disappearance.”

“You go in, you have a beginning, a middle and end. It’s not so open-ended. Also, you’re not committed to something for five years right off the bat. I think it creates a healthy sense of play. I think you can draw with sharper lines in six than you can in 13 or 22. I think everybody has a more definite idea of what it is, the tone and you can come out swinging.

“You aren’t asking for approval, which I think that in longer series, you can get locked into that — trying to be likeable.”

On “Bad Blood,” Canadian star Kim Coates says they were able to “go in areas of humanization that are just raw and more swearing, and more stuff that is more true to life.”

Camille Sullivan, who also stars on “The Disappearance,” says audiences members also get deeply invested.

“You can throw something harder and harsher at the audience,” says Sullivan. ”They don’t want to sustain it for 22 hours, but for six hours? ‘Sure. Yeah, I’d like to go to a dark, deep place for six hours.’”

Event television also offers a cinematic quality that appeals to those in front of and behind the scenes.

“A big part of the appeal as an actor is that I’m not going to be making this with an episodic director; I’m going to be shooting this with a filmmaker like Mary Harron,” says ”Alias Grace” star Sarah Gadon.

Harron, who directed “Alias Grace,” says she felt as if she was working on an independent film.

“You go deeper,” says Harron. ”I think you make better work actually, because you’re so in the world of it but you don’t have to sign on for five years. And also you don’t dilute the sensibility of it, because it’s the same writer, same director.”

On “Big Little Lies,” which earned an Emmy for Oscar-nominated Quebec director Jean-Marc Vallee, HBO gave the crew the time they needed to treat the show as one entity rather than having to work on it episode by episode.

“Sometimes in TV series, you do all you can and it’s not always as good as it can be because of the time, because of the conditions,” says Montreal-based Louis Gignac, an Emmy nominee for sound mixing on “Big Little Lies.”

“Most of the time, you just let the show go on air and you always have in the back of your mind, ‘I could do this better if, I had the time.’ … But on that kind of television production (like ‘Big Little Lies’), we don’t have those kind of thoughts.”

The promise of distribution on a wider TV platform is also a lure.

“For us in independent film, it’s like this shocking, amazing discovery that on Nov. 3, the entire world will be able to see this project,” says Gadon, referring to “Alias Grace“‘s release date on Netflix globally outside of Canada.

“I always say ‘Let’s get on this train while it’s still running,’” adds Harron. ”As anyone in film, you want to just get things made the way you want to make them and this is a fantastic opportunity.”

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