Great TV series can often span multiple seasons, demanding long-term commitments from viewers. On the other end of the spectrum are miniseries. Despite having only a handful of episodes, the best miniseries are masterpieces that prove that well-written stories don’t need to take forever to tell on the small screen.
From horror favorites like The Haunting of Hill House to heart-pounding thrillers like Sharp Objects, these modern miniseries showcase the diversity, creativity, and entertainment value that can be achieved vis this format. The ones that stand out as the greatest among them make the most of their limited runtime, underscoring how impactful succinct storytelling can be. And the best part? Most of these short but brilliant shows can be binge-watched over a single, satisfying weekend.
Maniac stars Cruella‘s Emma Stone as the troubled Annie Landsberg and Jonah Hill as Owen Milgrim, who has disputed his diagnosis of schizophrenia for most of his life. The two form an unexpected bond after they join a pharmaceutical trial. Alongside other participants, they’re ensured that the experiment is safe and that the drug they’re testing can potentially repair whatever issues are going on in their brains. Soon, the three-day drug trial starts to go wrong.
Set in a retro-future version of New York, Maniac has awesome visuals from the start that drastically change as things take a mind-bending turn during the trial. The ambitious miniseries tries to do a lot with its 10 episodes and, for the most part, it pulls off its complicated vision thanks in large part to Stone and Hill’s surprising chemistry.
WandaVision depicts Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision’s (Paul Bettany) seemingly perfect suburban life in Westview, New Jersey. Their reality begins to crack and shift as their lives are shown through different sitcom styles ranging from the 1960s to the ’90s, with each stage referencing numerous TV tropes. Eventually, bits and pieces of what’s really going on outside of their idyllic town reveal the dark truth about Westview.
Still considered the best MCU show ever, WandaVision highlighted two underrated characters masterfully played by Olsen and Bettany. It also proved how effective the format could be for other Marvel characters and storylines, which have unfortunately never managed to live up to the high standard set by this miniseries.
A road rage incident between struggling contractor Danny Cho (Steven Yeun) and small business owner Amy Lau (Ali Wong) escalates to absurd levels in the Netflix original series Beef. The critically acclaimed 10-episode series follows the duo, whose feud only intensifies as they take out their frustrations on each other in increasingly bizarre ways and issues from their personal lives soon begin to influence their quarrel.
Beef‘s darkly comedic story shows what happens when pettiness is taken to extreme levels. Beneath this comical surface is biting social satire that captures the anger, tiredness, and anxiety the average person deals with on a daily basis. Amy’s problems with her relationship and Danny’s financial issues are all too familiar for most viewers, who may just find this limited series to be surprisingly cathartic.
When They See Us is an Emmy-award-winning miniseries based on the 1989 Central Park jogger case, in which five young Black male suspects were falsely accused of assault and rape. The show follows their story from their initial questioning, through the subsequent legal battle, and to an eventual settlement in 2014.
Often cited among the best Netflix original shows of all time, When They See Us doesn’t pull any punches when telling the quintet’s heartbreaking story. It rightly inspires anger and bewilderment as the young men spend years of their lives battling false charges in a system that’s clearly biased against them. It’s the greatest depiction of the Central Park Five’s experiences because it manages to show what each individual endured while also delving into deeply ingrained systemic racism in America.
Inspired by Stephanie Land’s memoir Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive, 2021’s Maid tells the story of Alex Russell (Margaret Qualley). Alex becomes a single mother to a two-year-old daughter, Maddy Boyd (Rylea Nevaeh Whittet), after escaping from her abusive relationship. With Maddy by her side, Alex applies as a housecleaner to support her family.
Maid has many moments that make it extremely difficult to watch, especially as Alex and Maddy experience homelessness after Alex goes out on her own. In contrast with these darker aspects, Maid also has a touching portrayal of recovery and finding hope in unexpected places, especially as Alex strives to ensure that Maddy has a better life and a safe future ahead. Qualley’s tour-de-force performance as an unbelievably strong, yet flawed and hurting mother won her a well-deserved Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Miniseries or Television Film.
The first entry in director Mike Flanagan’s widely acclaimed The Haunting anthology series, The Haunting of Hill House is a frightening family drama. The series brings the classic eponymous 1959 novel by Shirley Jackson to life, with some modern twists that work exceedingly well. Alternating between two timelines, it follows a group of siblings whose terrifying experiences in Hill House in the 1090s still affect their lives in the present.
The Haunting of Hill House is Netflix’s scariest show ever, with innovative imagery and a complex ghost story that proves there can be advancements in the horror genre on the small screen. Each episode’s chilling buildup to the initially mysterious night when the siblings ran away from Hill House flawlessly sets up the show’s explosive conclusion.
Following their collaboration on the renowned World War II movie Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks worked together to create the award-winning miniseries Band of Brothers. Based on interviews, journals, letters, and a nonfiction book by Stephen E. Ambrose, the show explores the experiences of the members of “Easy” Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division.
In 10 episodes, the miniseries captures the dramatic change the young men experience from the moment they begin training through to the end of WWII. It doesn’t hold back in its depiction of the extreme conditions the soldiers experienced, as well as the gruesome injuries and deaths along the way. While not every bit of the show is accurate, it still captures the aspects that truly mattered, like the Easy Company soldiers’ camaraderie and courage in the toughest circumstances.
In the psychological thriller Sharp Objects, reporter Camille Preaker (Amy Adams) decides to go back to the town where she grew up to investigate a strange murder and a missing person case. Based on the 2006 novel by Gillian Flynn, the miniseries follows Camille as she tries to figure out what happened to two local girls. She also has to deal with her estranged family, with her abusive socialite mother, Adora Crellin (Patricia Clarkson), and cruel half-sister, Amma (Eliza Scanlen), further complicating her investigation.
One of the best HBO shows ever, Sharp Objects quickly reveals itself to be less about the murders and more about Camille’s twisted past. Bolstered by Adams’ magnetic performance, it’s hard to look away as Camille attempts to reconcile the person she has become with reminders of her childhood trauma. Soon, the character’s pain, confusion, and insecurities are laid bare in the dark miniseries.
Starring The Menu‘s Anya Taylor-Joy as chess prodigy Beth Harmon, The Queen’s Gambit is a coming-of-age period drama that depicts a player’s grueling rise to the top. Beth doesn’t find most of the chess matches challenging at all, but it’s her dependency on drugs and alcohol that slows down her rise in the game’s competitive world.
Based on the 1983 novel by Walter Tevis, the popular miniseries took the world by storm when it premiered on Netflix. With beautiful period set pieces, surprisingly accurate portrayals of chess matches, and a protagonist viewers can’t help but root for, The Queen’s Gambit became a smash hit. Of course, it’s Taylor-Joy’s mesmerizing performance as the struggling prodigy that elevated the show and rightly earned her a Golden Globe and Emmy Award for her role.
Chernobyl is a compelling series about a real-life disaster that occurred in 1986: the catastrophic nuclear accident in the Soviet Union. In just five episodes, the HBO series depicts the moments leading up to the explosion and the disastrous cleanup efforts and bureaucratic hiccups that followed.
Chernobyl received wide acclaim for its incredible attention to detail, with the series faithfully adapting historical and scientific details based on interviews with locals. Any change made for dramatization is discussed by creator Craig Mazin in a podcast released with each episode, further proving the dedication to getting the facts right. Aside from nailing the technical details, Chernobyl also showcases lesser-known stories that show the harrowing cost of the accident to individuals in the area. Most importantly, it serves as a scathing critique of those in power at that time, whose questionable priorities and focus on censorship would have tragic effects on real lives on the ground.