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How the miniseries became the coolest category in television

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In the last 15 years, the Emmys have used the term "miniseries" to describe (and honor) a two-part network dramatization of the Anne Frank story, five incarnations of a 13-part horror bonanza, a six-hour movie version of America's most famous play, and a disaster of an eight-part Kennedys history which aired on the reality TV network Reelz. For a long time, it was basically a meaningless word in a mess of a category.

But as TV viewing habits and network practices have evolved, that's changed. Networks hungry for attention and acclaim have quite literally reshaped the definition of miniseries, taking a category that in 2010 could only find two projects to nominate, and turning it into the home of some of the best and most popular shows on television — and which promises to be the most hard-fought battle of this weekend's Primetime Emmys ceremony.

It's all thanks to Ryan Murphy, basically

Historically, the Emmys have recognized longer-form programming in two distinct categories: Outstanding Miniseries and Outstanding Television Movie. But in the 2000s the miniseries fell out of favor, and after years of not being able to find enough projects to nominate the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences just combined them into one catch-all category: Outstanding Miniseries or Movie. The first network to see the potential was FX. After Ryan Murphy's bombastic and controversial American Horror Story: Murder House lost the Golden Globe for Best TV Drama in 2012, the network scrambled to submit it to the Emmys four months later as a miniseries. The second season of American Horror Story was already set to debut the following month, so it was obvious that the show was not a miniseries in the way the term had been popularly understood up to that point. However, since AHS was an anthology series — presenting distinct stories each year with no carried-over characters — they won the argument.

American Crime Story

This strategy wasn't an immediate success, as FX lost in the combined category two years in a row — both times to ambitious HBO movies with A-list casts (first Game Change, then Behind the Candelabra). It wasn't completely a wash though: that first year American Horror Story got five nominations under the miniseries classification that it might not have received if it had been submitted as a traditional drama, including a nod for lead actress Connie Britton and a win for supporting actress Jessica Lange. For a brand-new show — especially a hypersexualized, hyperstylized, gross-out horror show airing on a niche network — it was a lot of attention.

The next year, the nominations in the Outstanding Miniseries or Movie category were split between a number of different kinds of shows, including American Horror Story's second season, the abbreviated final season of Showtime's The Big C, and The Hour, a BBC series that actually had two contiguous seasons. With each season of The Hour comprised of 12 episodes apiece, it was short enough to qualify as a miniseries at the time, even if thematically it was not. It seemed like the word was out that, with just a little finagling, fringe contenders could qualify in the category and face a smaller field in their quest for awards.

Fringe contenders stood a shot if they just switched categories

But FX wasn't the only one playing the miniseries game. The dawn of Netflix shows like Orange is the New Black proved that shows could be successful outside of the normal network calendar, and networks like Showtime, Starz, AMC, and even Lifetime began investing in one-off, "event series" to take advantage and make their usual downtime profitable.

After two years of failing to snatch the crown for Outstanding Miniseries or Movie, FX CEO John Landgraf started steering the conversation toward splitting the categories back up in what seemed like a clear effort to improve his network's odds. In early 2014, a petition championed by the network and its owner, 20th Century Fox, pushed the Television Academy towards a vote — and just like that, FX's anthology shows axed half their competition.

Fargo Season 2

Five months later, FX snagged 45 Emmy nominations, setting a new record for a basic cable network, with Fargo finally earning the network the Outstanding Miniseries award later that year. While Jessica Lange and Kathy Bates won acting honors for their work in American Horror Story: Coven, it was the category change that really helped FX break through — particularly since 2014's big TV movie was HBO's The Normal Heart, the exact type of project that snuffed out the network's dreams in 2012 and 2013.

With the awards success of Fargo, the miniseries had established itself as a truly revitalized format, both in terms of popular and creative success, and awards recognition. As if to mark the moment, the following February the Television Academy rebranded the miniseries with its current, more modern-sounding equivalent: the "limited series." It's a complete reversal for a format that once was dismissed as fodder for over-the-top melodrama and moldy historical sagas. The limited format doesn't just let networks sign up bigger stars for flashier projects — something FX's Landgraf complained about when HBO submitted True Detective to the Emmys as a traditional drama series — but it also offers an opportunity for greater creative latitude for the filmmakers and actors involved. We're here, in the era of peak limited series, and we're going to stay here for a while.

We're in the era of peak limited series, and I'm happy here

The contenders for Outstanding Limited Series at this weekend's Emmy Awards is a powerhouse lineup, with Fargo's second season going for a repeat against the likes of John Ridley's American Crime, Ryan Murphy's American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, AMC's The Night Manager, and the recent remake of Roots (a miniseries that defined the genre when it first came out in 1977). It's simply some of the best television has to offer, and that lineup doesn't even include titles like J.J. Abram's Stephen King-adaptation 11.22.63, Black Mirror, or David Simon's Show Me a Hero.

Entertainment trends are cyclical, and in a couple of years we could watch the pendulum swing back the other way as it has several times already, but at the moment the limited series is only expanding. Along with new rounds of everything made by Ryan Murphy, next year Emmy voters will have to decide between a Big Little Lies adaptation starring Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon, a 10-part Fox series about police brutality directed by Beyond the Lights' Gina Prince-Bythewood, and Steve McQueen's first big project since 12 Years a Slave. It's a more diverse-sounding crop of projects than we're seeing this year, and a sign that the limited series is really starting to get comfortable and stretch its legs.

Ultimately, that's one of the best things the limited series, the anthology series, the miniseries, or whatever anyone decides to call it next week can do. It allows networks to take creative risks, pushing the medium forward even if a particular show doesn't become a zeitgeist-dominating TV event like Breaking Bad or The Sopranos. The evolution of the miniseries is the evolution of TV itself, and if that means getting Fargo and American Crime Story and the Vince Vaughn talking about "blue balls, in your heart" that comes with those, I'm all for it.