Limited Series Should Remain Limited Series

In late 2020, HBO Max’s The Flight Attendant introduced Cassie, a spiraling alcoholic flight attendant with curtain bangs, a high ponytail, and an inspiring coat collection who got unexpectedly entrenched in a world of espionage after waking up next to her extremely attractive one night stand dead. The Flight Attendant’s bubbly tone contrasted with serious subject matter was a refreshing balm at the end of a dark year. The show introduced Kaley Cuoco as a serious actress, or made us realize that we hadn’t given her the respect she deserved because she happened to make a lot of money on the network sitcom The Big Bang Theory and in Priceline commercials. Cuoco’s performance not only refurbished her unfair reputation, it made her a serious contender during awards season, earning her an Emmy nomination and a Golden Globe nomination.

Season two of The Flight Attendant, which started on HBO Max last week, flips the first season’s premise on its head. Cassie has crossed coasts: off-screen, she moved from New York City to Los Angeles, as people are inclined to do before the city gradually wears them down. Cassie, who spent the first season confronting her alcoholism, is now sober. She also has a boyfriend and a new part-time job as an asset for the CIA. Although the show’s return is welcome, season two of The Flight Attendant doesn’t feel as fresh, necessary, or as exciting because the first season was so clearly finite.

The Flight Attendant is not the only show that has gone from limited series to regular television show with tacked on seasons following critical acclaim and success, a pivot that could only happen in the Peak TV era when there is already too much to watch. HBO recently announced that Winning Time, another series that was, seemingly, intended as a one-seasoner, will return for a second season, no doubt due to its popularity and star power within the cast, led by John C. Reilly. In 2021, HBO picked up The White Lotus for a second season, although its second season will star an entirely new cast and is reportedly set in Italy. Is it the same show then, or another attempt to piggyback off established IP for as long as possible?

HBO – the biggest culprit in giving limited series an upgrade – first started picking up one season shows in December 2017 when it renewed Big Little Lies, a limited series based on one book that does not have any sequels for a second season. Before the second season order, the first season of Big Little Lies won five Emmys including outstanding limited series and it dominated the acting categories with wins for Nicole Kidman, Alexander Skarsgård, and Laura Dern. The second season of Big Little Lies was a flop. A serious, thought-provoking drama about domestic abuse quickly turned into accidental camp and fodder for memes, the only memorable moment from the entire season being a long scream from Meryl Streep who with all her talent couldn’t even sell the forced material.

Picking up a limited series to series did not start with HBO, despite its takeover of the practice. In the summer of July 2016, a little sci-fi show on Netflix turned into a cultural phenomenon from word-of-mouth. Stranger Things became so inescapably popular (Christmas lights, Eggo Waffles, Millie Bobby Brown galore) that Netflix had no choice but to renew it, and renew it with the same cast as season one. Although Stranger Things was created as an anthology series with more intention to continue than other limited series, the messy, meandering seasons that followed feel more like packaged 80s nostalgia and Netflix merch than a tight, cohesive story.

Despite outcries for more, Watchmen creator Damon Lindeloff refused to continue his 2019 masterpiece, one of the few successful limited series of the Peak TV era to stick to being a limited series. Lindeloff said that he had no reason to stick around as showrunner, having completed his intended story. Other shows that refused to continue their limited runs despite demand, critical success and awards season success include WandaVision, and The Queen’s Gambit. These series already accomplished what they wanted to or needed to, and by resisting the urge to go on, they’ve solidified their significance in pop culture. They’ll be remembered for their greatness, not their flimsy storytelling.

The beauty of the limited series is that they tell one story from beginning to end like a film, and thusly have more time to develop characters and plot like a television show. But over the past few years, limited series have, like absolutely everything else on the planet, become IP inspo. Limited series lose their cultural significance the further they go beyond their original one-season structure. Shows including Big Little Lies and Stranger Things are remembered more for their failures than their successes, reminiscent of the quick and painful rise and fall of Game of Thrones. The Flight Attendant is still early in its second season, but unfortunately unless the season can somehow accomplish the impossible task of matching the significance and impact of its first, it will go the same way as the others.