Vice Principals and The Rise of Limited Series

HBO’s latest reflects a trend towards shorter, more complete stories on television.

Last week Variety reported that Vice Principals, the new HBO series from Eastbound & Down creators Danny McBride and Jody Hill, will only have two seasons. In the words of McBride himself, “We already shot the 18 episodes and that’s it.”

Some fans of the duo’s earlier work may meet this news with disappointment, but I see it as an exciting development for the series, which follows the story of two vice principals (McBride and Walton Goggins, pictured above) vying for the top spot at their school. The duo’s decision to limit the show’s length typifies a recent trend in television storytelling. Increasingly often, creators are choosing to design their programs as limited series.

When I say limited I mean that the series either has a definitive end date, as is the case here, or that each season (or sometimes episode) represents a new story with new (or mostly new) characters. Traditional mini-series, like AMC’s The Night Manager, and anthology shows, like Fargo on FX, all fall into this category. Though the limited series is not a new concept, they are becoming more ubiquitous than ever before. In addition to the aforementioned programs, Louis C.K.’s Horace and Pete, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, HBO’s The Night Of, Disney’s Gravity Falls, and American Horror Story exemplify the pervasiveness of this storytelling format.

McBride and Hill’s choice to limit the length of Vice Principals presents a valuable opportunity to examine the impetus for this trend. More specifically, the rise of the limited series reflects a set of incentives for creators, networks, and audiences, though these incentives sometimes conflict with one another.

The benefits for creators are manifold. First, it allows writers to exert greater control over the structure and pacing of a story. By setting an end point, showrunners can ensure that each season (or an entire series) tells a complete story and then space out that story as they see fit. They avoid, or at least are more likely to, avoid some of the wheel-spinning problems that occur when plot-heavy series go on and on with no end in sight. Furthermore, the short term nature of a limited series allows creators to, as according to Matt Zoller Seitz at Vulture, “play around with form, often in ways that might be a bit off-putting to viewers if they were implemented on a regular weekly series that had set rhythms and an established, comforting style.” In the case of Vice Principals, McBride and Hill have chosen to set the series over the course of a single school year, which gives them the opportunity to discuss the different events that may occur throughout one year and creates a natural break point between the show’s two seasons.

But the largest strength of this show format may be its reduced time commitment. As also reported in Variety, “limited series help producers attract big-name stars (the obvious example being the first “True Detective’s” Woody Harrelson-Matthew McConaughey pairing) who might be reluctant to make an open-ended commitment to TV.” This idea explains how shows like The People v. O.J. Simpson and Fargo were able to sign movie stars like John Travolta and Kirsten Dunst for their single season stories. Moreover, this is an attractive prospect for producers and writers as well. With Vice Principalsepisodes already filmed, Hill and McBride are free to pursue other creative outlets before their show has even aired.

Networks also have a lot to gain from the format. Joshua Alston comments for The A.V. Club:

“Networks love anthologies because they allow for greater cost control on the talent side and are incredibly easy to market. The one-year contracts and clean-slate storytelling make it difficult, even for a usual-suspects troupe like that of [American Horror Story], to pull off the kind of salary coup that’s business as usual for cast members on open-ended series. Marketing anthologies is child’s play because their cyclical nature keeps them in the news between seasons. Open-ended series drop out of the public consciousness relatively quickly after their first or second years, but AHS generates buzz every year with its title, concept, and casting announcements.”

This is where the distinction between anthology series and other limited series becomes a crucial one. A reliance on anthology series reflects a preoccupation with brand advancement over effective storytelling. Networks are able to sell a series as a brand, despite the possibility of decreasing quality. Even for storytellers that can deliver superb seasons of television, creating a new concept every year can be a daunting task. For reference, just look at the sharp decline in quality from the first to the second season of True Detective. This concern is not as large for networks. In the case of American Horror Story, as Alston continues, “with the exception of Asylum, AHS’ second season, the show has grown less effective with each new season. But in the television industry, a robust audience forgives all, and Freak Show [the show’s fourth season] shattered its own ratings record with more than 12 million viewers.” Although AHS: Hotel did not perform as well as Freak Show before it, it still maintained more than enough viewers to justify another season of the series.

On the other hand, shows like Vice Principals avoid this problem entirely by choosing to limit their runs preemptively. This is a larger risk for networks, as shows like this are often fully funded before they have a proven record of audience approval, but it gives creators even more freedom. This leniency may allow HBO and other networks to attract even more prolific auteurs in the future, which may make their risks worthwhile.

The final beneficiaries of the limited series are audience members. The amount of quality television on the air today is staggering and viewers are struggling to keep up. Deciding to watch and keep up with a new show is becoming a more difficult task, especially when it may end up continuing for years to come. Limited series let audiences choose stories that they know will end soon, giving them closure and the flexibility to pursue other programs once one is complete. Moreover, in an era of binge watching, viewers may prefer to watch shows they can consume quickly over those that require seven seasons of commitment. This lends credence to the idea that Vice Principals may have a long life on HBO GO, but that, of course, will depend on how much audiences enjoy it in the first place.

One final note: Besides the Gravity Falls, Vice Principals seems to be the first major comedy program to embrace the limited series format. Until now, it has been limited to relatively dramatic shows (or pulpy ones like AHS and Scream Queens). The progression to new genres is yet another signal that the limited series is here to stay. That is as long as the show is as fantastic as the trailers indicate it will be. If it’s not, then we may see some new roadblocks to the creation of this type of shows in the future. Let’s hope that HBO’s bet pays off.

Vice Principals premieres Sunday July 17th at 10:30pm on HBO.