12 Underrated Miniseries That You Need To Check Out

There's nothing like a good miniseries. The ability to take as much time as needed to tell a dense yet self-contained story, marrying the immediacy and formal panache of great cinema to the narrative depth of great TV, has allowed many auteurs in both mediums to create some of their finest and most vital work.

Historically, miniseries have been the province of some of television's most memorable hits, from "Roots" to "Taken" to "Band of Brothers." Series like Ingmar Bergman's "Scenes from a Marriage" and Mike Nichols' "Angels in America" are also regularly cited in the upper tiers of master directors' filmographies. In recent years, the format has seen a kind of mainstream revival, thanks largely to the smashing success of titles like "The Queen's Gambit" and "Watchmen."

But countless miniseries from around the world remain that have yet to receive the attention they deserve. Here are 12 examples of underrated miniseries you definitely should watch.

Olive Kitteridge

Written by Jane Anderson and directed by Lisa Cholodenko, HBO's "Olive Kitteridge" is an adaptation of the Pulitzer-winning Elizabeth Strout novel of the same name. Like the book, the show is a series of vignettes, all of which take place in the small coastal town of Crosby, Maine and center around a varied group of interrelated characters. "Olive Kitteridge" is divided into four parts, each of which tells a story about the titular retired schoolteacher (Frances McDormand) and her husband Henry (Richard Jenkins) at different junctures in their lives. In every tale, they cross paths with other, equally vivid characters, played by invariably note-perfect actors.

There are many reasons why "Olive Kitteridge" is a vital watch, but the most compelling is that it's simply one of the great television achievements of the 21st century so far. The richness, rawness, wisdom, and emotional profundity of Olive's life and the show's commentary on the passage of time, the ineffability of happiness, and the persistence of connection gives it a transformative sweep on par with great literature. Cholodenko deploys the mastery she's honed as an indie filmmaker to make the series a pristine cinematic experience full of understated details that only reveal themselves on repeat viewings. And the performances are just on another level; it's no wonder the show took home eight Primetime Emmys.

Alias Grace

Released in late 2017 to less fanfare than it deserved, "Alias Grace" aired on CBC in its native Canada, and then made its way to Netflix. The horror-tinged psychological drama boasts a rare triple alignment of talent: It's based on Margaret Atwood's eponymous 1996 novel, was written by 2023's best adapted screenplay winner Sarah Polley, and was directed by Mary Harron — and that's not even getting into the cast, which includes luminous talents like Sarah Gadon and Anna Paquin.

"Alias Grace" stars Gadon as a fictionalized version of Grace Marks, the Irish-Canadian maid who was arrested for murder in 1843, leading to a controversial trial. The show opens with a psychiatrist interviewing Grace in an effort to determine whether she really has no recollection of the murders, which took place 15 years prior, and whether she can truly be deemed legally culpable. With a nimble, subtly disorienting style, "Alias Grace" depicts its protagonist's life story from her own unreliable perspective, charting the various horrors she was subjected to as a poor young immigrant woman and questioning who, in the end, Grace really is. A wronged ingénue? Savvy survivor? Unrepentant psychopath? Though the violence and aggression are more subdued, this is, in its own way, a character study as dizzying, gruesome, and revelatory as Harron's own "American Psycho."

Eight Hours Don't Make A Day

From Bergman to Kieslowski, many great directors dabbled in TV in the second half of the 20th century, but no legendary auteur left a more indelible mark on the medium than Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The New German Cinema exponent produced much of his most celebrated work for television, including films like "World on a Wire," "Martha," and "I Only Want You to Love Me," and miniseries like the legendary "Berlin Alexanderplatz." "Eight Hours Don't Make a Day," however, sits unsung amidst Fassbinder's televisual oeuvre. That's a shame, as it's a sweeping, exuberant miniseries that was released in five installments on Germany's public Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) network between October 1972 and November 1973.

Although the show's scope eventually expands to encompass an entire array of characters, in the beginning it focuses on Jochen Epp (Gottfried John), a toolmaker who falls in love with office advertiser Marion Andreas (Hanna Schygulla) while struggling to improve his factory's working conditions. Commissioned by WDR as part of an effort to educate the German public by producing and airing "worker films," "Eight Hours Don't Make a Day" roughly maps to a traditional family drama, but forgoes the genre's typical bourgeois slant in order to explicitly reckon with the living conditions of the country's working class.

Face To Face

Much like Fassbinder, Ingmar Bergman wrote and directed extensively for the small screen. The most notorious example of his TV work is probably the original miniseries cut of "Scenes from a Marriage," a project that influenced everything that came after it in the domestic drama genre, including its 2021 American remake. But "Scenes from a Marriage" was not the only Bergman joint originally conceived for Swedish TV that the director edited into a feature film. 1976's "Face to Face" was, too.

In this case, the difference is that the theatrical cut of "Face to Face" actually premiered a few weeks before its TV broadcast, leading to the widely-held assumption that it's a film first and a miniseries second. However, Bergman's original vision comes through most clearly in the four-part, 177-minute television cut, which preserves the film's emotional intensity while adding texture, detail, and agonizing depth to the story of Dr. Jenny Isaksson (Liv Ullmann). Isaksson is a psychiatrist who begins to suffer a gradual mental breakdown as traumatic memories make their way to the surface of her conscience. Reuniting Ullmann with her "Scenes from a Marriage" partner Erland Josephson, "Face to Face" allows Bergman's greatest muse to sink her teeth into one of the fullest, most challenging roles of her career.

Manuel On The Island Of Wonders

Chilean director Raúl Ruiz is one of the most original and inventive minds to ever grace the world with films. Among his many unique works is the 1984 children's fantasy film "Manoel's Destinies," which is a slightly abridged version of the three-part French-Portuguese miniseries "Manuel on the Island of Wonders." Both the film and the miniseries tell the same story, if you can use that word to describe something so ineffable. A seven-year-old boy (Ruben de Freitas) strays from his usual path to school and wanders into a forbidden garden, where he meets his teenage self (Marco Paulo de Freitas) and is eventually caught in a liminal area somewhere between the past, present, and future.

If the theme of time and human beings' relationship to it is apparent in the film cut, the miniseries version drives it home via a three-act structure that sees Manuel visit a different temporal area on each installment: the past in episode 1, the present in episode 2, and the future in the series' final and most surreal chapter. While meeting various characters, some from his own family and others from mysterious backgrounds, Manuel learns more about life, memory, and the reach of his own imagination than you'd expect from a piece of so-called "kids' TV."


Ever since he made his directorial debut with 2015's Oscar-winning "Ex Machina," English novelist and screenwriter Alex Garland has been one of Hollywood's hottest up-and-coming filmmakers. He's established a brand of dark, heady, thematically trippy sci-fi and horror, courting both acclaim and controversy with each new project. "Devs," the 2020 miniseries he wrote and directed for FX on Hulu, is no different; like every other Garland production, it has its fair share of both ardent fans as well as baffled detractors. The main difference between "Devs" and Garland's cinematic efforts is that "Devs" received considerably less cultural attention. It's unfortunate, because the miniseries may be Garland's finest work yet.

Across eight episodes, "Devs" takes a plunge into the world of the Silicon Valley tech industry and its dark underbelly. It follows software engineer Lily Chan (Sonoya Mizuno) as she investigates the death of her co-worker and boyfriend Sergei (Karl Glusman) on the same day that he starts his new job at their company's mysterious quantum computing division. What Lily — and the viewer — ultimately discover are disorienting questions and even more bewildering answers. Over time, Lily and Amaya CEO Forest (Nick Offerman) are locked into a cat-and-mouse game with unimaginably high stakes, ultimately leading to a reckoning with the very nature of time, power, free will, and human existence.

Tanner '88

HBO has aired a number of politically significant shows over the years, but the grandfather of them all is "Tanner '88." Created by American cartoonist Garry Trudeau, the 11-episode miniseries was innovative in a number of ways. For one, it was one of the first major TV productions to commit to a mockumentary format, long before that was a staple of the sitcom world. Additionally, where most political shows present an entirely fictional version of the United States' government, "Tanner '88" takes place during the real-life 1988 presidential race, with numerous references to actual candidates and politicians. As if that isn't enough, it's also one of the earliest examples of HBO giving a prestigious film director the space to develop a singular vision in episodic form — in this case, Robert Altman.

The show follows the low-budget campaign of little-known Michigan congressman Jack Tanner (Michael Murphy) for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. With a stringent commitment to authenticity and verisimilitude, "Tanner '88" uses Tanner's bid as an entry point into the grand guignol of American politics, demonstrating just how difficult it is for ideals and principles to flourish amidst its tempestuous winds. Altman, who brings his classic blend of exuberant humor and observant drama to the material, once called "Tanner '88" "the most creative work I've ever done."


Also known in English as — naturally — "The Odyssey," "L'Odissea" was one of the most ambitious TV productions ever at the time it was made: an earnest, no-holds-barred effort to adapt the entirety of Homer's "Odyssey" to screen as faithfully as possible. Although it's in Italian and originally aired on Italy's national broadcaster, RAI, making the series required marshaling massive international resources, including some from Germany, France, and Yugoslavia. You could say that the production process was its own ... well, you get it.

"L'Odissea" is divided into eight episodes, all of which were directed by Franco Rossi, with Piero Schivazappa and Mario Bava co-helming a few. It hews about as close to Homer's original text as a TV show possibly could — as close, indeed, as any adaptation ever has — and features the formidable Bekim Fehmiu as Ulysses, the Trojan War hero who embarks on a years-long journey to return to his home kingdom of Ithaca. The various passages from "The Odyssey" are brought to life with a level of reverence and attention to detail that has seldom been replicated in any other film or TV show set in Ancient Greece. It's an epic experience in the truest sense of the word, and richly deserves to be rediscovered by English-speaking audiences.

Anos Rebeldes (1992)

In Brazil, the miniseries format runs parallel to the national institution that is the telenovela. Although shows that air weekly have become more common in the last couple of decades, the traditional Brazilian miniseries consists of a daily dramatic presentation that occupies a primetime slot for just one or two months, as opposed to the typical semester-long duration of a standard soap. And, although many such productions have become internationally successful landmarks of Latin American TV, none may be more emblematic of the format's importance than "Anos Rebeldes."

The 20-episode miniseries, which was created by legendary Brazilian television writer Gilberto Braga and originally aired on Rede Globo for one month in 1992, chronicles the early years of the country's right-wing military dictatorship through the lens of a youthful love story. Maria Lúcia (Malu Mader) and João Alfredo (Cássio Gabus Mendes) are students at a federal high school in Rio de Janeiro who become embroiled in the resistance movement, finding themselves torn between the allure of a conformist middle-class life and the moral imperative of battling oppression at all costs. Produced and released just seven years after the end of the regime, "Anos Rebeldes" shows how popular art responds in real time to the esprit du temps, and stands as a shining example of the heights Brazilian teledramaturgy has reached throughout its history.

The Corner

Before there was "The Wire," there was "The Corner." In 2000, David Simon was primarily known as a journalist and nonfiction author, having penned several acclaimed books about the intersection between law enforcement and the lives of the disenfranchised in Baltimore, MD. His TV experience had been mostly limited to being part of the writing staff of "Homicide: Life on the Street," NBC's adaptation of his 1991 book "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets." Then, in 1997, Simon released "The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood," which he co-wrote with Ed Burns. The book chronicles the goings-on at an open-air West Baltimore drug market and the community it affected. That book eventually became the basis for Simon's first work as a series creator and showrunner: a six-episode adaptation for HBO.

Written by Simon and David Mills, "The Corner" centers on Gary McCullough (T. K. Carter), his ex-wife Francine "Fran" Boyd (Khandi Alexander), their teenage son DeAndre "Black" McCullough (Sean Nelson), and their friends, family members, and associates, all of whose lives intersect on the corner of West Fayette Street and North Monroe Street. It's a sprawling, empathetic, and revelatory document of life under the strain of urban American poverty, featuring several great actors who went on to become frequent Simon collaborators, including Clarke Peters, Reg E. Cathey, Donnell Rawlings, and Lance Reddick.

Edvard Munch

Another miniseries by a European auteur that was cut down to feature length for international distribution is Peter Watkins' "Edvard Munch." Originally a three-part, 210-minute program broadcast on Norway's NRK and Sweden's SVT, Watkins' radically experimental Edvard Munch biopic was released theatrically in the United States as a three-hour film, and went on to become a critical sensation on both sides of the Atlantic.

In addition to telling the life story of Norway's foremost Expressionist painter (including, yes, the painting of "The Scream" in 1893), "Edvard Munch" is also a bold experiment in metafiction. Through an innovative, playfully anachronistic mockumentary format peppered with talking heads, improvised dialogue, and a largely non-professional cast, the miniseries investigates Munch's art on both a psychological level — his lifelong brushes with death and disease contextualize his eagerness to express himself through means not yet invented — and a historical one, creating an audiovisual portrait of Munch as formally liberated and emotionally persuasive as something the man himself might have painted.

Seventeen Moments Of Spring

It would be straight-up counterfactual to describe "Seventeen Moments of Spring" as an "underrated" series in its native country — it's one of the most popular Russian TV programs of all time. But, like so much of the Soviet Union's cultural production, it's still largely undiscovered by Western audiences — and it really shouldn't be, because this is the kind of sturdy, first-rate spy thriller that viewers anywhere on the globe should appreciate.

The magnum opus of highly popular Soviet filmmaker Tatyana Lioznova, "Seventeen Moments of Spring" adapts the most famous of the Yulian Semyonov novels about Maxim Isayev, aka Max Otto von Stierlitz (Vyacheslav Tikhonov), also sometimes called the "Russian James Bond." It details the spy's efforts to outsmart the Gestapo and disrupt the separate peace negotiations happening between Germany and the Western Allies towards the end of World War II. At 840 minutes, which are divided between a total of 12 episodes, it's one of the longest series on this list. 

While it stands as a definitional cinematic account of World War II from the Soviets' perspective, the strengths of "Seventeen Moments of Spring" extend far beyond historical interest. This is a show that offers everything you could want out of great spy fiction, from mounting stakes to unwavering tension to labyrinthine, ever-unspooling political intrigue. Even better, it's as emotionally arresting as possible thanks to the note-perfect performances, memorable music, and Lioznova's masterful blocking and pacing.

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The post 12 Underrated Miniseries That You Need to Check Out appeared first on /Film.

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