HBO’s The Casual Vacancy is a well-made adaptation of J.K. Rowling’s novel of the same name, giving us a character-driven snapshot of class conflict in a small British town. The performances are fine, the story lines appropriately interwoven. Everything is totally competent. I’m just not sold on it as a three-part miniseries.
How many episodes should a TV series have? How long should a movie be? What’s the virtue in a miniseries in the first place? Vacancy is three hour-long installments (parts one and two air tonight on HBO, with part three airing tomorrow), which is plenty of time to meet everyone, and nowhere near enough time to care, nor enough time to draw out characters’ complexities and multitudes. The story is set in Pagford, England, where the local town council has to vote on whether to turn the community center into a chichi spa. This gets even more fraught when beloved do-gooder Barry Fairbrother (Rory Kinnear) drops dead, leaving his council seat open. (This is the “casual vacancy,” FYI.) The story sprawls outward, including not just the mechanics of the local election but also various domestic dramas from different stations of life, from the scraggly teen with a nastily abusive dad to the rich elderly couple fawning over one another. We only really get glimpses of these people, though — encounters so constrained that characters only get enough time to be exactly how they seem. The characters who seem like they’re suffering suffer, and those who seem like they’re succeeding succeed. And that’s it.
A typical season of a network TV show is around 22 episodes; some go more, some go a little less. For cable, it’s usually 13 episodes, though again, not always. Miniseries don’t have a set limit, as long as they’re broken into at least two installments. American Horror Story competes as a miniseries at the Emmys, since each season can theoretically stand on its own. True Detective has the same setup, and yet that competed as a drama last year. Treme’s final season was categorized as a miniseries, as was the most recent batch of Luther episodes — even though those are just shows with short seasons. So I can’t really blame Casual Vacancy for not being sure how to format itself as a miniseries, since the category is as vague as they come.
My preference for Vacancy would be for, oh, eight episodes, enough time to relish in the dynamic world the show tries to set up. Pity Krystal (Abigail Lawrie), the too-grown-up teenager coping with her mom’s heroin addiction. Behold Howard Mollison (Michael Gambon), the hoity rich guy pushing for the spa conversion. Look at the dopey sweetheart Arf (Joe Hurst), who’s covered in acne and whose dad is a real piece of work. Beloved shows that have aired for years and years have been built on less. Why put out such an elaborate spread if the party’s only going to last a minute?
Miniseries work best when they tell one central story. Wolf Hall makes sense as a miniseries. Breaking up individual seasons of Fargo as miniseries — sure. The Jinx. The Honourable Woman. Hell, even The Slap, which was not very good. I don’t want to get rid of miniseries completely, I just want form to follow function: Take as many episodes as you need, but not an episode more. Vacancy, Rowling’s first post–Harry Potter novel, clocked in at 656 pages, and perhaps some condensing was in order. But perhaps we also lost the richness of a detailed set of conflicts, instead settling for the most obvious options, for the ideas with the least complexity. A miniseries that’s ultimately about the particular and exquisite horrors of being alive — of being a teen, a parent, a middle-class striver — the details are the story, and simplifying them and sanding them down leaves Vacancy with a real dull streak. I feel like one of the beleaguered guidance counselors in the show, but come on, Vacancy, we both know you could have done better.