Why a Miniseries Marathon?

The American miniseries between roughly the mid-70s and the mid-90s was a unique format of television, one that burned bright for a short time and then died.  It was a perfect representation of the times: excess, glamour, extravagance.  They started in the Carter years, but the heyday was the Reagan years, the years when nighttime soap operas ruled the airwaves with shoulder pads and villains, when the networks had little competition from cable and spent vast sums of money on these epic movies, far bigger and far longer than typical movies. 

I am giving myself at least a year to watch as many of them as I can.  It will be trying, it will be sad, it will be funny, it will be magnificent.  I am setting the schedule myself so that for every “Winds of War,” I can follow it with a “Lace,” cry and laugh alternately. 

And these are my opinions.  I have to admit up front that my sense of humor is finely-toned to pick up even the slightest goofiness.  Even the most serious of these pieces will come in for some heavy castration.  As much as I love “Centennial,” perhaps one of the greatest pieces of Americana ever devised, I cannot help but laugh when the solo lead character of Hispanic origin is given the nickname Nacho.  Sure, that comes from James Michener’s original novel, but it’s also a sign of the times. 

There are some ground rules:
1.  Only American miniseries are being viewed.  The British invented the miniseries in the 60s with Upstairs/Downstairs, The Forsyte Saga, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, and others, and they still produce them, but for the sake of some limits, only American miniseries are being considered.
2.  I’m using a definition of a miniseries as a made-for-television movie that ran longer than two hours.  Most of these were done over multiple nights, but some were 3 or 4-hour movies all done in one night. 
3.  Cable miniseries (with small exceptions) are not included.  HBO has revised the miniseries with stunning epics like John Adams, but they are subscription-based channels working in a vastly different economic and social time. 
4.  The time frame, as stated, is roughly the mid-70s to the mid-90s, roughly from “Rich Man, Poor Man” to the tapering off of the genre with less substantial pieces, though some stragglers on either end are being permitted.

Here’s my take on it all: as much money as was spent on these pieces, as seriously as they took themselves, they are all inherently more than a bit loopy (with some rare exceptions, like “Holocaust” which couldn’t afford any big mistakes or it would have been doomed).  A lot are cast strangely, which is a problem, or written strangely, which is a problem, or adapt stories or events that are strange, which is a problem.  If you look at these with a raised eyebrow, they are a whole lot more fun.  Even the serious ones.

As I see it, the Great American Miniseries all fell into one of the following categories:

–History-these are the grand epics, based on true events, whether using fictional characters to help tell the story (“North and South”) or using true history itself (“Wallenberg”).

–Romance-these are centered on love above all else.  Soap operas that go on for hours.

–Adventure-these may be historical in nature, but are infused with battles or fights or exotic locales that make them the equivalent of a Sir Walter Raleigh novel.

Within these three categories, I can place nearly every miniseries I will discuss.  There are sub genres.  For example, within history, there is war.  The American Miniseries movement was obsessed with The Civil War and World War II because they were clear-cut wars of good versus bad.  No one sides with the Nazis or slave owners.

What of camp productions like “Monte Carlo” or anything with Jaclyn Smith?  Most of them are romances, though some are adventures.  I could have a camp category, but it would overwhelm the others, at least with my worldview. 

There will be miniseries that do not fit.  What to make of “Fresno,” the only intentional comedy of the entire genre (intentional, I said)?  I’ll make them fit somehow.

There is also a special tribute running through these to the person I consider the most important figure in the whole movement.  By rights, it should be a network executive, or a writer or a director, but it’s not.  It’s an actress: Jane Seymour.  She had competition for churning these out from Jaclyn Smith and Lindsay Wagner, not to mention Richard Chamberlain and and a few other men, but Jane brought something special to the miniseries movement.  She brought her natural regal charm as well as damn fine acting talent.  Here is an actress who makes “East of Eden” watchable while everyone else around her is a snooze because she plays a villainess so convincingly you want her in every scene but then goes on to play the saddest most trod upon character in “War and Remembrance” both with such conviction that you marvel at her abilities.  A lot of actors in this period thought that showing up on television was a step down from movies (that would change around the turn of the century), unless it was to be a guest star, but Jane Seymour ripped through miniseries history with a fervor and single mindedness that made her performances luminous.  She worked in some clunkers, don’t get me wrong, but they didn’t fail because of her. 

Each of the three categories has an ultimate production that is THE essence of just what defines the sub genre.  They will be the last three miniseries I review here, though I know already what they are.  You will just have to wait. 

One note about these writings.  Though I do hope to turn this into a book, for now, they are just notes and fun reads.  You will see some where I describe the movies using characters’ names instead of actors’ names (usually when they involve real-life characters or stories so complex it’s best to stick with them for simplicity’s sake).  For the fictional pieces, especially the funnier ones, I’ll will usually stick with actors’ names.  It helps in the humor, trust me.

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One Comment to “Why a Miniseries Marathon?”

  1. Binx Bolling 11 August 2012 at 12:52 am #

    Should be a book, yes. Hats off.

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