The Golden Age of the TV Miniseries

From the mid-1970s to the late 1980s, one of the most popular television formats was the miniseries.  Airing over the course of several nights these multi-part tales attracted huge audiences.

These were the days of only three major broadcast networks and limited cable exposure. Miniseries allowed producers to tell epic stories too long for the a theatrical release yet short enough to wrap up within a few nights.  Since few television series were serialized (this was long before Lost and 24), networks were able to market a miniseries as “A Television Event”.

Here is a sampling of some of television’s best miniseries.  All are available @ your Library.

Rich Man, Poor Man (1976)-Based on the novel by Irwin Shaw, Rich Man, Poor Man told the story of two brothers, well-educated and ambitious Rudy (Peter Strauss) and rebellious Tom (Nick Nolte).  A huge ratings hit, that proved the viability of the format.

Roots (1977)-Tracing his own ancestry, writer Alex Haley tells the story of Kunta Kinte (LeVar Burton, later John Amos), captured by slave traders in West Africa in 1750, shipped to America and sold to a wealthy landowner.  A second miniseries, Roots: The Next Generations (1979) continues the story from the 1880s to the 1960s.  Both were enormous hits, winning several Emmy Awards.

Centennial (1978)-From James Michener’s massive novel, this equally massive miniseries (over 25 hours) traces a area of Colorado from the original Arapaho Tribes to the fur traders, settlers, farmers, soldiers, ranchers, and modern politicians who came in the hundred-plus years since.  Known for it’s huge cast including Robert Conrad, Richard Chamberlain, Lynn Redgrave, and David Janssen.

Holocaust (1978)-Fritz Weaver and Rosemary Harris headline this story of a German Jewish family at the start of World War II.  This harrowing tale won many awards and critical acclaim.  Meryl Streep is featured in an early role.

The Thorn Birds (1983)- Based on Colleen McCullogh’s novel of 40 years in the life of Father Ralph (Richard Chamberlain) and his connections to an Australian sheep ranch.  Barbara Stanwyck, Richard Kiley and Jean Simmons all won Emmys for their roles.

V (1983)-Large alien ships hover over Earth’s major cities. Human-like beings offer to enrich us with their science and technology.  Would YOU trust them?  V is still fondly remembered among science fiction fans.  It’s success led to V: The Final Battle (1984), followed by a regular series (1984-1985) and a reimagined series (2009-2011).

The Winds of War (1983)-The years preceding World War II are depicted in this miniseries based on Herman Wouk’s best seller.  Robert Mitchum leads an all-star cast as a navy officer and his family caught up in the turbulant times before the war.  1988’s War and Remembrance (running over 30 hours) follows the story to post-war.

Lace (1984)-This taudry production, based on Shirley Conran’s novel, stars Phoebe Cates as a film actress searching for her natural parents. This leads to the immortal line, “WHICH ONE OF YOU B*****S IS MY MOTHER?!”

North and South (1985)-John Jakes epic novel of the years leading up to the Civil War was adapted to this popular miniseries.  George Hazard (James Read) of Pennsylvania and Orry Main (Patrick Swayze) of South Carolina become friends while at West Point.  Their families soon become intertwined as tensions mount.  Followed by North and South Book II (1986) and the less successful Heaven and Hell (1994).

Lonesome Dove (1989)-Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones star as aging Texas Rangers leading a cattle drive from the north to Montana.  Based on Larry McMurtry’s acclaimed western novel Lonesome Dove is considered one of the last great television miniseries.

Do you have a favorite television miniseries?



2 thoughts on “The Golden Age of the TV Miniseries

  1. What a great article. I grew up watching these. But you missed one of the great ones – Shogun! Shogun and Holocaust were probably my favorites. I didn’t discover Lonesome Dove til much much later on video.

  2. Shogun was one of the best and highest rated. It, along with Centennial and The Thorn Birds, positioned Richard Chamberlain as “King of the Miniseries”.
    Other favorites are Kennedy, Backstairs of the White House, and Amerika.

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