Movies intended for theater distribution are usually about 90-120 minutes long–this surely puts some serious constraints on character and plot development. The additional time made available by the series and mini-series formats (apparently the distinction between series and mini-series lies in whether the full set of episodes is planned in advance or not) would seem to open up some additional degrees of artistic freedom. And the changes in the way video is distributed, including Netflix and the various video-on-demand services, play very well with the series/miniseries format.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve watched several series, mostly via Netflix, which I thought were particularly noteworthy:
Once an Eagle, based on the novel of the same name, traces the careers and personal lives of two American army officers–men of very different characters–through both world wars. Sam Elliot stars as the courageous and compassionate Sam Damon; Cliff Potts is the manipulative careerist Courtney Massengale. The series was originally televised in 1976 and has only recently been made available in DVD format.
The Awakening Land, a 1978 mini-series adapted from Conrad Richter’s trilogy (The Trees–The Fields–The Town) tells the story of a backwoods family from Pennsylvania which moves to what was then the wild and unsettled territory of Ohio. Elizabeth Montgomery is the uneducated but intelligent Sayward Luckett; Hal Holbrook is Portius Wheeler, the iconoclastic lawyer she marries. This series was also made in the late 1970s.
Dresden, released originally for German television as a two-part mini-series, centers around a love affair in the doomed city. I reviewed this film here. Felicitas Woll is Anna Mauth, a nurse in a Dresden hospital; John Light is Robert Newman, a pilot with RAF Bomber Command.
The Wire, broadcast from 2002-2008, begins as a cops-versus-drug-dealers story set in Baltimore, but soon expands to encompass the Port of Baltimore and the relevant labor union, city politicians, the media, and the public schools. Some critics have called this the greatest television series ever made. Many great performances, including Michael Williams as Omar Little, who specializes in the dangerous trade of robbing drug dealers, Chris Bauer as union leader Frank Sobotka, and Aiden Gillen as the ambitious politician Tommy Carcetti.
Friday Night Lights is about a high-school football coach, his family, the players and other students, and their football-loving Texas town. Absolutely outstanding; I just finished it and was sorry to see it end. We’ve previously discussed on this blog the shortage of novels and films dealing realistically with work–this series is very much about work, both the coach’s job and that of his wife, a school counselor and principal. And while coach Eric Taylor’s job is all about football, the difficulties and rewards of his work will resonate with anyone involved in education or in management. Erin O’Connor, while agreeing that the show is great on work, notes that “It’s also wonderful on what it is to actually be an adult–and on the constant challenge of making responsible decisions. We really don’t see that dramatized much at all, preferring to watch the fascinations of dysfunction in our TV dramas (The Wire, Sopranos, Mad Men, etc.). I also love the portrait of the Taylors’ marriage, and the way the show takes adolescence so seriously. There is something so searching about the show, and yet it never gets bogged down.”
Excellent performances by a cast of actors who were for the most part previously not very-well-known. According to the Wikipedia article and the background information on the DVD, the making of this series involved giving the actors considerably more improvisational freedom than is common–a risk that worked out very well.
What series/mini-series programs have you found particularly worthwhile? Are there particular books that seem to call for mini-series treatment?
Related post–S T Karnick: In defense of soap operas