The Series and the Mini-Series

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

49 thoughts on “The Series and the Mini-Series”

  1. The obvious suggestion is “Lonesome Dove.” Another that is not quite as good but nearly so is “Broken Trail.”

    I started to watch Once an Eagle and was disappointed in some of the plot revisions but that is perfectionism. I’ll go back to it.

  2. HBO’s Game of Thrones, which depicts a (mildly) fantastical version of the Wars of the Roses, with all its political intrigue, was originally written as a series of (long) novels with too many characters and too many large armies to fit within the constraints of a network television script. It’s not TV. It’s HBO.

  3. I saw Once an Eagle when it first came out and liked it.

    Upstairs, Downstairs was good, especially after the first season, which was more of a bodice-ripper. After that, it became more of a ‘life and times” of a family, and it gave a good feel for the history of the times. I saw those as they were first broadcast in the USA, way the heck back.

    There was one based on Taylor Caldwell’s book The Captains and the Kings, which I had read. It was a pretty good depiction of the capitalistic free for all in the USA after the Civil War.

    The one that had the biggest impact was probably Roots. Absolutely everyone watched it. It had a big impact on the hearts and minds of the American people.

  4. I loved the miniseries “A Town Like Alice” – very early eighties, with Bryan Brown and Helen Morse. It was based on Nevil Schute’s novel about British and Australian POWs in the Far East during WWII, and how they rebuilt their lives afterwards.

  5. There was a 1998 BBC mini-series production of “Vanity Fair” which I thought was pretty good; have not seen the more recent movie. Trollope’s “The Way We Live Now” also made a decent series.

    I also liked “North and South,” based on the Elizabeth Gaskell novel. (This book has nothing to do with the American Civil War; the reference is to the north and south of England)

  6. David, can you talk some more about Mad Men and why you think it is fascination of dysfunction? I didn’t have that impression; IMO all seasons before the last one were pretty good

  7. The Wikipedia article has an interesting description of NBC’s not-very-successful attempts to market FNL. The show was originally targeted at the youth market, which makes the same kind of sense as assuming that “Lassie” and “101 Dalmations” would be watched mainly by dogs, and the initial rollout was very football-centric and attempted to heavily involve high schools (and social media) in the marketing. Unsurprisingly enough, this approach resulted in a fairly low number of female viewers and “deprived the show of a large audience who would enjoy the more character-driven elements.”
    NBC then switched gears and “designed a strategy based around accentuating the personal elements of the show, even going so far as to rechristen the show with the tagline “It’s about life.””

    Really, this all seems pretty amateurish. Not all consumer marketing activities need to center around obvious demographic categories.

    OTOH, the Dusk in Autumn blog has argued that men and women have become more “segregated” than they were in other eras–here, for example, they assert that the “romantic comedy” genre, designed to appeal to both sexes, has disaggregated into “chick flicks” on one hand and films with adolescent-guy-appeal on the other.

    But even if they’re correct as a general matter, that obviously doesn’t mean that there are *no* movies/programs that have strong cross-gender appeal, or could have such appeal if marketed properly.

  8. The Elizabethan age is fascinating. It is, it seems to me, a historical time when the world could have culturally gone in radically different ways. It is a determining doorstep in many cultural ways and a watershed of modern outlook and what has become the mainstream of modern life. I haven’t seen all the movies and series depicting Elizabeth I and her times but I have seen three or four of the works. The one that stands above the pack is the PBS “Elizabeth R”. Glenda Jackson is without peer. The series from the 70s and some 16 hours in length (if memory serves) allows time for a deeper appreciation of the issues Elizabeth faced in developing, saving, and even creating her nation as well as the deft, bold, and subtle moves the queen made in order to survive.


  9. Downton Abbey is one of the best I have seen in a while. Set in England after the sinking of Titanic and before WWI. If has two story lines in it. One follows the family of the Abbey the second follows the servants. It is an interesting look at the servant life in that time period.

  10. I have watched the series “Band of Brothers” multiple times and think it was just excellent. It is very compelling and the everything seems pitch perfect to me (acting, casting, sets, etc.) The interviews with the real men who were depicted in the show were especially interesting and give the series a sharp sense of reality. The scene that jumps to mind first from the series is when a young G.I. goes to pick up his laundry from a local English lady who is providing the service for many American servicemen. He is cheerfully chatting with her when she politely asks when another G.I. will be in to get his laundry, not realizing the G.I. was killed in action. The American eventually picks up and pays for the laundry ofseveral dead G.I.s but he couldn’t bring himself to tell the young lady what happened to them. It was a stark reminder of the cost in lives of the war and the emotional loss and damage to those who fight it.

    I also really enjoyed Rome, The Wire, and parts of the Sopranos. Game of Thrones has been very enjoyable so far. I enjoyed Firefly (the very short-lived Sci-Fi series) very much and would have liked to see more episodes.

    Is it just me or is HBO the best producer of great series?

  11. I recommend the SF series “Babylon 5”. It is very character driven, about choices made, paths taken, and consequences of actions. The producer also knows his history and hIs hard SF.

  12. Things that should have been done, or should be done, in mini-series form:

    –I think Atlas Shrugged could have worked better as a mini-series..would have sacrificed the potential for some great visuals on the big screen, but more time for character & plot development would have been worth it.

    –How Green Was My Valley is a great movie…OTOH, there is a lot in the book that didn’t make it to the film, and a remake as a mini-series might be interesting.

    –I was about to suggest that The Year of the French, an incredible historical novel (about the Irish revolution in the late 1700s) by Thomas Flanagan, might make a good mini-series, but I see it’s already been done for Irish TV. Wonder if there’s any way to get a copy..


  13. Robert Duval said that his favorite role was Gus in Lonesome Dove. That has to be a classic mini series.

    The Thornbirds, Winds of War with Robert Mitchum, as someone else mentioned A Town Like Alice.

    There is one scene that I remember to this day – over 20 years later – the Japanese nailing this Australian to a wall and whipping him. He was the main character and survived.

    I liked Mitchener’s Centennial and decided to read the book. Mitchener was so long winded in the book – starting his talk of the area with the Dinosaurs fercryinoutloud, I much preferred the series.

  14. The British mini-series, “Piece of Cake,” is a superb work that tells the story of the men of the RAF Hornet Squadron in the early days of World War II. Highly recommended.

    So far, HBO’s “Game of Thrones” qualifies as unfocused and tedious. Nothing happens. It’s all endless exposition delivered in loooong scenes that barely qualify as professional screenwriting. Past events and characters are recounted in such laborious detail my eyes glaze over. A confusing mosaic of various British accents are, for an American audience, impenetrable.

    Bad wigs, very bad wigs, induce sad shakes of the head.

    And the producers/creators are aware of the, um, multiple problems because every few minutes they throw in a dopey scene—naked, giggling whores—that bear an uncanny resemblance to 70’s soft core porn. A sure sign of media desperation.

  15. This was great. I’m going to investigate some of your recommendations as soon as I find time to finish the HBO series Deadwood which repulsed me at first but then captivated me. I’ve only finished 4 of the dvd’s so have 9 to go.

    I bought this on Amazon when it was on sale at a very low price of $39. I see it is up to $200 now. I guess I should store it in the safe.

  16. David:

    My pleasure. Good discussion. The fact is that TV series, limited series and mini series are the best medium for exploring stories that are not suitable for feature films. TV is also the place where screenwriters control production rather than directors. As you can imagine, this suits me just fine.

  17. I also remember Piece of Cake as a very interesting and gripping account of the Battle of Britain. And I have Centennial in my wishlist – yes, the book was a bit tedius, beginning with the dinasaurs and all, but from all I have read – the series was amazing … I think that was one of James Michener’s particular quirks as a writer – going back to the very beginning and setting the scene with almost mind-numbing detail and at length, but that was the sort of book that was better served as a miniseries. Robert (respectful curtsy in your direction) Should anyone ever think my own Adelsverein Trilogy worthy of being put onto the screen, it would make a much better miniseries, as it covers about fifty years in Texas, with a great many interesting characters with interlaced fates and participation in a number of scenically dramatic events. Just my humble opinion as a writer, y’know.

  18. It’s not a series, but Robert’s made-for-tv movie “The Devil’s Arithmetic” is excellent. Based on Jane Yolen’s book, it’s about a teenage Jewish girl who sort of zones out during Passover and somehow finds herself in Poland, circa 1942. More about the movie and its making here. Definitely recommended, whether or not you’ve read the book.

  19. The Adams Chronicles – saw it years ago, but it and the Pallisers I remember as wonderful. Tinker, Tailor – there was something controlled and quiet and absorbing.
    We saw North and South and Cranford last year – they resonate still. Both seemed to capture what was lost but respect what was gained in those huge shifts of the 19th century. When the heroine speaks of how the laborers wouldn’t really be happy in the south she had once thought so much better in North/South and when we see the vitality of education for women and the working man in these, it reminds us of how much we gained (and how much we now take for granted and don’t appreciate) about education.
    I don’t know if these fit in your category but every decade or so we watch Faulty Towers through and I loved the sense of closure of To the Manor Born. Frasier & the Newhart show seem to me as witty & dense, but there’s something about having a definite run and a conclusion that is satisfying.

  20. Second the Downton Abbey suggestion. Same writer as Gosford Park. Loved that movie, too.

    A sequel to Upstairs Downstairs was just on Masterpiece Classic or whatever its called. It’s hit or miss: sometimes its modern soft lefty fantasy, sometimes its boring crime serials, a lot of times its stodgy costume dramas, but sometimes….

    Sometimes it gets things right. I’ve heard Bleak House was good. And I liked the one episode of South Riding I saw. The actress is great:

    And I’ve blogged Mildred Pierce with Kate Winslet here at CBz:

    Cool topic and cool suggestions and cool thread.

    – Madhu

  21. When it comes to the sheer historical perspective, as well as the political viewpoint, the two most remarkable series produced in the United States, to my mind are the West Wing, which was superb, but the winner by a country mile was ‘I’ll Fly Away’ starring a young(ish) Sam Waterston and Regina Parker.

    Based in a Southern State in the time of the first Black civil rights and integration struggles, it gives a detailed look at two families, one black, one white, as they and their communities come upon this strange land named ‘Equality under the Law’; and indeed is the story of an America taking a long, hard look at itself, and not liking what it perceives.

    It is, as far as I am aware, not widely commercially available, but I have a full copy, and I play it now and again just to see what truly talented technicians and actors can produce!

  22. Another excellent BBC production was The Singing Detective – a intense 6 episode mini that is one of the most unique works for TV that I’ve ever seen.

  23. Justified, just finished 2nd season on FX channel. Harlan County Kentucky. Most of the characters are dead on, syntax and speech patterns great. Generational attitudes on family feuds carried on over slights or money dead on. The shift in criminal activity from boot legging to drugs over two generations dead on. It also helps that the great Elmore Leonard is apparently directly involved.

  24. Al..reference to Elmore Leonard reminds me of something he wrote about the important of giving characters the right names:

    “In my novel, ‘Bandits,’ which is set in New Orleans, I originally named the main character Frank Matisse. I thought Matisse sounded like a New Orleans name, but he wouldn’t talk. He wouldn’t open his mouth.

    And he acted too old. So I changed his name to Jack Delaney and then he wouldn’t shut up.”

  25. I have seen a movie of “A Town Like Alice” that was disappointing in that it did not include the second half of the book. Was there a mini-series that includes the whole novel ? Neville Shute should be on everyone’s list of conservative writers as a number of his novels are about someone starting a business, including “Alice”. Businessmen are heroes in several of his novels, like “Trustee From the Toolroom.”

  26. Yes, Michael – there was a movie in the 50s of “A Town Like Alice” IIRC, with Virginia McKenna, which only did the first half of the story. The miniseries with Jane Morse did the whole story, including setting up the various little businesses that revived a whole town.
    You are quite right – Nevil Schute ought to be on anyone’s list of conservative writers. He wrote rippingly good reads, and he had worked for a living!

  27. Not only did Neville Shute work for a living, he was a *dirigible designer*…specifically, chief stress engineer for the R100.

    Check out the interior photos….Nice way to travel!

  28. His autobiography, which covers only the pre-war years, goes into the R 100 story in detail and contrasts it with the government built R 101. He hated the Labour government and moved to Australia to escape it. One of his novels, “In the Wet” has a proposed version of the future of England and Australia which is, sadly, too optimistic about Australia. He envisions a system in which voters gets their ballots weighted by their life accomplishments.

  29. David,
    in your link to Imperial Airships: “The ship slipped the moorings from the Cardington mast at 02.48am on the morning of 29th August 1930.” – they probably meant 29th of July?

    Too bad the dirigible was scrapped. So authentically Deco – the whole idea, I mean. Traveling on Air Cruiser…

  30. A Germany company is now manufacturing the Zeppelin NT…you can buy one for only 14.5 million Euros. For a somewhat lower price, 200 Euros, you can take a ride over Lake Constance.

    Airship Ventures has an NT based in San Francisco, and offers rides starting at $375.

  31. There are two very interesting miniseries I loved, which were “Chiefs” (1983), which was based on the Stuart Woods novel of the same name, and “Shogun”, by James Clavell.

  32. BBC’s Doc Martin. 4 seasons so far, great show, wonderful location in Cornwall. Also, Canada’s Corner Gas, very funny series set in Saskatchewan.

  33. When Shogun came out, a partner of mine had a mother-in-law who spoke Japanese as her native language. She loved that series as it was faithful to the book in Japanese, as well. Of course, that era of Japanese history is a very large part of their entertainment in plays and TV.

  34. Robert – I forgot about that miniseries – Piece of Cake – excellent and it really brought to screen the brutal attrition of a WW2 fighter pilot. As I recall towards the end of the series only the main character was left? Maybe 1 or 2.

    Sgt Mom – Centennial (the mini series) was just about perfect – starting in that area Colorado with the fur trappers as I recall – and bringing it to the current day IIRC.

    As someone mentioned I Claudius was great too…

  35. As an ex-pat retired to a “failed state,” i.e. a country where the government is incompetent enough that people can do pretty much what they please, both good and bad, I can download video files from those horrible P2P share sites without fear of harassment.

    As a consequence we can watch most, if not all of the current and classic BBC/ITV productions. Only recently, with the investment from cable stations, has U.S. TV begun to match the Brits ability to do serious, relatively intellectual drama and comedy. But the Brits still hold the lead. For example, just today I downloaded “The Song of Lunch,” a TV drama written from a poem starring Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson. The U.S. equivalent, please?

    The greatest extended series ever produced was Inspector Morse starring John Thaw. Of course, I do confess a weakness for British mysteries. As a former resident of Africa, if you have not seen the BBC series from the books “The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency” do so at your earliest convenience. The unbridled zest for life that is part of the fabric of African society is faithfully reflected here. Finally, the new series “Sherlock” is a stunner. It brings the characters into the 21st century (Dr. Watson is an Iraq War veteran) and places them into modern versions of the actual Sherlock Holmes stories. Very clever and very successful.

  36. Boqueronman,

    Wasn’t Watson an Afghan war veteran? It is an admirable feature of these new series, I think, that they followed the original’ premise as much as possible while placing it in contemporary frame – and that includes the biographies of the personages.

    If you read the books the #l Ladies Detective Agency series is based on and you come to like Al. McCall Smith, I recommend to try and find three incredibly funny if too thin volumes describing adventures of a German professor of philology (Portuguese Irregular Verbs, The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs and At The Villa Of Reduced Circumstances).

  37. My favorite tv mini-series tend to be almost all British, though I do enjoy “Eureka!” (even if they did jump the shark with that whole time travel/alternate universe recent plot twist). “Poldark” and “I, Claudius” are two absolute winners (I also concur with “Reilly: Ace of Spies”). Another I thoroughly enjoyed is the “Sherlock Holmes Mystery” starring Jeremy Brett (possibly the greatest portrayal of the fictional detective). There is David Suchet’s portrayal of Hercule Poirot, another winner. Then there was a gritty mini-series called “Tenko”, about women in Japanese prison camps, which was quite compelling. Possibly my favorite Brit series was “Rumpole of the Bailey”, with Leo McKern as Horace Rumpole, a very adult comedy about the British court sstem and law firms (called chambers over there). I can watch any of these series over and over and still get enjoyment.

    The American productions, “Winds of War” and “The Holocaust”, were above standard US tv fare.

    I tend to like mini-series with a set beginning and set ending. The problem with most US tv series is they are abruptly cancelled, leaving the viewers without any real resolution.

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