When we think of “event television” today, we usually think of whatever big revelations are revealed on the season finales of our favorite shows, or who will win the latest contest in the never-ending reality television programming. But there was a time when the term “major television event” did not refer to who Simon Cowell likes, or that Robin is who Barney is marrying on “How I Met Your Mother” (Great moment, by the way!). It referred to a special program that would run over the course of several nights, telling a complete story within a four to twelve-hour timeframe. This special program is called the serial in Britain, or as we call it here in America, the miniseries.
When I was younger, the miniseries still had a place on television, and I would watch these types of programs regularly. Whether watching the origins of Camelot in “Merlin,” or the life of Christ as in the 1999 series “Jesus,” or Ioan Gruffud give his spin on the classic literary character in “Horatio Hornblower,” it was great to see a powerful story, with great characters performed by talented actors, told over the course of two or three nights. Unlike a regular series, which usually means investing one night a week over the course of seven or more years, the story was usually completed within a week, allowing viewers to watch for just those two or three nights, and see the entire story unfold from beginning to end.
The miniseries in America got its start in the mid-70s, with the series “QB VII,” the tale of a libel trial in Great Britain starring Anthony Hopkins, aired in April of 1974, and was a success. But the format really took off in 1977 with the miniseries “Roots,” based on Alex Haley’s novel of slavery in the American South. That series was an unprecedented success, earning high ratings for ABC, and winning nine Emmy Awards. After that, many other miniseries were made, with networks producing classics such as “The Winds of War,” “Jesus of Nazareth,” and countless others through the 1970s and 80s.
The American Civil War, the defining conflict in our nation’s history, has found itself the subject of several miniseries since the format’s inception. In fact, one of the first miniseries to be broadcast was “Sandburg’s Lincoln,” a look at the life of America’s 16th President. Aired in 1974, the series featured Hal Holbrook in the role of Abraham Lincoln, a performance which earned him an Emmy Award for Outstanding Actor in a Limited Series. It is also notable that the two highest-rated episodes of “Roots” were those depicting the Civil War era.
In the 1980s, during the 120th and 125th anniversary periods of the conflict, several miniseries were made depicting the events of the period, from a somewhat fictional standpoint. In 1982, “The Blue and the Gray,” inspired by the writings of Bruce Catton, took a look at the conflict from a fictional artist correspondent. The series was a success, and was fairly accurate in its depiction of the conflict, despite some errors, and a highly melodramatic plot.
In 1985 and 1986, David L. Wolper, who produced the “Lincoln” miniseries and the acclaimed “Roots,” adapted John Jakes’ bestselling novels North & South and Love & War into an acclaimed, twenty-four hour miniseries that is considered by many to be the definitive television drama produced on the war. Telling the story of two families who found themselves on opposing sides of the growing conflict, the film featured what would today be billed an all-star cast, with the likes of Patrick Swayze, Kirstie Alley, Robert Mitchum, James Read, Parker Stevenson, Jonathan Frakes, James Stewart and countless other classic and up and coming stars in key roles. The series also featured Hal Holbrook, who reprised his Emmy-winning role as Lincoln for several episodes of both series. Part One debuted in November of 1985, with Part Two airing in May of 1986. Both parts of “North & South” received critical acclaim, and success in the ratings, but is also remembered for its highly melodramatic storytelling and acting, with the actual history of the war serving as a backdrop. A third miniseries, based on Jakes’ novel Heaven & Hell, was released in 1994 to limited success.
In 1988, “Gore Vidal’s Lincoln” premiered. A four-hour look at the Presidency of Abraham Lincoln, the series starred Sam Waterston as Lincoln, with Mary Tyler Moore as his wife Mary Todd. This program is unique in that it presented a different portrayal of our 16th President. He is seen as a man who is not willing at first to end slavery, saying that it is beyond his power, and desire. But over the course of the war, and the many hardships he faced both personally and politically, he changes his views, and sees the ending of slavery as a war aim to achieve with victory. The series received several Emmy nominations, and was a modest ratings success.
The 1990s began with one of the greatest television miniseries ever produced, “Lonseome Dove,” which brought the miniseries into the last decade of the 20th Century with critical acclaim, high ratings, and multiple awards won. But as with all good things, the miniseries format started to take a turn in the 90s. Many examples of the format through the mid to late-90s and early 2000s were known for their poor quality, including terrible acting and storytelling. And with the coming of the reality television craze, the miniseries was no longer seen as a viable format. For many insiders, the miniseries is seen as a risky business, with high budgets, and doesn’t bring as much money to networks as regular series do. One of the last miniseries to air on regular networks was “Elvis,” a look at the life of Elvis Presley, which aired on CBS in 2005.
However, even though the miniseries has become extinct on regular network television, the format is far from gone. In fact, a number of great examples have been seen on HBO in recent years. Tom Hanks, who has a passion for history, has executive produced four major historical miniseries for the channel, including “From the Earth to the Moon,” which looked at the Apollo moon missions; “John Adams,” a biography of one of the most influential founding fathers during the formative years of the United States; and “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific,” which looked at the events of World War II in both theaters of operation from 1941-1945. All four series have received critical acclaim, decent ratings, and several Emmy and Golden Globe awards.
However, the miniseries is definitely ripe for rediscovery on major network television, thanks in part to the History Channel, and its recent foray into scripted drama. The station originally planned to venture into these waters with “The Kennedys,” a look at John F. Kennedy and his family during his campaign and presidency, and in the years after his assassination. However, before airing the series, History dropped the project, and put its drama department on ice. However, it was revived this past May with the release of “Hatfields & McCoys,” a six-hour drama about the most infamous feud in American history. The series became a critical success, and achieved high ratings for the channel. This success proves that there is still a viable place for the format, and when put in the hands of great actors, writers and directors, and promoted to let people know this is a program worth watching, then people will come to watch.
Now, the American Civil War is poised to return to the miniseries format. Since the era was depicted in several popular miniseries in the 1970s and 80s, it is possible that returning to this era within the format will help to bring the miniseries back in full force. With “To Appomattox,” the actual stories of the men and women who were a part of this monumental event in American history will be told in a way that is geared toward this sort of dramatic storytelling format. Here is the chance to bring to television a powerful, eight-hour drama that will take viewers into the private lives of the men and women whose decisions and actions changed American history, and provide a story that is not only historically accurate, but powerfully moving as well. When the program airs in 2013, it will truly be a “television event” unlike any seen before.
“Why networks quit the miniseries biz,” The Province (Province Website, June 15, 2012), http://www.theprovince.com/entertainment/networks+quit+miniseries/6787005/story.html.