By Les Chappell, Emma Fraser, Whitney McIntosh, Andrew Rabin, and Anthony Strand
Welcome back to This Was Television’s Hall of Fame! Once again, we’re coming off a great month as our Lead Actor in a Comedy ballots generated considerable attention and a strong crop of nominees, almost all of whom made it in. (Our apologies to Mr. Henry Winkler, who we imagine is now sulking at a table with Marilu Henner, Tom Baker, Veronica Hamel, George Clooney, Linda Cardellini and Ian McShane plotting vengeance against us for their exclusion.) As always, we thank you for your votes and your attention.
For this month, we’re taking a break from our performance-centric ballots and getting back to series. Or more appropriately, miniseries—that once great format of television that has fallen into the dustbin in recent years, as an increasingly competitive market demands long-running programming that can build brand awareness and justify advertising investment. But the miniseries has a long and storied history in television, and many of the high-quality cable dramas today owe a debt to the epic scope and storytelling the format pioneered. Which of these limited-run series deserve the most remembrance and recognition? That’s what we’re hoping to find out with these ballots. As with all of our nominees the five-year eligibility qualifier counts, and nominees will be inducted if they receive more than 60 percent of the vote.
This category also has an additional qualifier, in that any program that is nominated as a miniseries has to have been a miniseries from its inception. In recent years programs like Missing and The River have taken advantage of their one-season-and-out runs to submit as miniseries during Emmy time, and programs like American Horror Story have tweaked their format just enough that they slot themselves as “anthology” programs despite going onto what most people would classify as another season. We do not accept this argument, and any programs that are nominated here must have been conceived as close-ended stories with a limited run, and the category wasn’t placed on them retroactively.
Everyone clear? Good. Here we go!
Roots, ABC, January 23 to January 30, 1977
I’m no Richard Dawson or Louie Anderson or John O’Hurley or whoever hosts Family Feud nowadays, but I’d bet a good deal that if you asked 100 people to name any miniseries in television history, at least two-thirds would name Roots. It’s far and away the most watched miniseries of all time, with the final episode being the third highest rated entertainment (aka non-Super Bowl) program in television history. Every single episode is one of Nielsen’s top 100 rated programs of all time, including Super Bowls (at least as of 2009, and I’m 99.99% sure it’s still true).
But Roots is more than a crowd favorite; in fact, given the potency of its material it is astounding that it was produced and aired on a major broadcast network, let alone watched by tens of millions of people. Based on Alex Haley’s 1976 novel “Roots: The Saga of an American Family,” Roots tells the story of generations of slaves in Haley’s family. The cast was star-studded; as explained on Pioneers of Television (the first 30 minutes of this episode deal with Roots, and I highly recommend them to anyone with interest in the history of the series and miniseries in general), African-Americans were drawn to the meaty parts, while, as Ed Asner explained, white actors were trampling over each other to get involved. This brought about an all-star cast including Emmy winners, Oscar winners, Tony winners, Pulitzer nominees, Brady patriarchs, Rainbow Readers, and Heisman-winning felons.
There is no way to determine Roots’ direct impact on race relations; it aired nearly 10 years after Martin Luther King was assassinated, and a year before the Supreme Court affirmed the use of affirmative action. Its role is clear, however, on miniseries in American television. While limited series had previously existed, Roots was among the first to air in the consecutive-night layout. Ironically, according to the Museum of Broadcast Communications, this was done by ABC programming chief Fred Silverman to cut losses with the series, and get it off the air before sweeps.
Roots was nominated for 37 Emmy Awards in 1977, still a record for most nominations for a single program in a single year, and won nine, a record that held up until 2004. It also won a Peabody Award, and spawned a sequel miniseries and made-for-tv movie. Any discussion of the place of miniseries in the television landscape must begin with the series that made the format a success.
Band of Brothers, HBO, September 29 to November 4, 2001
When Band of Brothers premiered in 2001 it was the most expensive miniseries ever made, coming in at $125 million for 10 episodes. This price tag was only recently eclipsed with another World War II miniseries from the same creative team with The Pacific in 2010. It’s not the cost of this project that makes it such an exceptional piece of television (though the budget did help) but the personal stories of heroism that come from Easy Company.
Based on the book of the same name by Stephen E. Ambrose and with Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks as executive producers, big things were expected from Band of Brothers; and 12 years later this project is still extraordinary. It’s a show that gets better with each watch because on a first view it can be hard to keep track of who each character is; some characters dip in and out and the uniform can make it hard to distinguish. Each time I watch it seems like another person in this huge cast has propelled into movie stardom as Tom Hardy, Simon Pegg, James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender all have very small roles. Damian Lewis is now best known for playing Homeland’s Nicholas Brody, but it is his measured performance as Major Richard “Dick” Winters that launched his career and his commanding screen presence made it clear why he was chosen to play such an integral part.
The 10 episodes focused on many aspects of WWII and at times it is hard to believe that so much happened to one group of men. if it wasn’t a true story you might mistake it for Hollywood sensationalism. These feats include jumping into Normandy on D-Day ahead of the boats (and gives a different perspective of this operation from the opening of Saving Private Ryan), enduring the freezing cold temperatures during the Battle of the Bulge, liberating a concentration camp and reaching Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest first. Episodes also highlight the incredible work of a medic, what it means to be a replacement and a disastrous mission with Operation Market Garden.
The scope of Band of Brothers is huge, but the stories are incredibly personal and the reason why viewers find it so easy to connect with this miniseries is because of the camaraderie between these characters. This is aided by each episode opening with testimonials from surviving members of Easy Company which add to the authenticity of the project. Television can be used for many things and entertainment is one of its main objectives; with Band of Brothers it entertains but it also teaches and reminds us of the sacrifices that have come before. The quality of this programme persists and even if some of the CGI looks a little dated now, this doesn’t diminish the value and outstanding work that went into making this very special venture.
Shōgun, NBC, September 15 to September 19, 1981
The miniseries is, by its nature, a format best suited to telling epic stories. While a normal television series has the objective to tell an ongoing story or an easily replicable format that allows the show to keep airing for years, and a typical movie has to wrap up its story in an average of two hours, a miniseries is a closed-end entity that tells one grand story in the span of a few hours. And few miniseries were more epic or groundbreaking in scope than Shōgun, a story of politics and love amidst the world of feudal Japan, and one that carried on the momentum of Roots to drive the rush of similarly ambitious installments.
Based on the novel of the same name by James Clavell, Shōgun told the story of the stranded English sailor John Blackthorne, shipwrecked in Japan and thrown into a grand power play between rival samurai lords competing for the role of shōgun—military dictator and de facto ruler of the country—and the feud between the Catholic Church and the Protestants over exploiting the country’s resources and potential. It was a complicated saga that could have very easily been lost in translation, but it kept audiences riveted for the entire week it aired and pushed Clavell’s novel to best-seller status. And it was a hit with critics as well, earning a Peabody Award, three Golden Globes and three Emmys (out of 14 nominations).
What made Shōgun truly groundbreaking was its complete and total commitment to depicting Japanese culture. To this day, it remains the only American program filmed entirely on location in Japan, and it showed in every detail, from the costuming to the extras to the settings of the palaces and battlefields. It was unapologetic about the various elements of the time, with depiction of beheadings and torture and frank discussions of ritual suicide. And in a stylistic gamble, the miniseries chose not to provide subtitles for any of the Japanese characters, relying only on the use of voiceovers to convey the true depth of the political machinations—believing that if its point-of-entry character Blackthorne didn’t understand what was being said, the audience shouldn’t understand it either. It was a gesture that could very easily backfire, but it went a long way towards building the sense of immersion Shōgun‘s universe demanded.
Given this language barrier, the performances obviously had to be captivating, and all three of the show’s central characters were strikingly well cast. Richard Chamberlin had already begun his journey to the unofficial title of “King of the Miniseries” (he would go onto the The Thorn Birds three years later) and as the point of entry character he invested Blackthorne with all the character’s stages of growth from the novel: arrogance that the way these “barbarians” are treating him, moving to being humbled as he realizes how out of his depth he is, and the gradual acceptance as he assimilates more and more of Japan’s ways. (He even gets to play goofy at one point in a fantastic scene where he pretends to be crazy as a distraction to allow Lord Toranaga to sneak out of a rival samurai’s grasp.) Long-time Akiro Kurosawa collaborator Toshiro Mifune inhabited the role of Lord Toranaga, carrying himself with gravitas and the sharp and cunning mind of an ambitious samurai lord despite never speaking a word of English; while Yoko Shimada ably served as the translator Mariko who helps connect the two and serves as Blackthorne’s love interest.
FOX has pushed the Shōgun property back into the development line for “event series” treatment, and while with current technology it could certainly be far grander than it was 20 years ago, it’s hard to see them capturing the same authenticity and immersion that the original version obtained. Even today, in this age of big budget cable dramas in the mold of Game of Thrones, Vikings and The Borgias, Shōgun is a serious achievement.
Pride and Prejudice, BBC, September 24 to October 29, 1995
Jane Austen only published six novels in her lifetime, but they have been made into dozens of film and TV adaptations. In 1995 alone, there was a movie version of Persuasion, the Emma-inspired Clueless, and this six-episode series translating Pride and Prejudice. Pride itself has been adapted at least five other times. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. An Austen fan could spend a lifetime watching only her work.
But among that huge crowd, Andrew Davies’ miniseries stands out as one of the most impressive. With six 55-minute episodes, it has the time to adapt nearly the entire novel, bringing Austen’s world vividly to life. Davies’s script retains all of the joy of Austen’s language, Simon Langton’s direction keeps things humming along briskly, and the production design is gorgeous, making the viewing want to live with the Bennet family forever.
The series is well-cast from top to bottom. Colin Firth has become synonymous with Mr. Darcy, and Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth matches his performance. They’re joined by a host of terrific supporting characters, most notably Julia Sawalha’s scene-stealing turn as youngest sister Lydia. The joy on the actors’ faces is contagious, and it’s hard for me to imagine a more fully-realized version of Austen’s novel.
Merlin, NBC, April 26, 1998
Sometime after Sam Neill got stuck in a park with a lot of angry dinosaurs, and before Lena Headey started sleeping with her twin brother, they were both part of a NBC miniseries with the scope and story that few others possessed. Although it was an NBC and Hallmark production, most of the production work and cast was British. There have been many miniseries that were more popular than this one (although it did receive four Golden Globe nominations), but out of all the miniseries of the last 20 years or so, stateside or across the pond, none are as close to my heart as the 1998 classic Merlin. Not only do I own it on VHS, but I used to watch it so much as a kid that when I revisited it for this Hall of Fame I still knew 95% of the lines despite not having seen it in more than 5 years.
With an opening line like “Once upon a time… no, let me start over, you’ll think this is a fairytale!” one could be forgiven for flashing back to another similar cliché eschewing story with The Princess Bride. True, there are many similarities between the decades-old classic and this miniseries when it comes to style choices and light touches of modernization, but in reality Game of Thrones is the more apt comparison. Both take place in worlds where magic was once commonplace but has been dying out slowly over the years, where kings are cycled through in the blink of an eye, where civil wars are both commonplace and pointless, and where ethics and morality won’t get you very far with dozens of people waiting to trick you and stab you in the back at every turn. Merlin is shot in the same down-to-earth way as GOT, utilizing the British and Welsh countrysides as perfect backdrops to the action and more subtle costuming than one would expect from a fairytale (the exception being Miranda Richardson’s Mab, who always looks like she’s being dressed by someone who just got kicked off Project Runway for the couture challenge).
Merlin expertly uses just enough details of classic fairytales and legends without relying on clichés that viewers are expecting. The story of Joseph of Arimathea and the Holy Grail is told in passing, more of a character building moment than anything else, and only comes back later in service of more character notes. Traditional tropes are suggested or touched, but always for a reason and without beating the viewer over the head with the cliché. Much of the well-known legend of Merlin the wizard is centered on his relationship with King Arthur and Excalibur, but the miniseries wisely expands the narrative to not only be from Merlin’s point of view but also tell the story of his entire life, including creative additions and characters the whole way. The way Merlin deals with time is exemplary. By my count, the three hours encompass five kings, more than seven decades, and countless “short story” style vignettes that somehow fit together perfectly by the end without the viewer even being conscious of it happening.
With so many different stories going on in a three-hour period, it is even more important that the characters are memorable and engaging, and Merlin’s impressive cast accomplishes this with ease. Besides Neill (simultaneously portraying Merlin as the smartest man in the room, someone constantly trying to make amends for his past, and a smug bastard) and Headey (in the role of the duplicitous Guinnevere), the cast is rounded out by Rutger Hauer and his reaction shot highlight reel, everyone’s favorite Burtonite Helena Bonham-Carter, Miranda Richardson pulling double duty as both Queen Mab and The Lady of the Lake, and a demure Isabella Rossellini who has so much chemistry with Sam Neill from the get-go it’s a little unnerving how good she is in the role. Furthermore, these headliners are supported by a young Jason Done (YUP), a hilarious and skilled turn by Martin Short as Mab’s snarky henchman (even bigger YUP), and a few brief but essential appearances by James Earl Jones (BIGGEST YUP OF ALL TIME). The old saying goes “success breeds success” and nowhere is that more apparent than in the ability for an already great story to amass a cast as impressive as this.
Probably the biggest reason Merlin should be included in the Hall of Fame is that they pulled off all of the above… in 1998. The cast and story aside, all of the special effects required for the magic, fairytale creatures, battles, etc. were done without looking like the most obvious green screen work ever. ABC’s Once Upon a Time has half the quality of Merlin’s SFX and the latter took place 15 years ago. I can’t stress this enough. A brief interaction with a dragon looks believable enough that you aren’t distracted by a creature that isn’t actually there and although at points they rely on time-lapse camera work a little too much most of the magic comes across as down to earth instead of a campy mess. Merlin has flown under the radar as a miniseries despite everything it has going for it, but it deserves to be in the Hall of Fame because of the deftness and skill with which it was put together as well as the quiet influence it’s had on the fairytale genre in the past decade and a half.
And if all of this isn’t enough for you to vote for Merlin, I’ll leave you with this last detail: Merlin’s horse? His name is Sir Rupert AND HE TALKS.