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Fun Friday–Favorite Miniseries

Friday, September 12, 2008

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“What I’ve learned is that life is too short
and movies are too long.”
~Denis Leary

Miniseries. People either love them or hate them. I grew up in the heyday of the TV-miniseries: John Jakes’s North & South, The Winds of War, The Thornbirds, Roots, Shogun, V, and many more, lost to the sands of time (mostly because a lot of them have never come out on DVD). Just as there are many different types/genres of miniseries, there are many definitions of what makes a movie a miniseries. So I developed my own parameters for this post: Longer than four hours (which just barely knocked Elizabeth Gaskell’s North & South out of the running), produced for television, and aired in more than three parts. And I excluded Jane Austen film adaptations from this list because, for me, those are in a classification of their own. So without further ado, here are my top five favorite miniseries.

5. Jekyll (2007, BBC-TV)
Starring James Nesbit and Denis Lawson. Before I had digital cable, I didn’t get BBC-America—but I could watch some of the BBC-A series on On Demand. Even though the concept of this miniseries frightened me a little (I’m a big-honkin’ chicken when it comes to thriller/suspense films), I went ahead and watched it—and I’m so glad I did. This is a present-day reimagination of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story, and James Nesbit is a phenomenal actor. The series is around five hours long and looks like it might have been made to see if it would work as a regular series (because the ending does leave the story hanging just a little). But when most miniseries tend toward the more soap-operatic, this horror-lite story is a great sample of how miniseries can work really well to tell a story that’s just a little too in-depth for a regular-length movie.

4. The 10th Kingdom (2000, NBC-TV/Hallmark Entertainment)
Starring John Laroquette, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Scott Cohen, Ed O’Neil, and Dianne Wiest, with special guest appearances by Ann-Margret, Camryn Manheim, Rutger Hauer, and Warwick Davis. I vaguely remember seeing a preview for this when it originally aired. I didn’t see it until a few years later, once it was already on DVD. It was supposed to be the kick-off of a new series for NBC, but even though it received quite a bit of critical acclaim, it didn’t receive good ratings, thus it remains a miniseries (though at 417 minutes, maybe it should be called a “maxi” series!). The premise is this: two blue-collar New Yorkers are swept into the magical realm of the Nine Kingdoms through a magic mirror where, to get back to New York (the “tenth kingdom”), they must help a prince-turned-Golden Retriever regain his throne before his wicked step-mother can replace him with the dog she turned into the prince. They’re helped along the way by Wolf (Scott Cohen) who steals the show, as far as I’m concerned. This miniseries is the best example of throwing characters into conflict that I’ve ever seen. Just when we think our beloved characters are finally going to reach their goal, something else happens to take them even further away from it. It does get a little long-winded in places (like the whole “Bo Peep” sequence), but otherwise is highly recommended.

3. Bleak House (2005, Masterpiece Theatre).
Starring Anna Maxwell Martin, Denis Lawson, Carey Mulligan, Gillian Anderson, Burn Gorman, Nathaniel Parker, Richard Harrington, and scores more. Based on the novel by Charles Dickens, Bleak House tells something of a convoluted tale of lawsuits, a past indiscretion and love child, and long-awaited love. Yes, you have to like British costume dramas to enjoy this one, which I know means Caleb is going to take exception to it. 😉 Oh, and did I mention that Andrew Davies did the screenplay for this miniseries? (If you’re not familiar with his name, just go back and look at all of my posts on the Jane Austen adaptations from earlier this year.) This is the film in which Anna Maxwell Martin became my #1 favorite young British actress as well. I couldn’t find a trailer for it, so here’s a video another fan put together that we’ll call “Four Proposals and a Wedding.”

And to find out how the wedding came about, you can view this clip from the film (have I ever mentioned how much I adore Denis Lawson?):

2. A.D. (1985, NBC-TV/Proctor & Gamble Productions)
Starring a vast array of some of the top actors of the day: Anthony Andrews, Colleen Dewhurst, Ava Gardner, John Houseman, Richard Kiley, James Mason, Richard Roundtree, Susan Sarandon, and many more. We recorded this when it originally aired—and I just transferred those tapes over to DVD a couple of years ago. As far as I can tell, this has never been released commercially on video or DVD, which is a shame, because it’s a wonderful, dramatic (yes, slightly soap-operatic) look at the first seventy or so years after the death of Christ. Vincenzo Labella and Anthony Burgess, both of whom worked on the #1 series on this list, created this panoramic view of life in the first-century Roman empire. But it doesn’t focus on just one aspect—the Romans or the Christians. It weaves both the political and religious histories together to give a much better understanding of what first-century Christians really faced. (The sound quality on this video is bad, so you’ll probably have to turn it up to full volume.)

1. Jesus of Nazareth (1977, ITC Entertainment)
It is because of this miniseries that the movie The Passion didn’t really do much for me. I don’t think I can sum this one up as well as the review of it published in Variety:

    Passion, beauty, and brilliant storytelling are all on display in this six-hour-plus epic from Italian director Franco Zeffirelli. Robert Powell is superb in the title role, and with the overwhelming success of this TV movie throughout the world, has perhaps become what Jesus looks like in many people’s minds. The story begins with the arrangements of the wedding between Joseph and Mary, and chronicles the nativity, the encounter with John the Baptist (a ferocious Michael York) and everything up to the crucifixion and resurrection. This film is beautifully shot on actual locations, with haunting music by Maurice Jarre and an all-star cast, including Anne Bancroft, Laurence Olivier, Ian Holm, Ernest Borgnine, Peter Ustinov, James Mason, Anthony Quinn, Rod Steiger and Christopher Plummer. Zeffirelli has created a thorough, but never dull or dogmatic, retelling of the story, and the result is a uniquely transcendental film that holds the power to inspire no matter what the viewer’s beliefs or background.
8 Comments
  1. Friday, September 12, 2008 1:13 am

    You’ve successfully dodged allowing me to attempt to tear apart any additions to this list by solely using miniseries I’ve never seen and mostly ones I don’t even plan to. It also helps it’s not a category I’d feel that strongly about even if you did use shows I knew more about.

    Well played, Kaye. Well played.

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  2. Friday, September 12, 2008 7:52 am

    I actually haven’t seen any of these, but I’ll tell you what my favorite is. Are you ready? I’m sure you already know……..

    ………

    ……….

    Pride & Prejudice!!!!

    Go Colin!

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  3. Friday, September 12, 2008 8:29 am

    Good post & some nice variety. I’m not sure what I’d rate at my #1 favorite…Bleak House would definitely be very high on my list…as would Cranford, Masada, Pride & Prejudice. I’d also probably include The Scarlet Pimpernel…though that’s more of a TV-film series I guess.

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  4. Friday, September 12, 2008 8:46 am

    Caleb, I’m glad to know my sinister plan worked.

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  5. Friday, September 12, 2008 9:23 am

    Favorite Mini-series:

    Chiefs, from the book by Stuart Woods

    Centennial, from James Michener’s classic

    Lonesome Dove, from Larry McMurtry’s book of the same title.

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  6. Friday, September 12, 2008 6:41 pm

    When the 10th Kingdom aired, I’d had chemo and my hair was growing in again, and I loved, loved, loved what the actress was doing with her cute short do.

    And I remember the dog/prince switcheroo. “Go for walkies around my kingdom?” Ha.

    A quirky series. I’d like to see it again without the waits between installments.

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  7. Friday, September 12, 2008 10:22 pm

    Miniseries. Anything with the King of the Miniseries, Richard Chamberlain.

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  8. Monday, September 15, 2008 9:47 pm

    10th Kingdom and V are both out on DVD now.

    Right now my favorite is John Adams. Superbly done!

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