Way back in November 2015 I wrote this article about one of the great television innovations of the 1970s, the epic miniseries. Beginning in 1974 with QB VII and Canada’s The National Dream, the idea of a super-long movie broadcast over several nights caught on like wildfire in that decade, and the apocalyptic “arms race” of TV miniseries among competing networks gave us shows like Centennial and the seminal Roots. That article is one of my personal favorites that I’ve ever done on this blog. I always meant to do a follow-up, showcasing the form of the miniseries in the following decade, the 1980s, where it undoubtedly reached its peak. I’m kind of amazed it’s taken more than a year to return to this subject. But here we are, and hopefully you remember some of these epic shows as fondly as I do!
As both a narrative form and a commercial product, the TV miniseries reached its apotheosis in the 1980s. From the beginning of the decade to its end, studios were dishing out tens of millions of dollars to make and sell lavish productions that they could bill as super-special events not to be missed. While the “historical epic” genre, usually based on a long novel, remained the favorite, miniseries in the 1980s branched out into other forms too, such as trashy romance (ABC’s Lace from 1984), science fiction (the infamous V, which became a very cheesy television series) and even comedy–the almost-forgotten Carol Burnett vehicle Fresno pushed the genre perhaps farther than it had ever gone. Equal parts art and commerce, this flowering of the form is pretty remarkable given that there were still really only three main TV networks, with cable television existing mostly to serve niche markets. Eighties miniseries were more often that not must-see events. They certainly were at my house; my family loved them. The advent of the VCR was a boon to the genre, because if you had something to do on a certain night you could tape that particular installment and watch it later to catch up.
Shogun was undoubtedly one of the great miniseries of all time. It set a new standard when it appeared in 1980.
The decade began strong with one of the most beloved (and most well-made) miniseries of all time, the epic Shogun which aired on NBC in September 1980. Shogun was not just a movie, it was a cultural event. Featuring the Laurence Olivier of miniseries–Richard Chamberlain–as a Dutch navigator stranded in 16th century Japan, Shogun was so popular that it is credited with sparking the rise of Japanese restaurants in the United States and a renewed interest among Americans in Japanese culture. Our household absolutely came to a halt when Shogun was on. I was 8 years old, and one of the first stories I ever wrote was a science fiction story loosely based on it, involving an Earth man stranded on a distant planet that looks a lot like feudal Japan. I re-watched Shogun on DVD in 2003 and again in 2010, and it brought back so many wonderful memories. This was truly one for the ages.
Chamberlain bottled miniseries lightning again three years later with The Thorn Birds, which brought the country to a halt yet again over four nights in March 1983. The deeply creepy story of a Catholic priest in Australia who falls in love with an 8-year-old girl and eventually becomes her lifelong lover (once she reaches adulthood), The Thorn Birds did for Australia what Shogun had done for Japan. It also introduced the world to Rachel Ward, who became one of my all-time favorite actresses. The Thorn Birds had everything, from steamy sex and romance to a picturesque locale, an aging star (Barbara Stanwyck) in a scenery-chewing cameo, and a multi-generational family story drawn from a popular but rather trashy novel, in this case by Colleen McCullough. The Thorn Birds was the second most popular miniseries of all time after Roots. Both were produced by David L. Wolper, the ultimate impresario of the form.
This very interesting 1985 TV promo for the original North and South shows you how these miniseries were marketed at the time.
Miniseries were such hot properties in the mid-1980s that studios began taking huge financial gambles on them that would have seemed insane in any decade before (or since). ABC, for instance, spent millions on making North and South, a historical epic taking place in the 20 years leading up to the U.S. Civil War, which aired in November 1985. But the studio was so confident it would be a hit that they simultaneously commissioned North and South, Book II, a sequel series covering the Civil War years, which went on the air in May 1986–in the same television season as the original. Both films were hits. The North and South effort perfected the art of big-star cameos to bulk up the opening credits. Stars who drifted through the series’ 12 combined episodes included Robert Mitchum, Morgan Fairchild, Elizabeth Taylor, Lloyd Bridges, Billy Dee Williams and even studio system veteran Olivia de Havilland. Most of their parts were filmed in one day, which was the key to getting them to sign on. Among the series regulars, North and South was an especially good career move for Patrick Swayze, little-known before then, but who in the later 1980s went on to stardom in films like Dirty Dancing and the unforgettable Road House.
In my opinion, the absolute pinnacle of the 1980s miniseries era–enshrining both its ultimate perfection and, unfortunately, its end–were the two gargantuan productions of Herman Wouk’s World War II novels, The Winds of War and its sequel, War and Remembrance. No finer miniseries were ever produced, or probably ever will be again. The Winds of War, starring Robert Mitchum and Ali McGraw (both miscast), John Houseman, Jan-Michael Vincent and Ralph Bellamy, was to the 1980s what Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings productions were to the 2000s: the largest, most complex and most expensive film project of all time, shooting on multiple continents over a period of years and generating incredible buzz the whole time. Dan Curtis, director of the series, even recreated the Pearl Harbor attack on-site on December 7, 1981, the 40th anniversary of the real event. The miniseries went up on ABC in February 1983. Curtis recalled years later that a friend of his who owned a restaurant yelled at him for being responsible for a huge slump in business the week The Winds of War was shown–no one went out to eat because everyone was home watching the show.
Miniseries were famous for being long, but here’s a different look: a fan-made recap of The Thorn Birds that encapsulates the whole film in 10 minutes.
The success of The Winds of War inevitably led to a sequel. War and Remembrance was so big that when it was finally finished, after nearly five years of grueling production in places like Poland and Yugoslavia, ABC split it into two segments, the first running in November 1988, the second in May 1989. Though not as viscerally satisfying (in my opinion) as the first series, War and Remembrance was noteworthy for depicting the horrifying reality, from beginning to end, of the ghastly procedure of gassing Jews at Auschwitz at the height of the Holocaust. The cameras actually take the viewer inside the gas chambers and nothing was sanitized for the prime-time audience–an incredible gamble for a network TV show. This was weighty stuff, in marked contrast to the trashy guilty pleasures of The Thorn Birds or North and South.
Coming at the tail end of the 1980s, War and Remembrance was the last of the monster miniseries. Cable television and the attendant atomization of TV audiences into niche markets was the asteroid that spelled extinction for this unique breed of dinosaur. Network TV did produce a few miniseries in the 1990s, with some success, but they tended to be smaller-scale; IT, based on a Stephen King novel, was an example. Attempts to mount lavish productions of yesteryear generally failed, such as the poorly-received North and South, Book III in 1994. An era was definitely over.
This is the final scene of what I regard as the greatest miniseries of all time: Dan Curtis’s The Winds of War from 1983.
As a cultural “thing,” the epic miniseries of the 1980s are now gone forever. Subjects that would once have been turned into miniseries have now become self-contained TV series that we binge-watch on Netflix or Amazon–I’m thinking of productions like The Crown or Wolf Hall, both of which resemble in many ways their 1970s-1980s forerunners. But the flickering digital shadows of these wonderful old shows remain. And so do the fond memories of them, those exciting nights in the distant past, wondering what would happen next.