Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Enjoying Some Miniseries with Historical Slant

By Margaret Duncan, Ed.D.

While the 70s and 80s may be considered the Golden Age of miniseries, there has been a revival in recent years leading to a new “Silver Age.”  Although the Golden Age consisted of weeklong events on the Big Three networks, the Silver Age has taken place on cable.  Leading the charge to revitalize the genre has been HBO, Starz, and the History channel.  Today’s miniseries still have the all-star casts, big name producers and directors, and many are rooted in history.  Just like Golden Age miniseries, some are true to history, some are more fiction than not, but all are worth a look. 

From the Earth to the Moon—HBO was one of the first cable networks to revitalize the miniseries genre.  Tapping into America’s love of the space race glory days, HBO partnered with Tom Hanks, Ron Howard and Brian Glazer.  From the Earth to the Moon was a weekly miniseries which told the story of the American space race culminating with the Moon landing.  The series covered all of the NASA missions from Mercury to Gemini to Apollo and eventually landing on the Moon.  It was a great success and would lead to more HBO miniseries.

Band of Brothers—was HBO’s next big event miniseries effort.  Tom Hanks teamed up with Steven Spielberg and writer Stephen Ambrose.  The miniseries is based on the story of "E" Easy Company, 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division from their initial training starting in 1942 to the end of World War II.  HBO would follow up the great success of Band of Brothers with The Pacific. 
The Pacific—was created by the same folks from Band of Brothers and can be considered a companion piece but also stands on its own.  Whereas Band of Brothers covers WWII in the European theater, The Pacific follows the lives of a U.S Marine Corps squad during the World War II campaign throughout the Pacific against the Japanese Empire.

John Adams—is another HBO miniseries brought to us by Tom Hanks.  Based on David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize winning biography, this miniseries covers the life of John Adams, Founding Father, second President, and his role in the nation's first 50 years.  The miniseries was shot on location in Williamsburg and has motivated many (including me) to give John Adams a new look and respect.

Pillars of the Earth—is based on Ken Follett’s book of the same name and set in 12th century England.  The heart of the story is the building of a magnificent Cathedral.  While the story is fiction, the world created by Follett is true to the medieval world. Follett's follow up book World Without End miniseries was not picked up by Starz.  While I recommend reading the book, go ahead and skip the miniseries.  Sadly, it does not do the book justice and is not must see television.
Hatfields & McCoys—in the last few years the History channel began making and airing miniseries.  One of their most successful was Hatfields & McCoys.  While the series may be more dramatization than reality, the story it is based on is real.  The series is based on the bitter blood feud between two families—the Hatfield and the McCoys.  They lived in the West Virginia and Kentucky border area and carried on a deadly feud for decades after the Civil War.
The Bible—following the great success of the Hatfields & McCoys, History followed up with The Bible.  This miniseries from Mark Burnett and Roma Downey is exactly what the title suggests.  The story follows the story of God's creation of the Earth and the landmark events leading up to the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ.  This miniseries is religious in nature, and like the 1970s epic miniseries Jesus of Nazareth, it is for those who believe the Bible to be true.
While the Golden Age of miniseries may be gone, a new age has been created thanks to cable networks.  Just like the miniseries of the past, many of today’s miniseries are rooted in history and worth a look.  These are just a few of my favorites from the last few years.  Which miniseries would you include in your must see list?


  1. Currently showing "Roots"--one of the ORIGINAL mini-series to 8th gr. U.S.History students. They CLAMOR for the next clip. Still holds up despite 70's titling graphics and OJ Simpson as an African villager.

  2. Discovery Channel has aired "Klondike" the last two nights. Great movie concept but falls short on providing a lot of in depth historical knowledge. As a teacher always feeling short on time, the trailer for a lot of these series provides enough to give some historical background. Also, they often times get sparked enough to seek them out on the own time.