As I child, I remember watching many must see television events. In the 70s and 80s, these events were the weeklong mini-series. In those days, everyone was expected to watch nightly, and in the morning head off to school or work ready to discuss. These were the days before cable or the VCR. This was the Golden Age of the mini-series, when the big three—ABC, NBC, and CBS each competed for the American public’s attention. Mini-series were so important that each would have an all-star cast, director, and many would be based on a well known book.
In order to really cash in, the networks would sometimes air one part in the fall and a sequel in the spring. A who’s who list of Hollywood stars, many who normally would never do television could be seen in these epic events. Many of these series were set in historic time periods, some were historically accurate and some more fiction than factual.
Roots—as a child of the 70s, I still remember this series. Indeed, I doubt anyone alive at the time did not watch and discuss Roots. This series created by Alex Haley was based on his own family history. At a time when American TV largely ignored any storyline dealing with race or race issues, it was considered a turning point. The original Roots took place from the Revolutionary period to the Civil War. However, it was so successful that several sequels and TV movies followed. The series is still so popular that when the History Channel announced plans to remake it, many reacted negatively.
Masada—this 1981 mini-series is about 900 Jewish Zealots who refuse to surrender to a 5000 man Roman legion. Instead of surrender, the Zealots will commit suicide rather than be Roman slaves. The series was filmed on location in Israel at the Masada fortress. I remember watching this series as a child. Not only did I go to the library wanting to learn more about Masada but decided that someday I would visit the historical site.
North and South—is a mini-series from 1985. As a southerner, this was must see TV. The series covers events from the Mexican-American War to the Civil War. The series is about two lifelong friends—one a Southerner and one a Yankee, but the story is told from the Southern perspective. The series was popular and while the backdrop is the Antebellum South it is more melodrama than historically accurate. Also, this is an example of mini-series that premiered in the fall in order to create an audience, and then aired a sequel, North and South, Book II in the spring.
I, Claudius--this 1970s British mini-series is about the Roman Empire from the perspective of the Emperor Claudius. All the events take place during his lifetime. Like Roots, I, Claudius was extremely popular at the time. Also like Roots, it has been rumored that the BBC plans to remake the series.
Shogun—this 1980s mini-series was based on James Clavell’s novel about an English navigator who became shipwrecked in feudal Japan. Again, this mini-series is more melodrama than historical. Nevertheless, was a glimpse into a Japan that most in the West knew very little about and as a teenager I made sure to watch it each and every night.
These are just a few of the Golden Age mini-series I remember vividly from my childhood. What series would you include in your must see list?