There was a time when families gathered around the television to find out what was going to happen next in the latest epic saga being broadcast nightly. But today, the TV miniseries has been all but completely relegated to “our television heritage.” Fortunately, thanks to Netflix, we are able to watch some of the best miniseries the networks ever produced.
Best Miniseries to Watch Instantly With Netflix
Netflix Streaming is a great way to watch some of these great broadcast events again.
“The Winds of War”
Adapted for ABC by Herman Wouk from his own historical novel, the story follows naval attaché Pug Henry through the German invasion of Poland and other events of WWII, leading up to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. One of the highest rated TV miniseries of all time, with an all-star cast including Robert Mitchum, Peter Graves, Ali McGraw, John Houseman and Topol. The sequel miniseries, ” War and Remembrance ,” is also available on DVD.
Originally produced in Britain for ITV and broadcast on PBS as part of Great Performances in the early 1980s, this excellent adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s novel is languidly paced, beautifully shot and performed with the subtle intensity of the original text. When Captain Charles Ryder discovers that he has been billeted at the ancestral home of his former university companion Sebastian Flyte, the memories of their fairy tale friendship, and its subsequent decline as Sebastian falls deeper into alcoholism, come flooding back. Starring (a very young) Jeremy Irons, Anthony Andrews, Diana Quick, Sir Laurence Olivier, Claire Bloom and John Gielgud.
Stephen King brought his novel, about survivors of a virulent flu epidemic who divide into two opposing factions, to ABC in 1994. Gary Sinise, Rob Lowe, Molly Ringwald, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis are just a few of the ensemble cast members who step into King’s loose interpretation of the biblical Revelations.
Considered by many to be the definitive adaptation, this 1983 BBC presentation of the Charlotte Brontë novel was where most American audiences were first introduced to the dashing future Agent 007, Timothy Dalton.
“The Far Pavilions”
The first miniseries HBO ever produced was based on the M. M. Kaye novel of the same name. Ben Cross is Ashton, an Englishman raised in India by his Indian nanny after the death of his parents. He believes he is Indian himself until his nanny reveals the truth about his heritage and sends him back to England to be educated. He returns years later as a member of the military and, during a mission to escort a royal bridal party, he discovers his long lost childhood love, Anjuli. The production is rich and lush, with a beautiful score and memorable for its controversial on-camera depiction of the outlawed practice of sati, in which a new widow throws herself on her dead husband’s funeral pyre.
The 1989 CBS miniseries based on Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel stars Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones as retired Texas Rangers who decide to buy a herd of cattle and settle in Montana, but they are beset by extreme hardships, misfortunes and death. The all-star cast includes Anjelica Huston, Danny Glover, Steve Buscemi, Diane Lane and Chris Cooper.
Way back in 1972, by way of the BBC, Masterpiece Theatre brought us the great Glenda Jackson, who won two Emmys for her role as the indomitable monarch in this six-part series depicting her tumultuous rise to the English throne and her reigning years as “the virgin queen” until her death.
“The Women of Brewster Place”
Before “The Help,” there was this Gloria Naylor novel that Oprah Winfrey brought to ABC in 1989. Along with Winfrey, the ensemble includes such luminaries as Cicely Tyson, Paul Winfield, Moses Gunn and Lynn Whitfield as the various and sundry residents of the titular tenement. Their communal bond helps them face three decades of racism, poverty and other of life’s obstacles.
Best Miniseries You Can Watch On DVD
Some of the best miniseries are not available for streaming, but they are available to Netflix DVD subscribers or you can buy them at buy them at Amazon.
The original powerhouse that set the miniseries standard is the extraordinary story of Alex Haley’s family tree, from the capture of his ancestor Kunta Kinte in Africa through slavery and emancipation.
Another gem from the Masterpiece Theatre collection, set in the final days of British colonialism in India. It follows the relationships between British-raised Indian journalist Hari Kumar and Daphne Manners; colonial policeman Ronald Merrick, who despises Kumar, and the colonial Layton family.
Colleen McCullough’s epic romance about the illicit relationship between the Catholic priest Ralph de Bricassart and his plucky young parishioner, Meggie Cleary, made for some pretty steamy TV back in 1983, when it was shown on ABC.
The NBC historical drama about the German Jewish Weiss family through the years of Nazi government was both lauded and criticized at the time of its 1978 broadcast. Gritty and frank by television standards of the era, the Emmy-winning production stars Meryl Streep, James Woods, Michael Moriarty, Fritz Weaver, Ian Holm and Sam Wanamaker.
The 1980 NBC production was shot entirely in Japan, making it the first ever American show to have that distinction. Richard Chamberlain is the 17th century English navigation officer John Blackthorne, who finds himself shipwrecked in feudal Japan and coerced into helping the samurai Lord Toranaga secure the rank of Shogun. Beautiful sets, costumes and exotic scenery, along with excellent performances.
True, not all of these shows stand the test of time, and they were bound by the broadcast standards and expectations of their day. But they are part of “our television heritage,” and, like old photos, they’re always fun to see again.