A good miniseries has flexibility that movies don’t. They can spend more time exploring characters, cover a longer period, or just look at topics in more depth. Rather than being limited to the two hour attention span of most movie goers, by drawing out a story over a week or longer, a miniseries manages depth and character portrayals rarely seen on the big screen. These 15 minis are all excellent examples of their craft, drawing you in to their sometimes excruciatingly long stories and making you forget the time.
15. Battlestar Galactica
When the SciFi channel remade Battlestar Galactica in 2003, it blew just about everyone’s minds. The original was cheesy, campy, and pretty much the story of the Mormons, just set in space. The miniseries on the other hand, completely kicked ass. A dark and hard reboot of the story, the high special effects budget, amazing acting, and tight script lent itself extraordinarily well to the story of the last surviving ship racing away from their creations run rampant. It was so good that it spawned the incredibly popular follow up series, which admittedly flagged near the end, but was ever enthralling.
14. Brideshead Revisited
Brideshead Revisited was a 1981 British miniseries based on a novel from 1945. Lasting 11 hours, the series was brilliantly acted, with Jeremy Irons commandingly leading the cast, and the mini went on to be nominated for (and winning) a blistering number of awards. A scathing look at upper class Britain, Brideshead dealt with love, death, war, faith, hedonism, and trust. At the time it was particularly scandalous for daring to have gay characters, something still taboo on British television in the 80s, and in the USA even more recently, but its light touch and wistful story stopped it from being too sordid.
V and its sequel V: The Final battle were wonderful sci-fi for their time. The recent remake? Not so much. Given that it was made in 1983, the designs — especially the aliens’ clothing — has dated pretty poorly. But back then, oh man was it good. Where it really excelled was the slow build up and reveal to the visitor’s real form and intention. There was that one scene which anyone who saw it could never forget, where Diana unhinges her jaw to swallow a rat whole, and the wonderful reveal of their reptilian skin. Strangely, the first drafts for V weren’t sci-fi at all, but rather a straight up drama about the rise of a Fascist group in the USA — a theme that remained in the final version, just reassigned to aliens rather than humans.
12. Das Boot
Das Boot was originally a feature length film running 2 1/2 hours that was nominated for six academy awards. It was also recut into a miniseries, reaching its most complete form as four hours, 53 minutes version, which was eventually released onto DVD as Das Boot: The Original Uncut Version. The series is regarded as one of the most accurate portrayals of life on a submarine, and is far more lifelike than most attempts.The filming took place over a year in order to accurately follow the timeline of the story as much as possible, and to show the characters realistically growing facial hair and becoming pale from lack of sun. The interiors were recreated in exacting detail, and a special camera was crafted to make them feels as cramped and claustrophobic as possible. Even at pushing five hours, it’s a taught, oppressive series, alternating between the deadly excitement of battle and the crushing boredom of downtime.
11. Generation Kill
Based on a book by the same name, Generation Kill follows an embedded journalist during the 2003 invasion of Iraq (holy crap, that was seven years ago?) You want to know how you know this is good? Co-written and produced by the folks behind The Wire. Does anything else really need to be said? It had a huge ensemble cast, with 28 stars and a raft of supporting cast members. It really pushed to show the events of the war as not a simple black and white, good and evil set of events, but rather as a complex situation, with complex people. Yeah, the marines are brash and jackasses, but they’re also mostly good people. Short on bullshit, long on awesome, it’s a great series.
10. Torchwood: Children Of Earth
Children of Earth was a radical departure for Torchwood, the entire third season of the show was just five one-hour episodes. Torchwood is a spinoff from Doctor Who, which has a reputation for injecting sex, violence, and hammy acting into their shared universe. Children of Earth changed that, with a much more serious and dark tone, pulling out much of the humor, and replacing it with a grim and terrifying story. Aliens want 10% of the children of Earth, and they will kill us if we don’t hand them over. It’s a terrible idea, the definition of rock and a hard place. Torchwood was cut down from its usual 13 episode seasons down to just 5 due to budget cuts, and relegated to a different channel during a shitty time of year. And still they managed to pull in a huge viewership for this intense mini.
9. North and South
Oh, young Patrick Swayze, with your flowing locks and easy charm. North and South was a three part miniseries (though the third was utterly horrible), and the first two parts were six episodes long, and the third just three. It chronicles two wealthy families on opposite sides of the Civil War, a Southern plantation owner and Northern industrialist. It was a star studded affair, packed with dozens of amazing actors who brought these classic novels to life, and the series one a huge number of awards, as well as being incredibly popular with viewers.
8. Angels in America
Six hours long. 21 Emmy nominations, 11 wins. It’s 1985, Reagen is in the White House, God has abandoned heaven, and relationships are ripped apart by AIDS and politics. Extremely unconventional, harrowing and excellently acted, the story swings from the sublime to the surreal, as an angel announces itself to a man dieing of AIDS, and tells him to be a prophet. It’s not an easy miniseries to watch, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s superb, and worth the mental and emotional effort it requires.
7. From the Earth to the Moon
Comparatively long for a mini, From the Earth to the Moon was 12 episodes long, and as accurately as possible chronicled the time from the early days of the move to send a man to the moon all the way up to final Apollo mission in 1972. Painstakingly historically accurate, and made with absolutely amazing special effects, the series is unique in its uncanny ability to pull you in to the past. Sure, there are plenty of historical dramas on this list, all of which are great, but none have the same fly on the wall quality that makes From the Earth to the Moon so utterly memorable and realistic. It doesn’t hurt that it was produced by the same group that did Apollo 13.
6. John Adams
John Adams is the opposite end of the historical spectrum. Likewise, it covers a significant time period, this time 50 years over seven episodes, and likewise it focuses on a period of extreme importance in the history of the United States. However, where From Earth To The Moon strove for historical accuracy in all things, John Adams was more than willing to bend historical fact in order to create a good story — which they did an excellent job of. Paul Giamatti excelled as the blunt but principled titular character, and Laura Linney was amazing as his wife. As historically inaccurate as it was, it’s still one of the most gripping and interesting miniseries of the last decade.
5. Planet Earth
You would think Planet Earth was a marketing move from the HDTV consortium, as its stunning footage was reason enough to by into the hi-def format technology headfirst. Gorgeously shot using state-of-the-art equipment, Planet Earth took years to film, and you know what? It was worth every second. Narrated by the incomparable David Attenborough, it’s an overwhelming and astonishing look at the beauty of the world around us. Almost as interesting are the associated making-of segments that follow each, showing just how hard it was for to get some of those shots.
4. I, Claudius
I, Claudius is a BBC mini from 1976, which makes it the oldest entry on this list, but still one of the best. It defined the historical epic for decades, crafting a mold that many other followed, creating an intensely dramatized and heightened history, filled with deception and lust. It was an absolutely fantastic production, filled with actors like John Hurt, Patrick Stewart, Christopher Biggins and John Rhys-Davies. It was eventually shown in America as part of PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre, where it met intense critical acclaim.
3. Pride and Prejudice
Colin Firth. Lake. Ask any woman you know about Pride and Prejudice, and that’s what they’ll remember. At the time he wasn’t exactly well known, but as the intense Lord Darcy, he swiftly shot to fame. The six hour serialization of Jane Austen’s most famous novel is by far the best and most accurate of any attempt, and it has gained an incredibly following for its faithfulness to the story, as well as the incredibly acting and period-perfect sets and outfits. It had an unusually high budget, a million pounds per episode, which helped immensely in its accuracy, and it went on to become a key figure in the British national psyche.
2. Band of Brothers
Tom Hanks and Steven Speilberg produced this 10-hour miniseries, which is possibly the most manly and epic piece of television ever created. Heavily influenced by the pair’s earlier film “Saving Private Ryan” it again focused on a single group during WWII, this time Easy Company, from their original training, through the American airborne landings in Normandy, Operation Market Garden, the Battle of Bastogne, and on to the eventual end of the war. With an overall budget of $125 million, it’s the most expensive miniseries ever produced, and it shows. Intensely human, the series focuses on the individual members of the company through the trials and hells of war. While now the series is often exists only as a last minute birthday present for your Dad, because you don’t know what the hell else to get him, it’s still widely regarded as one of the best miniseries of all time.
Up until Angels in America, Roots was the most awarded miniseries in American history, garnering nine Emmys out of an astonishing 36 nominations. Can you imagine how much balls it must have taken ABC in 1977 to create this series? An 8 hour long epic chronicling the cruelties of slavery in the USA? A series about abuse, torture, rape, and hatred? Chronicling a family line from a 1750s slave brought from Africa to their eventual freedom? That sort of content would be scandalous now for a non-cable station, but in the 70s? Luckily, ABC did an absolutely amazing job, and Roots became a cultural milestone, a series of such importance that its rightly enshrined in the national mythos. It also sparked a resurgence in interest in African-American genealogy. Something like 140 million people watched the show. That’s how important it was, and that’s why it tops out our list.
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