A Crash Course in TV Miniseries You Need to See

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We knew we were doomed to love Mildred Pierce far before we switched on our TV Sunday night to watch the first two installments. A five-part HBO miniseries based on the James M. Cain novel, directed by Todd Haynes, starring Kate Winslet, Guy Pearce, and (in later episodes) Evan Rachel Wood? Despite our attachment to Joan Crawford’s film version, we were instantly addicted. And it got us thinking: Why do we tend to ignore TV miniseries, only to zone out when they have their moment at the Golden Globes or the Emmys? With the help from the wonderful Flavorpill staff, we’ve resolved to fill the gaps in our viewing with this list of must-see serials, from the ’70s through the HBO-dominated present.

Roots

It’s impossible to talk about TV’s best miniseries without mentioning Roots, ABC’s 1977 adaptation of Alex Haley’s novel of the same name. The story is based on Haley’s genealogy and stars LeVar Burton as his ancestor Kunta Kinte, a young man in West Africa who is captured by a slave trader (Ed Asner), brought to America, and sold at auction to work on a plantation. Although we all learn about slavery in school, Roots dramatized its affect on individuals and families — and inspired many African Americans to learn about their own heritage. Along with Asner and newcomer Burton, the cast featured everyone from Cicely Tyson and Ben Vereen to Maya Angelou and O.J. Simpson. A few sequels followed, but none were as powerful as the original.

I, Claudius

Like Roots, I, Claudius is an absolutely essential entry in the miniseries canon. Featuring a cast including Derek Jacobi (in the title role), Patrick Stewart, and John Hurt, the 1976 BBC serial dramatizes the history of Rome, from Augustus to Claudius. Full of sex, murder, conspiracy, and Caligula, this imperial saga makes contemporary political intrigue look like the philosopher-king utopia Plato dreamed of.

Angels in America

Angels in America brought Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer prize-winning 1993 play to HBO a decade later, pairing director Mike Nichols with a stellar cast featuring Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson, and Mary-Louise Parker. Set in the mid-’80s, as AIDS ravages the gay community and the Reagan administration does its best to ignore the epidemic, Angels in America combines personal with political realities — and names new angels and prophets for an era when many felt abandoned by God. Although just about every performance was memorable, we’ll always remember Justin Kirk (now best known as Weeds‘ Uncle Andy) as visionary AIDS patient Prior Walter. Angels in America is unquestionably required viewing, but if you’re prone to sobbing through sad movies (or even, maybe, if you aren’t), make sure you watch it with a full box of tissues by your side.

Downton Abbey

“If you’re a sucker for soapy period dramas, then this recent British import about a family’s inheritance crisis is a must-watch,” writes Flavowire managing editor Caroline Stanley. “From Dame Maggie Smith’s hilarious zingers as the imperious Lady Grantham to the drool-worthy costumes, it’s like a smarter version of Gossip Girl, if Gossip Girl were set in the English countryside circa 1912.”

Traffik

You know what’s better than Stephen Soderbergh’s award-winning 2000 film Traffic? The 1989 British miniseries Traffik, which also follows the drug trade. But while Soderbergh’s movie focuses on America and Mexico, the six-part Channel Four version jumps from Pakistan to Germany to England, telling the stories of growers, users, and everyone in between. Given more time to develop its plot and characters, Traffik teases out more moral ambiguities — and forces fewer universal conclusions — than its predecessor. And did we mention it co-stars Julia Ormond?

Band of Brothers

Dave Coll, a self-professed history/war buff calls Band of Brothers “the best film production (television, movies, mini-series, whatever) ever made. It tells the story of Easy Company, a parachute infantry unit, from boot camp until the end of World War II. As with many Tom Hanks-backed productions, Band of Brothers includes a great score (Michael Kamen), fantastic production (Steven Spielberg), captivating action, and standout performances from a variety of relatively unknown actors (David Schwimmer notwithstanding). However, what sets Band of Brothers apart is unparalleled character development. Spanning 705 minutes, its pace never feels rushed or forced. And, as a predominantly non-fiction account, no character is safe from death or injury. There is no singular protagonist (wouldn’t 24 be so much more interesting if Jack Bauer could actually die in hour four?). Additionally, interviews with the octogenarian members of Easy Company, as well as an acute awareness of historical detail, ensures that the viewer will learn something as well. Band of Brothers is a truly moving account of a group of men forced together under terrible conditions, which encompasses themes of heroism, friendship, leadership, fear, death, frustration, and the appreciation of life itself.” Coll also recommends Band of Brothers‘ sister series The Pacific, which focuses on soldiers in World War II’s second front.

North and South

ABC’s trilogy of miniseries about life before, during, and after the Civil War aired in 1985, 1986, and 1994, respectively. Lauren Epstein describes North and South as “a classic ’80s network bodice-ripper perfectly packaged as Civil War drama. Patrick Swayze is at his best in confederate finery, Elizabeth Taylor plays a bordello proprietor, Hal Holbrook is Abe Lincoln, Johnny Cash is abolitionist John Brown, and the cast is rounded out by too many other ridiculous A-listers to name (Peter O’Toole, anyone?). Plus, how can a miniseries that resulted in three marriages amongst the cast and crew be anything other than pure, sugary PG-rated porn?”

Generation Kill

“HBO’s Generation Kill was amazing,” recalls Flavorpill’s East Coast sales director Nate Hageman. “David Simon and Ed Burns do for the first Iraq war what they did for Baltimore in The Wire. It’s near perfect storytelling about the boredom, futility and friendships that are the result of war. And if you want to see Eric the vampire from True Blood without fangs, here’s your chance.”

Brideshead Revisited

Another fantastic British import (which appeared on PBS in the U.S.), Brideshead Revisited allows Evelyn Waugh’s must-read novel to play out over 11 luxurious hours — and Pat Barker’s story of beautiful, aimless, post-World War I 20-somethings driving each other nuts at the Flyte family’s country mansion benefits from the breathing room. You couldn’t hope for a better Charles Ryder than Jeremy Irons, and even the legendary Laurence Olivier turns up to play Lord Marchmain. The 2008 film adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, while pretty to look at, has absolutely nothing on this 1981 serial.

John Adams

“Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a film account of this time period that does a better job of telling of our nation’s birth story — or makes the Founding Fathers feel more real,” Caroline Stanley writes of the 2008 HBO miniseries. “A lot of that is thanks to the serious acting chops of the leads (Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney), but David McCullough’s biography is also fantastic source material.”