SDD's Top Ten Series of All-Time -- Supplemental List #3: Specials, Made-for-TV Movies and Miniseries
I'll be honest with you here. I haven't seen a ton of specials, miniseries or made-for-TV movies. I've tried to hit the highlights of the three types, but so many of the good ones are unavailable on DVD or are rerun sporadically. TV was once a place where people were happy to give over hours of their lives over the course of a full week to follow an intricately plotted story. That's not the case anymore, as the DVD era has allowed most people to have virtually any film ever made at their fingertips in mere moments, so the shoddiness of most made-for-TV movies seems even more apparent. Still, there's a lot of things I just haven't seen that are inexcusable -- just recently, a column at The AV Club turned me on to a 1974 Judd Hirsch made-for-TV movie called The Law that I'm going to have to check out.
So when I say I haven't seen a lot of these, I beg you to correct my oversights. Tell me what should have made the list, and show me just how stupid I was to leave off, say, The Burning Bed.
originally broadcast, CBS, 1966
One of the two best holiday specials of all time, The Grinch isn't as good as it is because of the goofy songs or the heartwarming (if slightly cliche) story or even Boris Karloff's terrific voice work. What makes The Grinch so much better than the typical animated special is just how sumptuous the animation is. Chuck Jones was responsible for the look and feel of the show, and he imbues all of the characters with a strange humanity, right down to the heroic dog Max. The Grinch is also a case of a pared down TV show being so much better than the movie it inspired. The TV special manages to get at the heart of the holiday season through an economical story and characters drawn swiftly and perfectly. The movie version, directed by Ron Howard and starring Jim Carrey, looks like a million bucks, but there's very little there there, especially when it tries to deepen the story of who the Grinch was and how he came to hate Christmas. Dr. Seuss and Chuck Jones understood the power of suggestion to drive a narrative; Howard and Carrey did not.
originally broadcast, Discovery Channel, 2007
Planet Earth is exhibit A in the argument that watching things in HD is going to change everything for a few years until we all get used to it. In standard definition, Planet Earth is an agreeable nature doc, taking viewers on a whirlwind tour of most of the Earth's climatic zones to see the sorts of things you don't usually see in a nature doc (from a bird's mating dance to a snow leopard on the prowl). In high definition, though, Planet Earth is a mindblower, making what was agreeable into an eye-popping argument that the environmental movement is the only one that matters (without making an explicit case for that movement). Planet Earth is the kind of thing that pushes a new tech -- in the way Halo sold Xboxes, Planet Earth just might sell HDTVs. And, in its own way, Planet Earth is strangely mournful, an ode to the planet we all share and a reminder of everything we could lose.
originally broadcast, CBS, 1974
Largely forgotten today, this was THE TV movie back in the 1970s and one of the most rewarded shows of its time. The script for the movie is kind of mawkish (which makes sense, since the book it's based on isn't very good), and the direction is clumsy, but Cicely Tyson is just awesome in a performance that largely made her career. It's a real testament to the way that an appealing actor can latch on to a great role on television and bring that role closer to the audience as it watches.
originally broadcast, ABC, 1983
Several British takes on the same subject matter (most notably Threads) were quite a bit more realistic and harder-edged than this movie, but The Day After can't be beat for the way it builds a sense of dread building up to the moment when the bombs will be dropped (shown above). In its time, the movie was controversial and a ratings hit, even as it caused angry debate about how the movie was a plot by liberal Hollywood to bring down Reagan's attempts to make communism crumble (no, really! and then Ben Stein got a bunch of people to make a miniseries about "life in Red America" in response! man, the '80s!). The Day After is a very TV movie take on a serious subject, blending sentiment in liberally with the moments of horror it needs to be taken seriously, but it's also surprisingly hard-edged for its time period, and it ushered in an era where nuclear holocaust storylines became the order of the day (anybody seen Testament?). There are things in this movie that make a modern audience roll its eyes, but there are also scenes that still have a weird, primal power.
originally broadcast, PBS, 1994
It's hard to talk about televised documentaries without talking about Ken Burns, who made two magnificent long-form works and then largely lapsed into self-parody afterwards. While I like The Civil War considerably, I think Burns' finest film is Baseball, which manages to capture a huge swath of America by focusing intently on the game most of the nation loved for so very long. Split roughly into nine "innings," the movie features many people who've done a lot of thinking about baseball and even more people who were players and managers. Burns has a tendency to push too far when the history itself would be sufficient (he's a fan of the soaring soundtrack, the mawkish voiceover, the forced dramatic irony), but he also has a talent for uncovering bits and pieces of American history that might not be immediately obvious to a casual student. Burns does his research, and that's why he's able to turn such essential pieces of Americana into moving works of art.
originally broadcast, CBS, 1989
Lonesome Dove was supposed to be a colossal failure when it first aired in the late 80s. Though it was based on a fairly popular book, Westerns were a dying genre, and the miniseries had seen better days. The bombast of the early '80s miniseries (like War and Remembrance and North and South) had created an audience that was growing increasingly weary of following the soap operatic plotting of these stories. Lonesome Dove worked, I think, because it was so simple and stripped down in the story department and because its two characters were so memorably created and deftly played. Lonesome Dove was one of the first modern "elegy for the West" stories, and the work by Tommy Lee Jones, Robert Duvall and director Simon Wincer gave the story every inch of emotional heft it needed. Highly recommended if you run across it in one of its numerous cable rebroadcasts.
originally broadcast, HBO, 2001/ABC, 1971
Two different takes on death from two very different television eras highlight the different strengths of their respective eras remarkably well. Wit is a blistering look at the loss of one's physical faculties while the mind fights to stay relevant and nimble. Almost a one-woman show by Emma Thompson (though, of course, there are other fine performances), the movie is movingly directed by Mike Nichols from the play by Margaret Edson. Reimagining the process of dying as one last act of exercising intellectual curiosity, Wit is a bit stagey, yes, but thrillingly so. Brian's Song, on the other hand, is a sweet tale from the early days of television movies, one that has been a little overrated by those who remember it jerking tears and tugging heartstrings. Still, the movie is less sentimental than you've been told, and it earns its final, heartfelt moment. It helps that the two men at the center of the story are well-played.
originally broadcast, ABC, 1977
Aired by ABC on eight consecutive nights to minimize the damage the network was sure the miniseries would do to its ratings, Roots went on to become the most-watched television event in history, with four of its eight episodes among the top 30 rated broadcasts of all time. Its finale remains the third-most-watched broadcast of all time, behind only the M*A*S*H finale and the Who Shot J.R. resolution. Upwards of 50 million viewers tuned in on average, with nearly 100 million tuning in for the final broadcast. Not bad for a show that the network tried to promote as starring Lorne Greene to stave off low ratings. All of that seems incredibly impressive, even today, but it is especially so in an age where television has ghettoized itself, sending "black" programming off to separate stations (as if the medium totally forgot how huge Roots and Cosby were). Roots isn't the best history lesson, and it's very much a product of its time in how it tackles an issue without subtlety, but the emotional impact the series packs is second to none. It's about the American spirit of prevailing against all odds to make a new life for yourself in the new world. It gets some of the facts wrong, but it forced more people to take a look at America's ugly racial history than any work of art since Uncle Tom's Cabin, and that's worth a spot on any list.
originally broadcast, HBO, 2003
Tony Kushner's titanic chronicle of life as a gay man in the 1980s is the sort of thing that only HBO could pull off or even dare attempt a filmed version of. Consisting of two, three-hour episodes, the miniseries is a faithful translation of the stage play, this time with better special effects (which, honestly, take away some of the charm) and an A-list cast, including Meryl Streep, Al Pacino and Emma Thompson (who, again honestly, is a bit wasted in the role of the Angel). But what really makes the movie are the performances by the players who were mostly unknowns at the time of filming -- Justin Kirk, Mary-Louise Parker, Ben Shenkman, Patrick Wilson and Jeffrey Wright -- and the words of Kushner, who distills years of American history into the sense that apocalypse is waiting just around the corner and with it the promise of change. Parker and Kirk's final monologues (aboard an airplane and at the Bethesda Fountain, respectively) are among the most moving committed to film. Also directed by Mike Nichols, Angels in America is reminiscent of the European television system, where a country's finest director could be tempted to work in television for a finite amount of time to create a longer-form work that just wouldn't work in the cinema.
originally broadcast, CBS, 1965
The best Christmas stories have a taste of grim reality to them -- think of George Bailey's dashed dreams or Ebenezer Scrooge's loss of his one true love. Sadly, most televised Christmas specials forget this, which is why all but a handful have been consigned to the dustbins of history. That's what makes A Charlie Brown Christmas so bracing and such a landmark television program. In a time when all TV was full of forced jocularity, this special is a grim little rumination on just how commercial Christmas had become, just how depressing the holidays can be and just how hard it is to find even an ounce of happiness in the world. The script, written in a matter of hours by Charles Schulz one day after he found out he was doing the special, is the sort of deeply personal reflection of America Schulz did so well. While he would become a secular humanist late in life, Schulz famously insisted on including a religious moment in this special, perhaps feeling a bit guilty that such an anti-commercial special would be used for such a commercial cause. Somehow, the moment when Linus recites the Christmas story works regardless of your religious affiliation; there are older, deeper truths in this world than the latest ads for holiday season deals, and Linus is knocking at the door of understanding them. Or so we hope. Bolstered by hyper-naturalistic voicework from real kids and a great Vince Guaraldi score, the series confronts the cold, dark heart of loneliness and finds one tiny bit of hope.
Today's Christmas tune: One of my family's favorite Christmas traditions was listening to The Stingiest Man in Town, a retelling of A Christmas Carol that was aired as a Christmas special on The Alcoa Hour. Now, you too can share in the VanDerWerff family joy with a song from the special -- the title track. You can buy the full soundtrack (available on CD for the first time ever) here or check out the Rankin/Bass version here.
Tomorrow: Places #80-71, including one very young show, one of the biggest syndication successes of all time and one of my mom's favorites.