Esteemed miniseries still get produced by PBS, like last year’s Return to Cranford, but the major broadcast networks abandoned the genre after cable proved so adept at it (See: Band of Brothers, Angels in America, Broken Trail). A network miniseries hasn’t been nominated for an Emmy since 2005 (Elvis) or won since 2001 (Anne Frank: The Whole Story). But now ABC plans to bring back the spectacle of those must-see events. Not only is the network developing an eight-hour version of Wicked with Salma Hayek, but ABC recently announced it’s producing a four-parter about the doomed voyage of the Titanic, scripted by Julian Fellowes, who gifted us PBS’s recent prize, Downton Abbey.
There was a time when the network miniseries was a lucrative centerpiece of the Big 3’s seasonal television lineup. Roots and Rich Man, Poor Man, obviously, were water-cooler events, back when there were still water-coolers and before cable television’s swift ascendancy, and the 1980s were a golden age, dotted with primetime miniseries that explored history, current events, and Richard Chamberlain’s handsomeness. PBS was always good for a few high-brow miniseries that would pop up in time for the Emmys, but it was the likes of Shogun (1980) and The Thorn Birds (1983) that entranced millions and million of viewers to a ratings degree unimaginable by today’s networks.
Titanic seems like a savvy vehicle to lure viewers back to the miniseries genre. Like North & South (1985), you already know how the story ends, but that won’t prevent you from delighting in the upstairs-downstairs melodrama and romantic tension. You might think they’ll need a Leo or a Kate to secure ratings gold, but I don’t think that will be a problem. Just get a CG boat, an iceberg, some class conflict, and you’re golden. Oh, and casting Richard Chamberlain and Jane Seymour in first-class wouldn’t hurt.
Do you recall the heyday of the network miniseries? As a kid, I was especially riveted by the performances of Brad Davis in Robert Kennedy & His Times (1985) and Chiefs (1984). (I’ve maintained a fascination with Bobby and grisly thrillers ever since.) Why do you think prime-time abandoned the miniseries so easily, and do you think Wicked and Titanic can bring them back en vogue?