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Love for the mini-series

bye bran
The recent win for Game Change (HBO’s 2012 political drama about the last to last election) at this year’s Emmy awards got me thinking about my all-time favourite TV category: the mini-series.

I seem to even prefer them to most movies. I like them because they are often dramatised versions of real events, or adaptations of fat or difficult novels that movies don’t want to or can’t touch.

As a mini-series with a longer running time than a movie, they can do a more in-depth treatment of a subject or a book or a factual event. Game Change stars Juliane Moore as Sarah Palin and Ed Harris as McCain, and dramatises the 2008 campaign trail. Last year, there was the six-part Mildred Pierce with Kate Winslet playing James M Cain’s long-suffering heroine. And Too Big To Fail, also from last year, was a detailed, insider account of the 2008 financial meltdown.

Game Change now has a Golden Globe nomination and is viewed as the favourite to win. All three happen to be HBO dramas — who usually take the lead in this category, but other networks and cable studios are catching up fast. (The ones to be avoided are the made for TV movies from Hallmark).

They don’t always work, these mini-series, and when they backfire, they can be very testing and dull. (They go on and on, over several hours, with no end in sight). Two dramas that failed to hook me were Georgia O’Keefe, on the modernist painter, and the more recent Mildred Pierce. Too Big to Fail and Game Change are also not among HBO’s best — they are serviceable dramas, but not as compelling as Recount or You Don’t Know Jack from previous years.

Recount, staring Kevin Spacey, tells the story of election rigging. You Don’t Know Jack is about Jack Kervokian, the courageous doctor who medically assisted people in chronic pain to end their lives. Kervokian is played powerfully by Al Pacino; a comeback role for this respected actor who has either been hamming away in his newer movie characters or sleepwalking through them. In this moving, revealing mini-series, he is finally handed a role that challenges him. (Something Robert Di Nero is yet to find).  &nbsp

The people who do this kind of thing really well, even longer and possibly better than HBO, are the British — BBC2 primarily, but other studios too, like ITV. In fact, most of the best recent mini-series are from over there — from Downton Abbey to Sherlock to The Hour. This year has seen more interesting additions: David Morrisey as DCI Thorne, an adaptation of Mark Bellingham’s acclaimed detective novels, Parade’s End (starring Benedict Cumberbatch) by Tom Stoppard, and Secret State. (Secret State happens to be a new reworking of a classic political thriller from the 90s called A Very British Coup).

Probably the best ever mini-series has to be the Prime Suspect series from Britain. It set the standard for good television. The various directors of the show, and especially Christopher Menaul who did the first, should be credited with establishing the unmistakable style of Prime Suspect — busy, crackling, terse, restrained, ironic, understated — that brought a new television verite atmosphere to not just a mystery series, but to the mini-series itself.

The most popular mini-series in recent years again has been British: Downton Abbey, the crossover hit. This is something entirely new in television: a series that hooks you with an entrancing plot and ravishing characters, without depending on a literary source. It has a crisp, contemporary feel to it that is generally missing from most period stuff.

This series, basically, as I’ve noted before, is about that whole British class thing about upstairs and downstairs (the owners live up, the servants below). The characters, both upstairs and downstairs, are sympathetically and warmly drawn, and you care for them immensely. The details are uber-meticulous, and hypnotise with the daily ritual of life at this large aristocratic house. If Prime Suspect is the best mystery series and Downton Abbey the most absorbing drama series, The Office and Extras, both from creators Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, must rank as the funniest mini-series since Fawlty Towers. However, rather annoyingly, the same can’t be said for their new shows: An Idiot Abroad and Life’s Too Short. Simply not as funny.

There were several other disappoints this year: while Downton Abbey 2 fulfilled its promise (at least, I felt so, even though critics in Britain seemed to increasingly grow disenchanted with it; I look forward to Series 3 which will release in January 2013 on DVD), Sherlock 2 couldn’t sustain its earlier brilliance. The single exception was the first installment: A Scandal in Belgravia, after which there were only flashes of genius (OP: NO.)

I enjoyed Game of Thrones as much as the next fan, but couldn’t get caught up in Homeland. The series is terribly overrated (or else, competing series are so mediocre that it allows for this one to stand out), and I didn’t feel inclined to watch the second series currently on.

Even Titanic from Julian Fellowes, the man who gave us Downton, is only mildly engaging. Also disappointing is the other overrated show: American Horror Story. A series that was trashed by the critics turned out to be not so bad after all — a new mini-series remake of Coma. An expensive production from Ridley Scott with an ensemble cast, updating medical horror. Yes, it was far-fetched, but entertaining. Two new political series show promise: Political Animals with Sigourney Weaver and Veep with Julia Louis Dreyfus

(Veep is from the creators of the cult British political satire, The Thick of It). Also enjoyable are the new shows House of Lies and Luck. The most engaging HBO series this year, however, is Lena Denham’s Girls, which cleverly uses a grungy, home video style to tell the stories of young, underemployed women still living with their parents, swapping their sad, funny stories.

A fairly enjoyable new mini-series has been Elementary, another new Sherlock Holmes pastiche where, for some strange reason, Holmes is now living in New York City and Watson is a woman! The mini-series I most enjoyed this year — and I’m hoping there will be many more — is Endeavour: The Origins of Inspector Morse, which imagines a young Inspector Morse (played by Shaun Evans) and how he came to be at Oxford, and how his love for classical music offers the solution to his first mystery on which he cuts his detective teeth.


I'm afraid to admit he might be right about Homeland, I still haven't be able to make myself watch the last episode. Also, Elementary isn't a mini-series. I really, really liked Veep

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