Little screen, big effort – Revere authors pen a critical examination of television mini-series

Television has played an unmistakably important role in the modern history of the United States, and two Revere residents have recently published a book looking at how the “epic mini-series” of the past influenced life, show business and the careers of young actors.

Who could forget how ‘Roots’ captivated the entire nation?

How could one not remember the unique Japanese feudal world that Richard Chamberlain inducted the country into with ‘Shogun’?

The heyday of the epic mini-series in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s attracted hundreds of millions of viewers. In a time before VCRs, TiVo and the Internet – when people actually had to sit still and commit to a television program – mini-series events showcased television at its very best.

Sadly, those days are gone, but Revere authors John DeVito and Frank Tropea are not letting them be forgotten with the publication of the first-ever critical look at the television genre. The book is entitled, ‘Epic Television Miniseries: A Critical History.’

Among the series they examine are ‘Rich Man, Poor Man,’ ‘Roots,’ ‘Winds of War,’ ‘Lonesome Dove,’ ‘Shogun,’ ‘The North and South,’ ‘The Holocaust,’ and others.

“I don’t think there’s anything on TV now that compares to these,” said DeVito. “There can’t be…These were beautifully made and brilliant stories. They’re up in the Top 10 greatest events on TV – the impact they had on America and the world. All you had to do was switch on the TV, sit back and there they were. People didn’t know what they had back then.”

DeVito said that mini-series often were produced with budgets as high as $400 million. They also often attracted top young, but unknown, talents like Nick Nolte, Patrick Swayze, and Meryl Streep. However, they always attracted well-paid stars like Marlon Brando and Liz Taylor for cameo appearances.

DeVito and Tropea explain that the mini-series grew out of radio shows that were broadcast in the 1920’s on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in London – shows that would read novels over the airwaves. When TV came into being, those shows naturally turned into the forbearer of the mini-series. After huge successes in Britain, American television producers began examining the same format for import to America.

Among the most astounding and most memorable mini-series ever was the unlikely drama concerning American slavery in ‘Roots.’ In an all white country that was still somewhat prejudiced in the late 1970s when ‘Roots’ aired, the mini-series drew the most viewers in TV history.

“Roots is the biggest dramatic television event ever,” said DeVito. “The only thing that comes close to touching it was the final episode of MASH, but that was a comedy and not a drama…Today, a hit show might attract 20 million viewers, but ‘Roots’ scored a record 150 million viewers.”

DeVito said that the network, ABC, really went out on a limb to air such a series about such a delicate subject, but one of the key things they did was put it on every night.

“Literally, everything stopped for ‘Roots,’” he said. “Restaurants closed, the streets were empty and people didn’t go to the movies. The network wasn’t prepared for that themselves…It was a new concept and they wanted to do it every night. They did that because they were nervous about how they would sell this to white America…It was a 75 percent white country then and it’s the story of slavery and the white people in it are mostly the bad ones in the story. They got people to identify with Kunta Kinte and his daughter on a nightly basis.”

The effects of that groundbreaking television event was multi-faceted.

“It really started an awareness of the slavery issue in America, but it also triggered the whole genealogy movement and people trying to find their own roots.”

One of the hallmarks of the mini-series was the cliffhanger at the end of an installment. A mini-series never ended a night without one or two startling cliffhangers.

“Those cliffhangers inspired the typical TV shows like ‘Dallas,’” said DeVito. “Before, shows just ended. After the mini-series influence, they ended a season with a hook – like ‘Who Shot J.R.?’ on ‘Dallas.’ That was probably the most famous one and it grew directly out of the lesson they learned from these mini-series.”

Unfortunately, the mini-series is a dinosaur that is probably extinct for good.

Television budgets are too small, computer special effects are too prevalent and audiences aren’t as deeply committed as in the past during the heyday of these television events.

“Back in the 1980s, the first four hours of ‘Shogun’ was all in Japanese with no subtitles,” he said. “I can’t imagine people today sitting still for that. I think our attention span might be too short. For these, you had to sit there. If it was on three hours, that was your commitment. Everything now is instant. People want quickness and instant messages. These things you had to sit and wait for the payoff at the end.”

Interestingly enough, though, the mini-series hasn’t completely died, as many shows today still carry the legacy of the format.

DeVito pointed to ‘Lost,’ ‘24,’ and even ‘The Sopranos’ as easily identifiable shows with mini-series characteristics.

For the two authors, who are actually fresh off a successful book looking at Marilyn Monroe, their next event will probably be a sequel to this book. Following that, they may take a critical look at the PBS drama ‘Masterpiece Theatre,’ which is the longest-running TV show in America.

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