Best TV miniseries

by Chris Bertram on February 17, 2006

Following on from Kieran’s “post about British and US TV”: the other day, I started thinking about the best “TV miniseries/drama serial”: ever, by which I mean just the best drama series telling a story over a limited number of episodes. My list of five contains four British examples and one German. Maybe I’m just parochial, but maybe this is a format the British excel in and the Americans don’t. That’s my hunch. So here’s my list (with annotations). Post rival suggestions in comments.

1. “Heimat”: . Does this count? It is long by miniseries standards, but Edgar Reitz’s story of the the Simon family and the village of Schabbach from the end of the First World War to the 1970s is simply the best thing I’ve ever seen on TV. The sequels, Heimat 2 and Heimat 3 are also pretty good, and some think Heimat 2 the best of the three. They’re wrong, but non-culpably so.

2. “The Edge of Darkness”: . Mid 80s nuclear drama set in Britain as policeman Bob Peck goes after the killers of his daughter (Joanne Whalley) with help from rogue CIA man Joe Don Baker. Eric Clapton soundtrack with frequent playings of Willie Nelson’s “Time of the Preacher” thrown in (the daughter’s favourite record). Tense, paranoid, and secured Peck his role in Jurassic Park.

3. “The Singing Detective”: . Who could watch the pathethic Hollywood remake after this? Michael Gambon, Joanne Whalley (again!) and a sense of growing incredulity that the plot can actually come together. Complete with Dennis Potter’s trademark use of music and song as the key to the unconscious. His best work.

4. “Our Friends in the North”: . Currently being shown again in the UK. From 1960s idealism, through local government and police corruption, vice, and the miner’s strike. Christopher Ecclestone and Gina McKee both superb.

5. “Traffik”: . Why did they ever make the crummy Hollywood version with Douglas and Zeta-Jones? Lindsay Duncan gives an ice-cold performance as the wife as the various threads come together in the UK, Germany and Pakistan. Shostakovich’s 8th String Quartet as the backing music.

I note the dates for these are 1984, 1985, 1986, 1996 and 1989, suggesting the 1980s as a golden age for the format. I might have included Bleasdale’s “Boys from the Blackstuff”: (1982) or “GBH”: (1991) on a different day.

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02.20.06 at 5:58 am



wcw 02.17.06 at 1:08 pm

Parochial, indeed, Where’s “Riget” (“the Kingdom”)?

I love “Singing Detective” and even “Lipstick on your Collar” but these 280 subtitled minutes crush all comers, imo.


Doctor Slack 02.17.06 at 1:16 pm

Never seen Heimat, more’s the pity, and I didn’t even know there was a television original of The Singing Detective (glad to hear it’s better than the awful film).

I’d readily cast a vote for The Final Cut, which really deserves to be more widely known in North America; Francis Urquhart is to modern television almost what Richard of Gloucester was to Elizabethan theatre.

And for once I’ll stick up for a Hollywood remake. Soderbergh’s Traffic wasn’t without its flaws but IMO was an excellent adaptation of the concept of the European original to the American milieu and to feature film format. (Apparently there’s been a recent attempt to use Soderberh’s film as the launching pad for an American mini-series, which sounds a lot more dubious.)


harry b 02.17.06 at 1:21 pm

What, no Poliakoff?

A Very British Coup?


R 02.17.06 at 1:21 pm

Kieslowski’s Decalogue, surely?


Backword Dave 02.17.06 at 1:32 pm

“Christopher Ecclestone and Gina McKee both superb.”

Ere! What about Daniel “Next James Bond” Craig!


yabonn 02.17.06 at 1:32 pm

Maybe not one of the best evah, but add another german to the good ones list : “Der König von St. Pauli”.

Good enough i found it good without understanding German.


elton 02.17.06 at 1:34 pm

Chris’ top five list is so 1980s…


Dan K 02.17.06 at 1:37 pm

Not sure if it counts, but the first three installments of “Prime Suspect” is pretty darn decent TV. Apparently, you anglos got a butchered version of “Scenes from a marriage” but it’s on my list. Also “The singing detective”, “The edge of darkness” and “I, Claudius”.


Armed Liberal 02.17.06 at 1:41 pm

How about the “Dekalog” by Kieslowski?? That was shown on TV in Poland, and was freaking brilliant. It’s available on DVD, and is one of the best things I’ve ever seen.



Giovanni Ribisi 02.17.06 at 1:42 pm

I second “I, Claudius.” Where does one see “Heimat” outside of Germany? Did it screen on British TV? Just to get away from the UK- I haven’t seen “La meglio gioventu” yet but have heard very good things. The Russian serial “17 moments in spring” is a great miniseries about WWII – it’s available in the US on DVD.


Giovanni Ribisi 02.17.06 at 1:43 pm

“Dekalog” is brilliant, but I don’t think it counts as a “TV miniseries”. It is still 10 different stories, even if they’re thematically related.


Aeon J. Skoble 02.17.06 at 1:44 pm

“by which I mean just the best drama series telling a story over a limited number of episodes”

Well, on this definition, surely The Prisoner (17 episodes) ought to get some consideration.


chris y 02.17.06 at 2:01 pm

Private Schultz. Only the best!


JR 02.17.06 at 2:04 pm

As good or better than The Singing Detective is the earlier Dennis Potter miniseries, Pennies from Heaven, with Bob Hoskins.

For genre fiction, I’m fond of the Helen Mirren Prime Suspect series- first one is best.

An Italian miniseries, The Best of Youth (La Meglio gioventù) was shown as a two-part 6-hour movie in US art houses last summer. It had many flaws but I enjoyed it as melodrama and also as a potted summary of the last 30 years of Italian history.

And Bergman’s Fanny & Alexander was originally a series on Swedish TV – so it should qualify on anyone’s top 10 list.


nadehzda 02.17.06 at 2:07 pm

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy — yes, I guess it also counts as 80s (US release Sept 1980).


Jeff R. 02.17.06 at 2:15 pm

America does the Big Stupid Miniseries, some of which have been fairly good when viewed strictly on those terms. (“Amerika”, “The Day After”, “V”, to name a few exercises in paranoia…)

For quality, at least we have “The Corner”. And are people allowed to discuss miniseries without someone at least mentioning “Roots”?


djw 02.17.06 at 2:15 pm

Best of Youth. Italian miniseries made a few years ago. Actually given a limited theatrical release in the States, but it was made for TV and six hours long. The story of two brothers that spans 30+ years of Italian history. Marvelous, utterly engrossing, sweeping melodrama. Just out on DVD.

Also worthy of your consideration: Lars Von Trier’s Kingdom Hospital. Lynchian soap-opera madness in a Danish hospital.

Soderburgh’s adaptation wasn’t entirely artless, but it was clearly a less impressive effort than Traffik with a K.


SMT 02.17.06 at 2:19 pm

David Simon’s The Corner.


des von bladet 02.17.06 at 2:26 pm

Is Riget out on DVD, anyone know? (Original Danewegian edition is fine.) We like the sound of that, for sure.

And is no one sticking up for The Peaks of Twinness? We enjoyed that enormously, although we may have been somewhat stoned at the time.

And Czech TV’s adaptation of The Good Soldier Svejk is not as well-known as it should be (not least because we just made it up).


Chris Bertram 02.17.06 at 2:30 pm

Not sure that Twin Peaks counts Des, since Lynch (and later others) made it up was they went along (hence the increasing silliness). Too open-ended.


rented mule 02.17.06 at 2:32 pm

The BBC and A&E “Pride and Prejudice”


catfish 02.17.06 at 2:33 pm

_Brideshead Revisited_ with Jeremy Irons and that actor with the permanent smirk is the best miniseries adaptation of a novel that I have seen.


Tom 02.17.06 at 2:34 pm

Russell Davies belongs in here somewhere. Second Coming is the one I would choose.


John Kozak 02.17.06 at 2:37 pm

To be picky, surely it’s “Edge of Darkness”, without the definite article.

Staying in the UK/80s, “A Very Peculiar Practice” would make my list.


Richard Bellamy 02.17.06 at 2:37 pm


I must speak up for Upstairs, Downstairs.


Michael 02.17.06 at 2:54 pm

Surprised no one’s yet mentioned Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz. Never seen Heimat, but this is by some distance the best thing I’ve ever seen on television (when it was broadcast in the ’80s by PBS, something no doubt impossible today).


Brendan 02.17.06 at 3:06 pm

Ha ha! Was just going to post something similar when Michael pipped me to the post. Seriously though, is it still possible to see Alexanderplatz? Or are movies by coke head bi sexual s and m fetishists (who even, gulp, had sex with Arabs…talk about a taboo breaker!) too outre for the ultra conformist rebels of today’s Hollywood?

And what about Russ Meyer’s promised remake, Berlin Alexandertitz? (I’m not making this up).


eudoxis 02.17.06 at 3:10 pm

Band of Brothers

I would not discount the US in this category.
My guess is you didn’t see them in their temporal- and cultural-specific niche.

I thoroughly enjoyed Traffik and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy at the time they came out.

In fact, I remember thinking Traffik was astoundingly good the first time I saw it in the 80’s. I rented it from Netflix recently and thought it slow and overwrought.

Time and place…


JR 02.17.06 at 3:13 pm

Anyone want to render a view on the original Forsyte Saga compared to the recent remake? I thought the remake was nothing special – it was so short that the characters spent all their time rushing from one plot point to the next – but I have golden memories of the original 26-part series. Of course I was 14 years old then, and the whole thing was quite shocking for a 1960’s teenager.


Todd Lokken 02.17.06 at 4:29 pm

Agreed…band of brothers is definitely up there. Along with From the Earth to the Moon.


jlw 02.17.06 at 4:33 pm

I’d vote for To Play the King, which was superior in plotting and acting to the other Urquhart miniseries. It also subtly introduced the concept of terrorism as a means for the state to control its own citizens, which I find increasingly relevant.


Boas 02.17.06 at 4:34 pm

The Crow Road. mid 90s, on BBC, 4 part series based on Ian Banks novel.


Miriam 02.17.06 at 4:36 pm

I second the two Francis Urquhart minis and I, Claudius. What about Elizabeth R? (Granted, the producers apparently had to choose betweens sets and costumes, but Glenda Jackson is terrific.)


Russell Arben Fox 02.17.06 at 4:44 pm

Ditto to those who mentioned, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the BBC/A&E Pride and Prejudice, and I, Claudius. I haven’t seen a single one of the series which Chris mentions (no, not even The Singing Detective, to my shame), but I find it hard to believe that they were all head and shoulders above the competition.


duaneg 02.17.06 at 4:44 pm

House of Cards. To Play the King and The Final Cut were good too but, with apologies to Dr Slack, the first is the best.


Dan Simon 02.17.06 at 5:01 pm

Heimat‘s portrayal of the Simon family was all wrong. To start with, none of us has ever even lived in Germany, let alone Schabbach.


Ann 02.17.06 at 5:04 pm

Brideshead Revisited is the best thing ever put on film, in my opinion.


MQ 02.17.06 at 5:18 pm

Come on! How can no one even mention the Sopranos? I can’t believe how eurocentric you all are. THe Sopranos is a serious work of art, very good, notably better than most of the agonizingly self-conscious BBC stuff mentioned here.

Berlin Alexanderplatz was indeed brilliant. Underrated. I think it’s still not available on video.


MQ 02.17.06 at 5:21 pm

Oh, sorry. I guess the Sopranos might not count as a “miniseries”, even though next year is the last season (so there will end up being about 70 episodes). Rather technical distinctions we’re getting into here though.


harryd 02.17.06 at 5:28 pm

Oppenheimer. Not sure if it counts as British or American. Another classic from the 80s.


JR 02.17.06 at 5:45 pm

Angels in America was in two parts, so perhaps it squeaks in under the wire. The first part was spectacularly good. The second not so much.


Slocum 02.17.06 at 5:50 pm

“Lonesome Dove” was very good. And, going back farther, “Roots” was an enormous cultural phenomenon at the time. “Holocaust” also. But it’s been some time, I think, since U.S. broadcast networks have had the audiences to support this kind of production. I wouldn’t be surprised, though, if the rise in sales of DVD boxed sets of TV shows leads to a re-birth of the format.


duncan 02.17.06 at 5:51 pm

I’d count the first series of the Sopranos in this, because it did tell a single overarching story over the course of the series – how Tony manouevres himself into taking over from Jackie Aprile. The other series have been much more self-contained episodes.


dave heasman 02.17.06 at 6:13 pm

“Tutti Frutti”. Emma Thompson when she was good.


KCinDC 02.17.06 at 6:38 pm

I’d already blissfully forgotten the existence of the American Singing Detective (which I never saw, or thought about seeing), even though its appearance was what prompted me to buy the real version, which I’d seen in grad school and loved when it first came out in the US.

Is “John Doe Baker” (for Joe Don Baker) a joke or an actual spoonerism?

[Just stupidity on my part. Now fixed (the error, not the stupidity). CB]


djw 02.17.06 at 7:22 pm

Riget is out on region 2 dvd, I think.


Paul Gottlieb 02.17.06 at 8:31 pm

“Lonesome Dove” The best realization of a complete novel ever done on American TV. Brilliant story, magnificent cast.


C. L. Ball 02.17.06 at 9:35 pm

“Roots” and “Shogun” were fairly good US miniseries. That is, they aimed to be serious dramas. There was also “The Thornbirds”, which I think killed the genre for US TV.

One of the problems for the US is that it is rare for the networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox) to make space for mini-series.

I’m know little about UK scheduling, but my sense is that the UK networks make ‘space’ for mini-series the way the US does not.

WNET/Thirteen in NYC re-ran many of the UK mini-series like “Traffik” and “The Singing Detective”.


William 02.17.06 at 10:52 pm

If we’re going on teevee series that tell long-form stories, that opens the door to stuff like the individual seasons of The Wire, and, say, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

I doubt there’s any shortage of defenders of the latter around these parts, but I’ll work in as many mentions of the former I can manage to shoehorn into vaguely tangentially related topics. I’ve never lived in Baltimore, just went to school in DC for a few years, but after watching a brace of episodes, I talk with a Bal’more accent for days.


hawkeye 02.18.06 at 12:31 am

How about HBO’s ‘The Wire’? Short seasons (12 episodes or so) each focusing on a single investigation.

And I’ll second the previous nomination of ‘The Crow Road’


JohnP 02.18.06 at 12:35 am

Scales of Justice. My favourite line: “I’ll put the jug on” says tough cop Dennis Miller (the good one) who proceeds to fetch a couple of tinnies from the fridge.


phil 02.18.06 at 2:56 am


nick s 02.18.06 at 4:15 am

I’m know little about UK scheduling, but my sense is that the UK networks make ‘space’ for mini-series the way the US does not.

I think it’s that US networks now make an initial buy of six episodes or so, then (if successful) want something that can be stretched into long seasons over multiple years. HBO is something of an exception, but mainly in terms of season length and tolerance of story arcs. So pitching something that has a planned beginning, middle and end is rather a fraught business. In the UK, where it’s easier to pitch a complete series of six episodes, the miniseries format perhaps comes more naturally.

If we’re going on teevee series that tell long-form stories, that opens the door to stuff like the individual seasons of The Wire, and, say, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Nah, there’s a distinction. A Buffy season would always have its throwaway episodes, as well as a standalone element within non-throwaways. The first season of Alias comes closer to the miniseries definition, but without the final closure.

Anyway, for newer worthy candidates, Paul Abbot’s ‘State of Play’ definitely deserves a mention.


Nick 02.18.06 at 7:27 am

I’ll second ‘State Of Play’, and also amonst newer candidates suggest ‘Shooting The Past’ though I know how Poliakoff tends to divide opinion, but it’s worth noting just for superb performances by Lindsay Duncan and Timothy Spall.

Does the original (British) series of ‘Queer as Folk’ count? While it got a sequel, an American series remake and even a proposed spinoff that never happened, it was originally intended as just a miniseries. ‘The Second Coming’ deserves consideration, though it might fall under ‘long TV movie’ rather than miniseries. And while not top 5 of all time, Russell T Davies’ ‘Casanova’ is rather good.

And going right back, how about some of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass series from the 50s? His version of Nineteen Eighty-Four is definitely one of the high water marks of British TV, but just a single play rather than a series.


david tiley 02.18.06 at 8:00 am

Various people are talking about cultural impact as a criterion. If so, Quatermass definitely counts. I would add the final miniseries of the set, made in 1979, mostly because Mills was so extraordinary as a bewildered old man still playing the hero.

And a completely parochial addition – an Australian 200 minute 2 part docudrama called “Blue Murder”. Amazon has it.


novakant 02.18.06 at 10:56 am

The Wire
Band of Brothers


hirvi 02.18.06 at 12:04 pm

Chris B:

If you haven’t already seen it, you’re sure to enjoy “Im Schatten der Macht” – a 2-part reconstruction of Willi Brandt’s last days as Chancellor.

Includes a “must see” performance by Dieter Pfaff as Genscher.

(made 2003, I think).


harry b 02.18.06 at 3:07 pm

phil (52) there is a vague rumour that is getting the rights to release The Owl Service on DVD. I emailed them to encourage them, and they didn’t deny it (though they are always deliberately cagey about what they are doing).


Dan Drezner 02.18.06 at 4:17 pm

HBO’s “The Corner” is up there in quality… but let’s have more fun and consider the trashiest example of the genre, 1984’s Lace, in which Phoebe Cates gets to utter the immortal line, “Which one of you bitches is my mother?”


phil 02.18.06 at 4:54 pm

harry b(58): thanks for the welcome news!


Pinko Punko 02.18.06 at 7:21 pm

I myself preferred “Prime Suspect 3” of the Prime Suspects- nice and long and it actually felt like an investigation. All the characters are memorable. “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” was also excellent.


Greg 02.19.06 at 9:40 am

I’d go with ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’, ‘I, Claudius’, ‘GBH’, and ‘Pride and Prejudice’ too. Bringing stuff like ‘The Sopranos’ into it just destroys the discussion’s parameters, no matter how good said show might have been.


Adam Stephanides 02.19.06 at 11:06 am

Is animation eligible? If so, I have several Japanese series to nominate: Serial Experiments Lain, Boogiepop Phantom, Haibane Renmei, Paranoia Agent (those just off the top of my head).


Michael Cross 02.19.06 at 5:38 pm

Canada has some good examples. The Boys of St.Vincents, about priestly abuse of boys at a Newfoundland school, was exceptional and came before the huge ruckus over priests abusing kids.


johnhayter 02.20.06 at 6:02 am

What about Das Boot? The miniseries, not the film. And I’ll add my voice to I, Claudius.


Pommie Barsteward 02.20.06 at 9:55 am

I’ll second Das Boot: gripping and atmospheric just don’t come close to describing it.

PS In the other discussion some of our Aussie friends decided that the greater popularity of Neighbours in the UK was some indication of the present state of British cultural appreciation. I don’t suppose they they realise that while Neighbours may be primetime adult viewing in Aus it’s shown in a different timeslot in the UK schedules; just after kids get home from school :)


Pommie Barsteward 02.20.06 at 10:01 am

Oops, how could I forget The Water Margin from the 1970s?


Capt. Automatic 02.20.06 at 8:03 pm



Roger Keeling 02.20.06 at 8:22 pm

So many series listed here that I’ve not seen, not even had a chance to see, so I’m hesitant to suggest my favorites might really be the “best.” Still, I do think leaving out I, Claudius and Lonesome Dove is a mistake. And Berlin Alexanderplatz. All magnificent. Roots was excellent, too, although certainly very “commercial.” And someone upthread mentioned Holocaust, which was on NBC here in the U.S. It, too, was superb, with a mangificent cast.

Not a mini-series, and thus really not eligible for this group, was The Missiles of October, broadcast on ABC in 1974. Very unusual for American television, then or now. A 3-hour (as I recall), serious drama about the Cuban Missile Crisis that could just as easily have been broadcast over a couple of nights (so then it would have been a “mini-series”). It’s out on DVD, and I happened to see it again not long ago: it’s held up very well, despite documents since released that alter our understanding of the story somewhat (and, frankly, it’s a lot better than the Kevin Costner / Bruce Greenwood feature film on the same topic, although the film did treat the near-mutiny of top Pentagon brass more forthrightly).

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