Here's a quartet of TV miniseries/movies worth checking out, especially if you're looking for good acting in lavish settings.
• "Centennial" (Universal, 1978, six discs, $59.98). Back when network television was in the business of big, expansive (and expensive) miniseries, this was one of the best (at least in the first eight or so episodes), based on the mammoth novel by James Michener (who personally and personably introduces the show).
This was also the first such undertaking by Richard Chamberlain, who followed it with "Shogun," "The Thorn Birds" and others, earning the title "King of the Miniseries."
Watching it now, "Centennial" holds up quite well, especially in the earliest hours, as it concentrates on the stories of Quebec trapper Pasquinel (Robert Conrad, in what is arguably his finest hour), his partnership with Scottish adventurer McKeag (Chamberlain) and their romantic triangle with the Indian "princess" Clay Basket (Barbara Carrera).
Also quite good are the interwoven stories of a young Mennonite named Levi (Gregory Harris), a British writer (Timothy Dalton) who becomes an important cattle rancher, and a principled cavalry officer (Chad Everett) who will dedicate his life to keeping peace with local Indian tribes.
Another story chronicles the disgrace of a deranged militia officer (Richard Crenna) who may or may not be a Mormon (he refers to Native Americans as "Lamanites, remnants of the Lost Tribes of Israel") and the court-martialed officer (Mark Harmon) who brings him down.
Later, a drover (Dennis Weaver) brings cattle to Dalton's Colorado spread, Dalton clashes with a local German farmer (Alex Karras), the farmers and sheepmen clash with the cattlemen ... and so it goes.
Eventually, the story brings us to the present day (circa 1978), with later episodes devolving into soap opera and standard-issue bad guys vs. good guys yarns, losing sight of the compelling power of those early hours.
Worse, the final episodes are plagued with lengthy flashbacks of material already shown (no doubt necessitated by the fact that some episodes originally aired months apart, between October 1978 and February 1979).
To be fair, the concluding 2 1/2 hours, with David Janssen (who has also intermittently been narrating) and Andy Griffith, picks up the pace and is better than the three or four episodes that precede it. Consequently, things end on a high note.
Still for all its faults in the latter half, this is must-see television, with fine performances from the stars (who also include Raymond Burr, Sally Kellerman, Sharon Gless, Brian Keith, Lynn Redgrave, Stephanie Zimbalist and many more) and fabulous location shooting.
Now how about someone releasing the miniseries "Dream West," filmed in Utah and starring Chamberlain as John Charles Fremont?
Extras: full frame, 12 episodes, featurette (with Conrad, Carrera and William Atherton)
• "A Woman of Independent Means" (A&E, 1995, two discs, $29.95). Fiftysomething Sally Field (when she made this) delivers a superb performance, aging from 16 to her 70s and dominating this miniseries about a high-society Texas woman's life in the early part of the 20th century.
The first episode is the strongest, as Field marries the love of her life (Tony Goldwyn), finds herself independently wealthy, has children and tragically loses her husband to the influenza epidemic of 1918.
The second episode, also good, chronicles her attempts to save her late husband's insurance business and her relationship with a financial adviser (Ron Silver) with whom she has formed an important bond.
The final third is the weakest, with Field's character balking at, then embracing a conventional marriage lifestyle, and later finding her relationship with her adult children surprisingly strained. This episode is hampered by a heavy-handed plot device that suggests we are all doomed to repeat the mistakes of the previous generation ... as well as some pretty bad old-age makeup.
Overall, however, "Woman" is satisfying and a special treat for Field's fans.
Extras: full frame, three episodes, text cast biographies
• "The Strauss Family" (A&E, 1972, two discs, $29.95). Johann Strauss and his son Johann Jr. are the central characters in this lengthy look at two generations of classical composers in a love-hate relationship and their offspring, a British miniseries.
But the show is dominated by Johann Sr.'s wife Anna, played superbly by Anne Stallybrass. The show is theatrical and stagy but with a number of fine performances from a bevy of English actors from the early 1970s (including up-and-comers Derek Jacobi and Jane Seymour).
Extras: full frame, four episodes, text cast biographies/list of selected compositions
• "The Deal" (Genius/Weinstein, 2003, $22.95). This is a sort of prequel to "The Queen," with Tony Blair again being played by Michael Sheen in the events leading up to Blair's becoming England's prime minister.
The story focuses on Blair's friendship, camaraderie and eventual competition with another Labor party heir apparent, Gordon Brown (David Morrisey). (Brown, of course, is now prime minister himself.)
The first third is awfully dense unless you're up to speed on British politics, but then it picks up and becomes an engrossing look at two very different men, the promises they make and break, and how their relationship helped shape England's recent history.
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