Good TV series and epic movies
May 7, 2007 12:40 PM   Subscribe

What are some good 3+ hour made-for-TV series or epic movies along the lines of I, Claudius and Shogun?

My wife and I thoroughly enjoyed the 12 hours of I, Claudius. I'd like to see some other TV programs like this but I have no idea where to start. Obviously we like being immersed in an epic story for many hours and being educated along the way. And the soap opera slant is always good.

The genres we like are historical stories and creative, socially relevant programs or SF (an example of the latter two being 1981 BBC TV Hitchhikers Guide). Needless to say, I, Claudius and Shogun were springboards for me studying and reading more on that time and place.

A non-example would be most American mainstream TV series, which tend to crank out episodes with nonlinear storylines and extensive use of the "reset button"; we're also not very interested in the extensive contempory crime/courts/hospital themes.

So are there any ideas for other serials we might like?

I see some good candidates in the 100 Greatest British TV programmes list, but none of these stand out.
posted by zek to Media & Arts (54 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: P.S. I stumbled across a 2005 BBC series called Rome -- is this in the same league with I, Claudius?
posted by zek at 12:46 PM on May 7, 2007

HBO's Rome?
posted by doublesix at 12:47 PM on May 7, 2007

Roots and The Blue and the Gray were very good. The Thorn Birds and Rich Man Poor Man are very engrossing as well, less educational and more soap opera-ish, but you will get drawn in.
posted by iconomy at 12:54 PM on May 7, 2007

Lonesome Dove? Danny Glover, Diane Lane, Anjelica Huston, Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones in an award winning adaption of a Pulitzer Prize winning Novel?

It clocks in at 384 minutes.
posted by MasonDixon at 12:56 PM on May 7, 2007

I saw the BBC's 5-hour "Traffik" in high school and was blown away. Four interwoven story lines simultaneously tell the stories of a desperate poppy grower in Pakistan, a jailed drug kingpin in Hamburg, his power hungry wife, the UK home minister and his heroin addicted daughter.

It's the best mini-series I've seen to date. It was later remade for US film release as "Traffic."
posted by justkevin at 12:59 PM on May 7, 2007

Private Schulz was a fantastic satire written by the guy who did the I, Claudius screenplay, but good luck finding it.
posted by cardboard at 1:01 PM on May 7, 2007

Foyle's War:

Each episode of Foyle's War, created by Anthony Horowitz (Midsomer Murders), blends real-life war stories with tales of treachery and suspense. Whether investigating sabotage, looting, stolen food or fuel supplies, police brutality of conscientious objectors, treason, or murder, Foyle and his colleagues must wage their own personal war amidst the tumult of a larger one. But more than a period whodunnit, Foyle's War is redolent with rich human drama subtly revealed through the lives of these main characters who make up the heart of the series. Steadfast and loyal to each other, they strive to uphold the values for which they and their countrymen - their loved ones - are fighting and dying.
posted by Lucinda at 1:03 PM on May 7, 2007

I second the TV series Traffik. If you like who-dun-it non-fiction crime mystery, I highly recommend The Staircase.
posted by phaedon at 1:05 PM on May 7, 2007

Seconding Foyle's War. Note that there are still a few episodes left to go, I *think* sometime in 2008. (If I'm reading the scheduling right.) And it certainly got me interested in WWII Great Britain. Did I mention it's magnificently written and acted? Because it is. Michael Kitchen especially is sublime as the title character.

Somewhat in that vein is The Forsyte Saga, which I loathed, but if you're into Victorian-ish costume dramas set in an upperclass London family, you'll probably enjoy it. I suppose it's interesting, because the main characters aren't just gadabout wealthies; it's a family of businessmen (and their unhealthy marriages). It's certainly long.
posted by kalimac at 1:09 PM on May 7, 2007

Just enjoyed Shogun again with my Fiance, and, thanks to your reminder we'll do I Claudius, which I haven't watched since I was a kid.

I recommend Band of Brothers, which follows E company of the 101st airborne through WWII. It follows the book fairly closely, which is pretty much verbatim accounts by the surviving members, so the educational value is high. Also get the first, and sadly the only, season of Firefly. Joss Whedon's Science Fiction/Western melange. IMO it's the best science fiction series since the original Star Trek. I recently watched the latest BBC production of Jane Eyre which was superb.
posted by Manjusri at 1:09 PM on May 7, 2007

We really enjoyed Into the West a four part epic about the US expansion into the west and its impact on the Native American population - thoroughly enjoyed it and would highly recommend.
posted by snatchos at 1:26 PM on May 7, 2007

I used to watch an excellent historical series, though not as epic -- it was called Tenko, and was about women surviving (or not surviving) internment under the Japanese during WWII. Sadly, I'm not sure if it is available on video at all, though it did play on PBS a few years back.

Along that vein of quieter historical drama, I also remember The Leaving of Liverpool and Brides of Christ, both of which are excellent. And as historical soap operas go, Upstairs, Downstairs has always been great - a little less even in writing than the miniseries, and much smaller in budget, but generally well done.

Does PBS still show Masterpiece Theatre? That's where I saw many wonderful British/Australian/foreign miniseries - also on Ontario's TVO, and sometimes CBC.
posted by jb at 1:26 PM on May 7, 2007

posted by Faint of Butt at 1:28 PM on May 7, 2007

Maybe the version of Pride & Prejudice with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle? I think that's 4-5 hours, and really excellent. Brideshead Revisited is also good, and even longer. 659 minutes long, according to its Amazon page.

Both choices likely to be available at a public library near you.
posted by slenderloris at 1:29 PM on May 7, 2007

Das Boot. The mini series, not the film.
posted by Webbster at 1:38 PM on May 7, 2007

I just finished the 1979 version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy which was fantastic. Be prepared to need to re-watch it if you haven't read the book, it's a spy novel of the old school so no recapping for the slower members of the audience. Seconding Foyle's War too, they're all brilliant.

Also, a bit out of left field, but the BBC did a (nonfiction) miniseries called "How Art Made The World" which I, as a complete art naïf found it fascinating.
posted by Skorgu at 1:39 PM on May 7, 2007

I saw a trailer for this, which is being shown right now on Showtime, I think: The Tudors about a young King Henry VIII.

Also, if you're into it, Stephen King's "The Stand" was pretty good.
posted by lubujackson at 1:41 PM on May 7, 2007

Dune! (Arguably only good if you haven't read the books, but good nonetheless!)
posted by klangklangston at 1:48 PM on May 7, 2007

Gettysburgh is just under 4.5 hours. The Grid was about the same length. Both were fantastic.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 1:55 PM on May 7, 2007

You might like the Hornblower 'series' (it's a string of films, but they are more or less all in chronological order).

I've heard good things about Mary Bryant but have yet to watch it. Additionally, Riget (the Kingdom), a mid-nineties mini-series from director Lars Von Trier is also highly regarded. It involves hospitals (sorry!) and HOORORROROROR. I haven't gotten much further than the first ten minutes yet, so I can't personally speak to it.

I recently completed Stephen King's "The Stand" mini-series, and can't recommend it, but if you're a fan of his books you might enjoy it. (King has a number of other mini-series as well -- i'd say 'IT' is probably my favorite, although 'Salem's Lot' and the mini-series version of 'The Shining' aren't terrible).

I know you specifically said you're not interested in any modern crime/lawyer/hospital type series, but HBO's "The Wire" is absolutely the best television series I have ever seen, hands down. Like most HBO series, you pretty much *have* to start at the beginning. I'm not a particular fan of Six Feet Under, Sopranos, or Oz (although I do think all of these are definitely watchable), but The Wire absolutely NAILS it. Great television. I've also enjoyed the 4400, Battlestar Gallactica, Heroes and Lost serials, but those don't sound like they'd be your cup of tea. They are worth giving a shot, however. As always, start with the pilot or first episode.

Look for Ken Burns' new documentary on WWII to air this September. I saw him speak in Sacramento (he focuses on the experiences of people from four 'typical' American cities, and Sacramento is one of them). He showed us about a 10 minute preview, and it looks like it will be an absolutely stunning mini-series -- they have enough great period footage and actual interviews so that you won't be watching 6 hours of the 'Ken Burns Effect'.

If I think of any others I'll stop by and update. I am always looking for quality mini-series to watch, so I look forward to the contributions added to this thread.
posted by fishfucker at 1:55 PM on May 7, 2007

"Deadwood" -- the best historical series ever, in my opinion.

"Upstairs Downstairs" -- stay with it past the rocky first season

"The Dutchess of Duke Street" -- by the creative team behind

"Upstairs Downstairs"

"To Serve Them All My Days" -- set in a British public (private) school in the years between WWI and WWII

"Paradise Postponed" -- mini-series chronically life in a small British town during from the 50s to the present.
posted by grumblebee at 1:56 PM on May 7, 2007

No one's mentioned Battlestar Galactica yet?

Epic: check.
Linear storytelling: check.
Socially-minded: check.
SF: check.
Sexy evil robots: check.
posted by cowbellemoo at 1:58 PM on May 7, 2007

I saw a trailer for this, which is being shown right now on Showtime, I think: The Tudors about a young King Henry VIII.

Yes -- The Tudors is currently running on Sunday nights. I am enjoying it.

I recommend Band of Brothers...

I strongly second that recommendation!
posted by ericb at 2:08 PM on May 7, 2007

Brideshead revisited is great. And I agree with fishfucker, The Wire is the best TV-series I'v seen.
posted by rpn at 2:10 PM on May 7, 2007

Response by poster: Great y'all'; now my schedule is wiped out for the next six months. Thanks! I'll keep checking.
posted by zek at 2:15 PM on May 7, 2007

The mini-series "Edge of Darkness" was an amazing movie, and comes highly recommended, even on IMDb:
"The mysterious death of his activist daughter, leads her straight-laced father, an Inspector of the local police force, through a haunting revelation of the murkiness of the British Nuclear Policy of the eighties."
posted by parilous at 2:18 PM on May 7, 2007

Just watched a great miniseries on DVD, Commanding Heights. The site will give you details, but it is an economic history of the 20th and 21st century- generally the story of state controlled economies vs. free markets and the thinkers who represented those movements. Academics may find some aspects of it problematic, but for a layman like myself it was unbelievably fascinating and eye opening and the reason I am reading every book on Keynes I can get my hands on.
posted by lovejones at 2:20 PM on May 7, 2007

I agree with Rome, it's lots of fun.

Wired article which talks about this type of serial show, and names a lot of good examples (some of which have already been mentioned).
posted by anaelith at 2:29 PM on May 7, 2007

Many good suggestions here: a miniseries/movie about political intrigue in the UK publishing world is State of Play (try eBay for cheaper copies)
posted by lalochezia at 2:35 PM on May 7, 2007

lalochezia got there before me. State of Play may be too political/crime for you, but it's absolutely one of the best miniseries I've seen lately. Great plotting, fantastic direction, brilliant cast. It's not too long, either.
posted by adrianhon at 2:56 PM on May 7, 2007

I recently watched all of the Up films in a row. They are documentaries and so a little different than your examples, but they deal with social issues and history, they're long, and watching them all together is epic.
posted by lemuria at 3:07 PM on May 7, 2007

Some clarification of above posts:
Rome is a good series, clocking in at roughly 23 hours. Good, not great, especially in the middle of season 2.

I assume the above poster meant the recent sci-fi channel mini-series Dune and its sequel, Children of Dune, not the David Lynch film.

The Tudors is OK, but it should be called "Renaissance Titties." I wouldn't watch it expecting historical accuracy or particularly amazing acting.

Robin of Sherwood was a classic British TV series about, you guessed it, the legend of Robin Hood.
Also British: The Prisoner. Awesome. Just fucking awesome. A surreal spy story.

I will second that The Wire may be the best TV show ever. It is truly a modern American epic. At 4 seasons (with a fifth about to come out) you're looking at roughly 50 hours of viewing to catch up, but you MUST watch it from the very first episode.
Deadwood is also brilliant as a retelling and deconstruction of the myth of the American West. 3 seasons ~ 36 hours.

No one has mentioned Twin Peaks? David Lynch's brilliant and surreal drama about the darkside of the American small town. The pilot is not released in the US, but you can find it on bootleg DVD. Season 1 & 2 are out on DVD, and there's supposed to be a box set with both seasons and the pilot getting released late this year. Add in the film sequel/prequel/mindfuck and you're at about 33 hours of fun.

And why not sit down and watch the director's cuts of all 3 LOTR movies in one sitting? That's about 13 hours right there.
posted by papakwanz at 3:22 PM on May 7, 2007

Ooh, let me address something you said in your post.
The Wire is most definitely not a "crime" show in the traditional sense of the word. It is about as different from crap like CSI or Law & Order as apples from outer space oranges. It is about drug crime in a US city, yes, but those are only the superficial trappings. It is probably the most socially relevant television show on TV today.
posted by papakwanz at 3:26 PM on May 7, 2007

Babyon 5? 140 hours or so, might fill an evening or 2. Brideshead Revisited. The Prisoner.
posted by Freedomboy at 3:31 PM on May 7, 2007

Angels in America looks like it would fit the bill.
posted by cocoagirl at 3:41 PM on May 7, 2007

Ultraviolet is a well-done BBC miniseries about vampires. Quite a bit different than you'd expect, probably.
posted by me & my monkey at 3:41 PM on May 7, 2007

If you want history epics, there are several old school ones that are great. I just recently re-watched these old British historic drama series, and enjoyed them just as much this time around:
Thorn Birds, as already mentioned, of course.
The Onedin Line, British maritime series (really long, though).
Against the Wind , Australian miniseries about the colonization of New South Wales.

I would also recommend the Richard Sharpe films, with Sean Bean as a soldier in Wellington's army.
posted by gemmy at 3:51 PM on May 7, 2007

The Singing Detective? . I also enjoyed "The Edge of Darkness", albeit 20 years or so ago.
posted by Tixylix at 3:55 PM on May 7, 2007

Robin of Sherwood was a classic British TV series about, you guessed it, the legend of Robin Hood.

Yes -- that was in the '80s.

A more recent series -- Robin Hood -- is currently being broadcast on BBC America. I have been TiVo'ing it -- and enjoying it.
posted by ericb at 4:22 PM on May 7, 2007

You need to watch "The Lost Room", I'm about to watch the third and final episode (three part miniseries) and I am completely captivated by it.
posted by tomble at 5:02 PM on May 7, 2007

From a completely different tangent, you might enjoy the series "Connections" and "The Day the Universe Changed", both by James Burke.

They're not really stories, exactly... they talk about the evolution of, well, almost everything. He'll start talking about one interesting thing that happened in 1400 in, say, Mecca, and then another interesting thing that happened in Rome in 1405, and then another interesting thing in Munich in 1410.... and then show you how all three things connected and made something completely unexpected come about. He goes over many of the fundamental technologies that fill our lives, and his presentation is endlessly fascinating.

Lots of hours in those two series. Worth every second. Great stuff.
posted by Malor at 5:05 PM on May 7, 2007

The Forsyte Saga - the 2002 version, not the earlier one, is one of the most interesting, compelling 7 hours I've ever spent. It's definitely worth a try.
posted by EllenC at 5:07 PM on May 7, 2007

Ah, loved I, Claudius too. A one-day marathon of the series is really fun. House of Cards, To Play the King, and The Final Cut, from the BBC, are excellent political dramas that are worth watching, or if you're looking for something different The Prisoner is another excellent old British series. For something more factual, I've heard good things about From the Earth to the Moon as well.
posted by Paragon at 6:21 PM on May 7, 2007

Well, we certainly seem to be on a similar wavelength, since we recently concluded that a GOOD “TV series” was actually more likely to be satisfying than most feature-length movies (gasp!)... And we like both BBC-costume-drama and serious SciFi (tho we bailed on Hitchhiker’s Hollywood incarnation. Here’s our 4- and 5-star-rated Netflix series over the last year or two:

(btw, seconding many listed above, such as Foyle, Forsyte, Firefly, Brideshead, Lost Room, and want to add Sopranos [just in case; we were recent converts, not ever watching actual TV], British Cracker—NOT the US version, Prime Suspect [police-y, but superb, these last 2], Lost, 24, and Cold Feet, all seen only on disk.
Also, in list below, should esp. point out Invasion as first-rate SciFi, and The Camomile Lawn as exceptional BBC-does-WWII-homefront-life [even has Jennifer Ehle doing brilliantly in a role very different from Lizzie Bennet]; see also Island at War, The Cazelets and Love in a Cold Climate for more very good stuff of this sort. And the Catherine Cookson listed is just our most recent; they’re ALL worth looking at.)

(sorry about no links; quantity over quality in that regard, but NOT regarding the recommendations themselves; we’ve actually seen [I‘m sorry to think] EVERYTHING of this sort available so far at Netflix; I only listed things we didn’t hate!)

Sons & Lovers 2003
Dombey and Son 1983
Jane Eyre 2006
5ive Days to Midnight 2004
The State Within 2006
Invasion: The Complete Series, 2005
Threshold: The Complete Series (4-Disc Series)
Oliver Twist (3-Disc Series)
The Catherine Cookson Collection: The Man Who Cried
Surface: The Complete Series (4-Disc Series)
Brides of Christ (2-Disc Series)
The Best of Youth (2-Disc Series)
Faith (2-Disc Series)
The Camomile Lawn (2-Disc Series)
Bob & Rose (2-Disc Series)
The Cazalets (3-Disc Series)
Dangerous Liaisons (Long French Version) (3-Disc Series)
Summer's Lease (2-Disc Series)
Island at War (3-Disc Series)
He Knew He Was Right (2-Disc Series)
Second Sight: Series 1 and 2
To Serve Them All My Days (4-Disc Series)
The Valley Between (2-Disc Series)
The Brontes of Haworth (2-Disc Series)
Love for Lydia (4-Disc Series)
posted by dpcoffin at 7:06 PM on May 7, 2007

Oops; sorry! Left out:

North and South, 2 disc series
Bleak House, 3 disc series, 2005
Love On a Branch Line, 2 disc series (bit of a longshot, but we liked it...)

Not much here or above to send one to the library, perhaps, but I bought many of the novels sourced...for that rainy day, you know.
posted by dpcoffin at 7:28 PM on May 7, 2007

And HOW could I have forgotten The 4400??
posted by dpcoffin at 7:34 PM on May 7, 2007

Damn; I need to get off this tread, but not before reminding myself of (all w/ M.Gambon, btw.):

Wives and Daughters
Almost Strangers
posted by dpcoffin at 8:11 PM on May 7, 2007

I loved Centennial when I was a kid. A quick look at Amazon shows some VHS available but the DVD isn't yet released. It runs 26.5 hours or 1590 minutes. Epic indeed.
posted by geekyguy at 8:49 PM on May 7, 2007

If I can suggest some non-English titles (available with subs on DVD) -

Heimat is a 3-part epic, of life in Germany through the eyes of one German family, over three generations. It's a life changing experience.

Completely different: Dae Jan Geum, a Korean drama about a female chef later physician in the royal court. Really fun in all kinds of ways. Don't watch while hungry.

For recent BBC dramas - besides Jane Eyre and Bleak House which have been mentioned already, Lilies, about the life of three sisters in 1920s Liverpool, was excellent. Sadly not renewed it seems though.

(The BBC Rome and HBO Rome are the same program btw, it was a co-production. It wasn't that great for me.)
posted by derMax at 8:57 PM on May 7, 2007

Ooo, those look great, derMax; thanks! Netflix has Heimat at least...
posted by dpcoffin at 9:15 PM on May 7, 2007

I really liked A Town Like Alice and have been jonsing for it to come out on DVD.
posted by plinth at 9:59 PM on May 7, 2007

Changi from the Australian ABC: story of 6 Australian soldiers in the Japanese POW camp, Changi.
posted by lrobertjones at 1:59 AM on May 8, 2007

Wholeheartedly seconding Heimat which is indeed telly at its best.
Not entertainment nor particularly enjoyable, but very lengthy (9 hours) and most definitely a life-changing experience is Claude Lanzman's Shoah.
posted by l'esprit d'escalier at 3:00 AM on May 8, 2007

The Jewel In the Crown (listed at 22 in the Wikipedia article you cite) is, for me, the pinnacle of TV drama. I'd read The Raj Quartet (on which the series is based) and wasn't expecting a TV adaptation to be able to cover the multi-layered story of human and political drama, but it absorbed me from the first minute to the last and stayed utterly true to the books. I have it on video and re-watch it at least once a year.
posted by essexjan at 2:59 PM on May 8, 2007

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