The Mockumentary: The Long and Short of It

No doubt about it, This Is Spinal Tap was one of funniest movies of the eighties. Why stop there? I’d say it’s one of the funniest movies ever! Written by and starring, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, and Rob Reiner (who also directed), This Is Spinal Tap is the story of an up-and-down rock band across two decades. Often referred to as just Spinal Tap, its actual full title is This is Spinal Tap®: A Rockumentary by Martin Di Bergi. Although its title calls it a This Is Spinal Tap“rockumentary,” this is the first movie that I recall being referred to as a “mockumentary,” as Reiner described it in contemporary interviews. The term, which surprisingly dates to the mid-sixties, conjoins the words “mock” and “documentary” to describe a work that parodies a subject via a distinct filmic style. This is Spinal Tap parodies metal bands that take themselves too seriously, while simultaneously poking fun at the documentary process itself.

The origins of the mockumentary are unclear. The seeds of the style date back at least to the 1950s, when variety shows would often use sketch comedy to lampoon current topics and public figures.  For instance, early television innovator Steve Allen – on the appropriately titled The Steve Allen Show – staged fake interviews with members of his comedy troupe for the ongoing “Man in the Street” segments. He also created a send-up of NBC’s nightly network news program The Huntley-Brinkley Report, which in his hands became “The Nutley-Hinkley Report.”

The difference between parody and mockumentary is that the latter takes it a step or two further. Whereas a parody is executed with the performers giving a literal or figurative wink at the audience indicating that they’re fully in on the joke, a mockumentary is carried out with straight faces, requiring the viewer to determine where the humor is contained. Mockumentaries are also created by copying a specific filming style that, in some cases, blurs the lines between truth and fiction even more.  In fact, upon the release of This Is Spinal Tap in 1984, some people thought that Spinal Tap was a real band and the movie was an actual documentary.

A Hard Day's NightPerhaps the first film that can be categorized as a mockumentary is director Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night, which seemingly records events occurring over a few days in the life of The Beatles at the height of Beatlemania in 1964. Four years later, satirist Pat Paulsen, a regular on TV’s The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, launched a mock presidential campaign as a running gag on the show. Paulsen, with his usual deadpan delivery, used lies, double-talk, and attacks on other candidates, to poke fun at the campaign process. It culminated in his own TV-movie, Pat Paulsen for President, which was narrated by iconic actor Henry Fonda! That mostly-forgotten program, however, provided the blueprint for the mockumentary format.

Stand-up comedian Woody Allen directed his feature-length debut in 1969 with Take the Money and Run, which documented the story of bungling bank robber Virgil Starkwell. Allen returned Real Lifeto the style twice later in his career: 1983’s Zelig and 1999’s Sweet and Lowdown. In 1978, Monty Python’s Eric Idle wrote and co-directed The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash, a send-up of The Beatles. Idle also starred as one of the members of the imaginary rock band (fellow Python Michael Palin also had a supporting role), while much of the extended cast was made up of Saturday Night Live players. Albert Brooks, who has his own SNL connection and is sometimes called “The West Coast Woody Allen,” made his directorial debut, like Allen, with a mockumentary. In 1979’s Real Life: An American Comedy, Brooks drew direct inspiration from PBS’ pioneering 1973 documentary series An American Family.

Since helping to popularize the comedy subgenre with This Is Spinal Tap, Christopher Guest has gone on to create a cottage industry of sorts with a continuing line of mockumentaries. Guest Waiting for Guffmandirected, co-wrote (with co-star Eugene Levy), and starred in 1996’s Waiting for Guffman, 2000’s Best in Show,  and 2003’s A Mighty Wind. Those films took on the subjects of small-town community theater productions, upscale dog shows, and folk music, respectively. Although they are not blockbuster hits, they have a proven audience, and all have received critical plaudits.

The biggest sleeper hit of 2006 was probably writer-star Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. The story of a supposed Kazakh TV reporter who is sent to the United States to make a documentary about American life and culture, however, drew criticism from several quarters. Baron Cohen, a TV star in his native England, was able to dupe countless Americans into believing his cover story, making many of them look incredibly foolish in their filmed interviews.

The OfficeDespite the success of Guest’s films and of Baron Cohen’s film, the use of the mockumentary style has mostly shifted to TV sitcoms in recent years. The first to use it to great success was the original, British version of The Office, starring Ricky Gervais, which ran from 2001-2003. To date, it has spawned additional versions in seven other countries:  The United States, France, Germany, Canada, Chile, Israel, and Sweden. The American version of The Office debuted in March 2005 and was an immediate hit.  It ran for nine seasons, propelled several cast members to stardom, and received six nominations for the Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy, winning once.

You might think that The Office would have become so identified with the mockumentary style that no other television show producers would dare use it again so soon. Surprisingly, that Parks & Recreationdidn’t prove to be the case, at all. In 2009, two more mockumentary sitcoms debuted – and both also found success!  NBC’s Parks and Recreation bowed in April of that year and recently began its sixth season, having been nominated once for the Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy. ABC’s Modern Family, premiered in September 2009, and has won the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series each of its first four seasons. Apparently, the mockumentary is a comedic style that Americans just aren’t tiring of quickly.

Mockumentary, parody, straight comedy, or otherwise, the Des Moines Public Library has hundreds of movie and TV series titles from which to choose. DVDs rent for $2.00 apiece, checkout for one week, and no longer have a limit other than the fifty-item overall limit. Come in and checkout as many as you can carry!

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Single-Season TV Series

The first TV series that I ever recall feeling disappointed about its being canceled after just a single season was the mid-sixties sitcom My Mother the Car. That’s right, My Mother the Car – now considered by many to be among the worst shows in the history of television. That NBC series, starring Jerry Van Dyke (brother of Dick, who was starring in the concurrently running, but classic sitcom The Dick Van Dyke Show on CBS), was about a man whose mother was reincarnated as a 1928 Porter touring car (a fictional model designed for the show). Her voice, provided by longtime movie and TV star Ann Sothern, was heard through the car radio, though only her son could hear it. Hey, I know what you’re thinking, “how could you have been enamored with a show with a premise as gimmicky as that one?”  What can I say? I was just a little kid. What did I know about quality television? For a kid, gimmicky is funny. So give me a break!

Wax Lion

If you don’t recognize this wax lion, you’re not alone. This “character” was a key element in a charming fantasy show that only lasted a single season. Read to the end to learn more about this wonderful show.

As frustrating as it is to see a new favorite go off the air well before it should (I’m still riled by NBC’s cancellation of Go On), there’s at least one advantage to a short-run series. If for whatever reason you don’t have time to commit to watching multiple seasons of a popular series, one-season shows are a great stop-gap measure to fit tight schedules. That’s especially so if the series’ producers had the wherewithal to produce a final episode that helped tie up loose storylines. The following is a list of ten of the best single-season shows (listed alphabetically) that are available on DVD at the Des Moines Public Library. Some have brilliant concepts with grand execution, others are incisive and authentic, while a few are clever yet goofy fun, but I believe that they’re all quality shows that deserve to be seen.

BriscoThe Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. (27, 45-min. eps.) – In between chapters of the Evil Dead trilogy, but long before becoming Sam Axe on Burn Notice, Bruce “The Chin” Campbell starred as the titular character, an Old West bounty hunter battling baddies who possess anachronistically futuristic weapons in this crazy mix of multiple genres. (Fox)

The Ben Stiller Show (13, 23-min. eps.) – Admittedly, like so many other sketch comedies, this is pretty hit or miss, but it was good enough to nab the Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Writing in a Variety or Music Program after it was canceled. The regular cast members (Stiller, Andy Dick, Janeane Garofalo, Bob Odenkirk) all went on to successful careers afterwards. (Fox)

FireflyFirefly (13, 42-min. eps. and the 86-min. pilot) – Created by writer-director-producer Joss Whedon, Fox seemed to do everything it could to ensure the failure of this often lighthearted science fiction/adventure series. Despite showing several episodes out of their intended order, preempting a few and never airing three others, a fervent cult grew up around the show, culminating in the 2005 theatrical film Serenity, which wrapped up most of the series’ dangling plot threads.

FlashForward (22, 42-min. eps.) – FlashForward was a high concept series about a mysterious worldwide event in which everyone loses consciousness for 137 seconds during which each person has a vision about her/his near FlashForwardfuture. An FBI team is then assigned to answer the many questions this generates. Although the final episode answers some questions, it asks more that could only be answered had it been picked up for a second season. (ABC)

Freaks and Geeks (18, 44-min. eps.) – One of the greatest high school-set series of all time, nevertheless it took cable airings and DVD sales for Freaks and Geeks to really find its audience. Current comedy kingpins Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, The Heat) and Judd Apatow (The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up) co-produced the show and served in several other creative capacities. Linda Cardellini, James Franco, Seth Rogan, Jason Segel, and Busy Philipps are among those who went on to stardom on TV and/or in movies. (NBC)Freaks & Geeks

Grosse Pointe (17, 22-min. eps.) – Darren Starr used his experience producing Beverly Hills, 90210 to create this satire about the off-camera antics of five actors starring in a fictional high school-set nighttime soap opera  also called “Grosse Pointe.” In spite of solid critical notices (unlike those of Starr’s other shows, including Melrose Place), this show never caught on with a sizeable audience. (WB)

My So-Called Life (19, 47-min. eps.) – Claire Danes’ heartfelt performance as teenager Angela Chase in this realistic teen drama made her an instant star, and a surprise Golden Globe winner for Best Performance by an Actress in a My So-Called LifeTV-Series – Drama. Low ratings, however, combined with 15-year-old Danes’ own reluctance to come back for a second season, convinced ABC to kill it.

Police Squad! (6, 25-min. eps.) – To this day, I don’t know how this wacky send-up of cop dramas ever found its way onto ABC’s schedule, it was just too deliciously clever and stupid simultaneously. Created by the team of David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker, who’d already had big screen success with Airplane!, this small screen entry lasted only six episodes. Nevertheless, it was later revived in three Naked Gun theatrical features, also starring Leslie Nielsen as Det. Lt. Frank Drebin.Undeclared

Undeclared (17, 22-min. eps.) – A year after NBC canceled Freaks and Geeks, Judd Apatow created this college comedy for Fox. Like his previous show, this featured a teen ensemble cast, but this time centering on a group of freshmen at the fictional University of Northeastern California. Series regulars Jay Baruchel (This Is the End), Charlie Hunnam (Sons of Anarchy), and Seth Rogan (The Green Hornet) all “graduated” to bigger things.

Wonderfalls (13, 42-min. eps.) – Fantasy seldom works on television, movies yes, television no. This quirky, sharp-edged series about a Brown University graduate who’s floundering after college was an exception – not that it mattered. Fox only aired four of the thirteen produced episodes and they broadcast those wildly out of order. Fortunately, the DVD release restored the intended sequence. What’s more, the producers completed the story arc so that this short-lived series received closure.

The Star Trek Universe: A Warp Speed Tour

Star Trek Into Darkness opens in the United States this Friday after having opened in a couple dozen countries since its May 2 London premiere. Once again, Chris Pine essays the iconic role of Capt. James T. Kirk and all of the key actors in the Enterprise crew return intact from 2009’s Star Trek, which Star Trek Rebootrebooted the franchise by taking the property’s original characters and shaving several years off their ages. Reboot director-producer J.J. Abrams, was also back on board for this latest voyage.

Unlike most other sci-fi sagas, which take place in other solar systems, galaxies, universes, and/or eras, the Star Trek saga traces its origins to planet Earth and takes place in the not-too-distant future. Due to the vast number of TV series, movies, books, games, etc., fans now refer to the franchise as the Star Trek universe. After 47 years of Star Trek in all its many guises, that’s not too much of an exaggeration, that’s a fairly apt description!

Writer-producer Gene Roddenberry first created the concept for Star Trek in 1964. NBC commissioned a pilot from Desilu Studios (later purchased by current Star Trek franchise owner Paramount) starring Jeffrey Hunter as Capt. Christopher Pike. NBC passed on the show, but still had enough interest to finance a second pilot in 1966 starring William Shatner as Capt. James T. Kirk. That version was picked up and the series premiered on the peacock network on September 8, 1966. The progressive-thinking Roddenberry had sold the show to NBC as being like a western set in space, but used the series to comment on hot-button social issues  (racism, religion, imperialism, human rights, feminism) through slyly-disguised allegories. Star Trek, featuring one of TV’s first interracial casts, started strong, but Star Trek The Voyage Homefound its ratings slowly erode over the show’s three-year, seventy-nine episode run.

The series had already developed a cult-like audience as a network series, but it really built a fanatical following once it went into syndication in fall 1969. By 1973, there was enough interest in reviving the show for NBC to bring it back as a Saturday morning cartoon. That version of the series, now dubbed Star Trek: The Animated Series, ran for a season and a half with twenty-two episodes. Although many Star Trek fans choose to ignore the series’ very existence, it should be noted that all of the principals from the original cast provided the voices for their characters.

A  mid-seventies attempt to reunite the original cast for another primetime network TV show was scrapped, but eventually formed the basis for the first theatrical film, 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Neither fans, nor critics, were wholly satisfied with the result, but the box office numbers showed Paramount that there was still plenty of interest among Trekkies (or Trekkers, as some prefer to be called). Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan arrived in 1982. Although it grossed less than the first film, its much lower production cost resulted in the studio earning a higher profit. Now that Paramount had figured out a workable model, they were just getting started. Soon, there would be more Star Trek titles than Cyrano Jones had tribbles.

Star Trek First ContactMore films followed with the original actors: Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984), Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989), and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991). In the meantime, Paramount had also created a new television series – Star Trek: The Next Generation – following different characters and set roughly 100 years after the original. Bypassing the networks, Paramount ran TNG in first-run syndication. The series, starring Patrick Stewart as Capt. Jean-Luc Picard, premiered September 28, 1987, running seven seasons and 178 episodes.

Months after TNG ended, 1994’s Star Trek: Generations arrived in theaters with a storyline seeking to bridge the Capt. Kirk and Capt. Picard eras, but with the TNG cast taking center stage. Three more TNG movies followed: 1996’s Star Trek: First Contact, 1998’s Star Trek: Insurrection, and 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis, before the public tired of that crew.

Star Trek: Generations may have passed the figurative baton from the original series to TNG, but Paramount wasn’t just relying on the latter to keep the Star Trek banner flying. In 1993, the studio introduced Star Trek: Deep Space Nine while TNG was still in production. Like TNG, DS9 was also shown in first-run syndication, running for seven seasons and 176 episodes. Just two years later, Paramount launched yet another series in the franchise, Star Trek: Voyager. Star Trek Fan CollectiveVoyager, which premiered on the newly-created UPN television network, also ran seven seasons, but for four fewer episodes than DS9. Each of those series (TNG, DS9, Voyager) ended by the decision of the producers, not by cancellation.

In 2001, just months after ending Voyager, Paramount introduced Star Trek: Enterprise. Unlike the three previous Star Trek series, which all took place in the same time period, Enterprise took place halfway between the original series and three seven-season entries.  Like Voyager, Enterprise was a UPN show. Unlike Voyager, its ratings steadily declined. During its fourth and final season, Enterprise was canceled, though it was allowed to complete the season, having produced 98 episodes. The cancelation of Enterprise in 2005 made it the first Star Trek series to suffer that fate since the original in 1969. It also ended an uninterrupted 18-year run of new Star Trek product on television, with several of those years featuring concurrently running series.

All told, there have been six Star Trek series, totaling thirty seasons and 726 episodes. Now, with the release of Star Trek Into Darkness, there have been twelve films, featuring three distinct casts.  Where can you find your favorite Star Trek TV series/season/movie, or the one that has eluded you? The answer, of course, is the Des Moines Public Library, where DVDs (even entire TV seasons) check out for seven days for just one dollar. And so ends this warp speed tour of the Star Trek universe. “Take over, Mr. Sulu. Steady as she goes.”

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Career Continues Its Upward Trajectory

For someone primarily known as an “indie actor,” Joseph Gordon-Levitt has really been racking up appearances in blockbuster movies recently: Lincoln, The Dark Knight Rises, Inception, and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. I guess the big paychecks allow him to continue the kind of challenging character work in low-budget features that he says is his passion. It also helps fund his personal projects, such as Don Jon, a comedy that he wrote, directed, and stars in that will be released later this year. As his first full-length writing and directing effort, it’ll be interesting to see what lessons he’s learned along the way as an actor by which ones he applies in his new role as a filmmaker.

14-year-old Joseph Gordon-Levitt is far right

14-year-old Joseph is far right

I first became aware of Joseph Gordon-Levitt when he was co-starring in the hit NBC sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun in the mid-nineties. Although he was playing an alien living in a teenager’s body, I thought it unlikely that he was an actual teen. For one, because his acting was very good, beyond the usual scope of a teen, and two, because a customary practice in Hollywood is to cast young-looking adult actors as teens to avoid having to observe the strict work rules that protect underage performers.  As the show made its way through six seasons, Gordon-Levitt’s ever-increasing height made it obvious that he really was a talented teen actor.

If he already seemed like a seasoned pro at the start of that show’s run, it’s because he was. By the time 3rd Rock premiered in January, 1996, Gordon-Levitt had been acting professionally for over eight years. Having started in commercials at age six, he’d quickly landed numerous roles in TV shows, TV movies and feature films. Prior to 3rd Rock, he had already been a series regular on two short-lived shows: the Dark Shadows reboot in 1991, and the sitcom The Powers That Be in 1992-93. In addition, his big screen credits included significant roles in A River Runs Through It and Angels in the Outfield.

You are your own worst enemy!

You are your own worst enemy!

Even during the run of 3rd Rock, Gordon-Levitt actively pursued other acting opportunities. Some of his higher profile work during that time includes the movies Halloween H20: 20 Years Later and 10 Things I Hate About You. It was lower profile productions, however, that gave him his first starring roles, roles that allowed him to grow as an actor. Among those is 1998’s Sweet Jane, in which he plays a parentless AIDS victim.

From the time that 3rd Rock from the Sun ended in 2001 until 2009’s G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Gordon-Levitt appeared in a succession of independent and low-budget Hollywood films, often in the lead. Since then, he’s mixed mega-budget and no-budget films in about equal ratio. One of my favorite films of the past year was Looper, a crime drama/time travel flick, which while not a mega-budget movie was certainly no indie. Many of Gordon-Levitt’s best performances, however, have been in indies and low-budget films. The following five films (listed chronologically) are ones that I feel include examples of his finest work, with the movies as a whole being of like quality.

Manic (2001) – Set in the juvenile wing of a mental institution, Gordon-Levitt plays a teen with rageissues but who is slow to deal with them in this exceedingly intense drama.

The "Summer" of love

The “Summer” of love

Brick (2005) – It may not even be a recognized category, but this tale of high school student (Gordon-Levitt) investigating the disappearance of his one-time girlfriend may be the best ever Teen Neo-Noir film.

The Lookout (2007) – Gordon-Levitt plays a once-promising athlete now suffering from brain damage caused by an auto accident; his life gets even worse when a gang of thieves attempts to take advantage of the fact that the only job he can hold is as a janitor at a local bank.

(500) Days of Summer (2009) – “This is not a love story” proclaims the voice-over narration that begins the movie, and yet it is a charming, if unconventional story about love.

50/50 (2011) – Given just an even chance of surviving a rare form of back cancer, Gordon-Levitt’s character learns about friendship and love by the reactions of those nearest to him.

The Des Moines Public Library has many DVD titles starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Click on any of the linked titles above to check out the work of one of America’s best, and most versatile, young actors. DVD checkouts are good for one week at the cost of just one buck. So what’s stopping you?

It’s a Holiday, by George!

Although a few states officially celebrate Presidents Day, believe it or not, there is no such federal holiday, despite retailers grabbing and running with the idea. There is, however, a federal Washington the Warriorholiday (with several states joining in, too) designated to honor George Washington’s birth. This year, Washington’s Birthday will be observed on February 18, as it regularly falls on the third Monday of February. Strangely, the day chosen by act of congress to celebrate George’s birthday never falls on the day he was actually born. This is made even stranger by the fact that they had two chances for it to happen.

When Washington was born in 1732, America was under the rule of Britain, which was still using the Julian calendar. At the time of his birth, Washington was born on February 11. Later, after the Gregorian calendar was adopted in Britain, and thus, in the American colonies, Washington’s birth date was changed to February 22, in order to sync the eleven-day change in calendars. Today, Washington’s Birthday is officially celebrated on any one of seven days from one year to the next. The range of dates is February 15-21, which means it misses both old and new dates established for Washington’s birth. It’s no wonder congress can’t agree on complex budgets, when they can’t even figure out the calendar that we all use equally!

So, why does Washington deserve his own day, when other U.S. presidents haven’t received the same honor? Washington was both a successful army general who led the colonies to You Are Thereindependence, and was the first president to serve under the U.S. Constitution. He came first and despite being succeeded in the presidency by many brilliant minds (and a few not-so-brilliant ones), his accomplishments hold up to the test of time.

How high, in fact, does Washington rate? Among U.S. presidents, three names regularly appear at the top in polls of academics when ranking the greatest to have served in that office: Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Whereas “Honest Abe” has been a frequent movie subject over the decades (the latest film, Lincoln, will be released on DVD February 26), and FDR has received notable treatments on both big screen and small (including Hyde Park on Hudson, which is currently at The Fleur), “The Father of Our Country” has never received a major silver screen biopic during the sound era.

You’d think that with Washington’s lasting acclaim, he would have inspired myriad moviemakers to have made several epic depictions of his life, but that hasn’t been the case. Aside from a pair of now seldom-seen mid-eighties miniseries starring Barry Bostwick (perhaps better known for playing Brad “Dammit Janet” Majors in The Rocky Horror Picture Show), there hasn’t even been much narrative treatment of the first president on television, either.  Fortunately, several TV documentaries and docudramas devoted to Washington’s legacy have been Valley Forgeproduced. As we are fast approaching Washington’s Birthday, it may be a good time to pop a disc into your DVD player and celebrate “The Sage of Mount Vernon.”

The following titles, which are in the DVD collection of the Des Moines Public Library, provide quite a hodgepodge of Washington lore:

You Are There: The American Revolution and George Washington – Walter Cronkite, later the longtime CBS Evening News anchor who was considered the most trusted man in America, earlier hosted You Are There, a 30-minute CBS docudrama series that ran from 1953 to 1957. This disc contains two Washington-centered episodes from 1955:  Washington’s Farewell to His Officers (December 4, 1783) and Washington Crosses the Delaware (December 25, 1776). This time capsule may tell you as much about the constraints of early TV production as it does about those two historic events, but that also doubles your chances of enjoying it on some level.

Washington the Warrior – Produced by the History Channel and narrated by Stacy Keach, this program concentrates on Washington’s early military career, his retirement, and then his eventual return to duty during the American Revolution. Strangely, this was filmed in Lithuania!

George Washington – Former Disney animator Richard Rich (The Fox and the Hound) made this 30-minute entry in the Animated Hero Classics series. OK, this isn’t actually a documentary or docudrama, but it may provide children with a good introduction to Washington, the general.

George Washington: Founding Father – One-time TV series star Monte Markham co-produced, co-directed and narrated this relatively brief, straight-up documentary overview of Washington’s life for the Arts & Entertainment Network.

Valley Forge – A pivotal moment in the American Revolution is highlighted in this episode of the History Channel’s Save Our History series. After several decisive defeats, General Washington withdraws his troops to Valley Forge, where he manages to turn his ragtag rebels into a cohesive fighting force.  A mix of historical reenactments and interviews with academic experts help explain this critical period in the War of Independence.

TV Mini-Series and World War, Too

The other day I saw on IMDb.com that HBO’s World War II drama Band of Brothers is the all-time highest-rated TV mini-series, with the phenomenal score of 9.6/10. The ten-episode mini-series about members of Easy Company, US Army 101st Airborne Division had Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg Band of Brothersamong its executive producers, and starred a mostly unknown, mostly British cast. Though episodic in nature, at the heart of the mini-series was the story of Major Richard D. Winters. For most American viewers, it was their initial introduction to English actor Damian Lewis, who played Winters. Lewis, of course, won the Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series Emmy Award this past fall for the Showtime drama Homeland, which also won Outstanding Drama Series.

Band of Brothers, which premiered in 2001, was a success in every sense of the word, drawing plaudits from critics, attracting a huge viewership and earning industry awards. Nine years later it spawned a companion piece, The Pacific, also filmed in ten parts, produced by HBO, and with the involvement of Hanks and Spielberg. Whereas, Band of Brothers dealt with the European theater, The Pacific, quite obviously, concerned itself with the war in the Pacific. Although not the juggernaut of its predecessor, The Pacific, was still well received.

Both of those mini-series were made long after the heyday of the format, whose peak was in the mid-seventies to late-eighties.  In fact, Band of Brothers and The Pacific were produced when mini-series were, for the most part, no longer a staple of U.S. broadcast network TV production at all. Chances are The Pacificthat the occasional mini-series that still appears today is on a cable or premium cable network, rather than on one of the broadcast networks. Back in the day, however, the mini-series was commonly used by the over-the-air networks to boost their Nielsen ratings during the all-important sweeps periods.

Dozens of these productions were made in a relatively short period, but no definitive definition of what constituted a mini-series seems to exist, so a working definition may be in order. Generally speaking, a mini-series was no less than four hours long (commercials included) to as much as twenty-five hours, and shown in as few as two, to as many as twelve parts. In order to make the most impact, mini-series were usually scheduled on consecutive nights, or with all parts broadcast within days of each other. In nearly every instance, a mini-series was based on a popular novel. Typically, mini-series boasted large ensemble casts populated by past-their-prime movie stars, TV stars in-between series stints, and/or young actors on the rise.

There are so many mini-series in the DVD collection of the Des Moines Public Library that it’d be all but impossible to highlight the best of what’s available. So, as World War II has already been broached, and as that historical period was common subject matter in the golden age of mini-series production, I’ll continue in that direction. If you’re interested in viewing the best examples of the format dealing with the Second World War, I recommend the aforementioned relatively recent titles, as well as the following highly-acclaimed and popular titles from decades past.

HolocaustHolocaust (1978) 420 minutes, four parts – The Weiss family, Polish émigrés who move to Berlin in the 1930s, ignore the growing anti-Semitism around them to their increasing peril. Meryl Streep and James Woods were among the young stars whose careers got a boost from this production.

The Winds of WarThe Winds of War (1983) 883 minutes, seven parts – Author Herman Wouk’s epic novel became an epic TV production. The story centers on the Henry family, headed by career naval officer Victor “Pug” Henry, played by Robert Mitchum. Numerous worldwide locations were used to film this mix of history and melodrama, which starts with the beginnings of the war in both Europe and the Pacific, and culminates in the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

WallenbergWallenberg: A Hero’s Story (1985) 200 minutes, two parts – Richard Chamberlain (star of several of the most popular mini-series of all time, including Centennial, Shogun, and The Thorn Birds) plays Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who was responsible for saving approximately 100,000 Hungarian Jews from the Nazi Holocaust.War and Remembrance

War and Remembrance (1988) 1620 minutes, twelve parts – If The Winds of War seemed gargantuan, this filming of Wouk’s sequel is absolutely mammoth. Robert Mitchum reprises his role as “Pug” Henry, but, as five years had elapsed between productions, some other cast members from the previous mini-series had to be recast. If you can get past that quibble, then you’ll likely enjoy this tale of the America’s direct involvement in the war.

Lastly, some English television productions set during World War II might also be worth checking out. Technically speaking, Fortunes of War, Sword of Honour, and Piece of Cake aren’t mini-series, at least not in the American sense. The total episodes shot for a season of an English TV series are roughly a quarter of the number shot for a TV series in the United States.  In addition, many English series are written as standalone seasons, with no setup for possible future seasons. As a result, many of these series greatly resemble our conception of an American mini-series. So, if you’re curious about the British take on the Second World War, consider giving those a try.

Joss the Boss

Marvel(ous) Heroes

Joss Whedon – there isn’t a hotter name in Hollywood at this moment than his. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, however, it’s not too surprising. It’s not as though Whedon is a high-profile actor who courts publicity in the tabloid press. Instead, he’s a creator/producer/writer/director primarily of TV shows.  His latest success, however, wasn’t on the small screen, rather it was this summer’s mega-blockbuster motion picture event The Avengers. It was Whedon who co-wrote and directed the Marvel Comics superhero opus, which passed The Dark Knight to leap into third place on the all-time US box office list with over $600 million in ticket sales.

Whedon’s fans, of course, know him best as the brains behind some of their favorite horror and sci-fi TV shows. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spinoff, Angel, both enjoyed long series runs, while two other Whedon shows, Firefly and Dollhouse, though short-lived, developed fervent cults nonetheless.

It seems weird now, but Whedon actually cut his TV teeth on a sitcom, ABC’s Roseanne starting in 1989. He helped write four episodes during the show’s second season, at a time when the series was a ratings monster. From there, he moved on to the TV series version of the hit Steve Martin movie, Parenthood. No, not the current NBC version that just began its fourth season. Rather, it was NBC’s failed first attempt to translate the property from big screen to small in 1990. That version of Parenthood only lasted 12 episodes and its sole claim to fame may be that it featured a then 15-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio.

In 1992, Whedon’s script for Buffy the Vampire Slayer was launched on movies screens starring Kristy Swanson in the title role. The film did OK, more than doubling its production budget in US ticket sales alone, while getting some decent reviews, but it didn’t prove a starting point for a film series. More script work followed, with Whedon contributing to Pixar’s Toy Story, which turned out to be one of the biggest films of 1995. Toy Story earned Whedon his only Oscar nomination to date, coming for “Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen.”

Buffy, Spike in Hand

At the same time that Whedon was getting big-screen writing assignments, he was also retooling Buffy for a small-screen version. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, now with Sarah Michelle Geller in the title role, premiered on the fledgling WB Television Network on March 10, 1997. It quickly became one of the WB’s signature shows. The delicious mix of sexy/tarty beast killers and sexy/scary beasts aired on the WB for five seasons before moving on to The CW for its final two.  Not only was Whedon the series creator and one of the executive producers, but he was the only behind-the-scenes talent to write and direct an episode in each of the show’s seven seasons.

Two years later, Whedon spun off one of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s most popular characters to create the series “Angel.” David Boreanaz starred as Angel and that series enjoyed a five-year run of its own. Whedon continued his multi-tasking, serving in the same capacities on “Angel” as he did on “Buffy.”

If all of that TV work wasn’t enough to keep him busy, Whedon continued to write for the movies. He got sole screenwriting credit for Alien: Resurrection, an entry in the “Alien” franchise that appeared in 1997. Then two more animated features followed with 2000’s Titan A.E., on which Whedon was one of three credited screenwriters, and 2001’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire, for which he provided the original story.

In 2002, Fox premiered the science fiction series Firefly, but did little to support the series. Bizarre scheduling practices – including skipping weeks between broadcasts, airing episodes out of order, and not airing some episodes at all – severely hurt the show’s chances for success and it was cancelled during its maiden season. Once again, in addition to being the series’ creator, Whedon wore several hats on the production side of the show. Surprisingly, the DVD release of Firefly quickly made the show a cult favorite and Whedon was even able to tie up loose ends with the 2005 feature film Serenity, with Nathan Fillion and the rest of the TV cast reprising their roles.

In the period 2005-2008, Whedon did less script work (in part, due to the Writer’s Strike) and focused much of his attention on graphic novels and comic books. In addition to canonical continuations of Buffy, Angel and Firefly, he began writing for Marvel’s Astonishing X-Men. One of his X-Men graphic novels, Gifted, was used as source material for the 2006 movie X- Men: The Last Stand. Another project during that time was Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, a wacky superhero musical that Whedon self-produced for TV for just $250,000. It earned him his second Emmy nomination (his first was for a Buffyscript) and lone Emmy win, coming in the category of “Outstanding Special Class – Short-Format Live-Action Entertainment Programs.”

A Living Doll

Whedon was back on weekly television in early 2009 (again, in various creative roles) with the sci-fi drama Dollhouse, starring Eliza Dushku. The Fox series lasted only two partial seasons, ending in early 2010, but generated a devoted, if too-small, following. After several minor TV and video projects, Whedon co-wrote the horror thriller The Cabin in the Woods, which appeared in theaters earlier this year. Starring a cast of relative unknowns, the movie garnered strong reviews and was a minor hit.

That brings us to The Avengers. Whedon wrote the screenplay (he also received co-story credit) and directed the film at an estimated cost of $220 million. The superhero epic, which gathers together four of Marvel Comics most popular characters, was the movie event of the summer. It thumped the competition, earning over $180 million more than The Dark Knight Rises, its closest rival. With two months remaining, The Avengers is all but assured of being the top hit of the year.

So, what’s ahead for Joss Whedon? Later this fall we will likely see the release of Much Ado about Nothing, the Shakespeare comedy that Whedon adapted and directed for the big screen.  Also headed to theaters in the near future is In Your Eyes, a very modestly-budgeted romance for which Whedon wrote the script.  There are other projects in the works, as well, but the biggest news is that Whedon has already signed on to write and direct Avengers 2. Don’t get excited yet, however, as the projected release for that sequel isn’t until 2015! Big screen or small, mega budget or low, it’ll be interesting to see what projects will next interest Whedon, wielding his newly-earned Hollywood clout.

Nearly every title mentioned in this post is owned by the Des Moines Public Library (heck, we’ve even got Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog!). So, visit us at any of our six locations, or take a look at us online, because books are just the beginning of what we do.