Sunday, April 10, 2016

Nostalgia Theater: Centennial -- The Story of the American West

This past week I've been re-watching the 1978 miniseries Centennial, and it's one of those shows that I've been meaning to write about here in Nostalgia Theater for awhile, so I figured this was as good a time as any. Based on the novel of the same name by James Michener, the mammoth production (which cost nearly $100 million in today's dollars) tracks the history of a particular piece of land in Colorado from Native American days through the first settlers arriving to the then-present day of the late '70s. (The title refers to the name of the town that's founded on that land.)

I first saw Centennial when it aired on Saudi TV in the early '90s (albeit in a heavily bowdlerized form). I was all of ten years old but I was absolutely captivated by the richness of the the story. I fell in love with characters -- such as Robert Conrad as French trapper Pasquinel, and Richard Chamberlain as his partner Alexander McKeag --  and my heart broke as they aged and eventually exited. While not itself a true story, Centennial is certainly based around true events, and like Roots before it, it exposes uncomfortable truths about our history (a fictionalized depiction of the infamous Sand Creek massacre of 1864 remains shocking even today).

Watch Michener's intro to the first episode below:

With an impressive cast also including Gregory Harrison (another standout in the ensemble), Chad Everett, David Janssen, Robert Vaughn, Timothy Dalton, Donald Pleasance, Andy Griffith, Mark Harmon, and more, this was a prestige production all the way, packing an epic story into an epic runtime (21 hours over 12 episodes). And yet, despite the pedigree, and despite arriving during a boom time for TV minis, Centennial never really found a lasting place in the American consciousness the way the aforementioned Roots or even The Thorn Birds (another Chamberlain starrer) did.

I'm not sure why, to be honest. Even though it was generally admired critically (Chamberlain was nominated for a Golden Globe), ratings weren't what the network had hoped for (this can partly be attributed to the curious decision to space out the twelve episodes over several months as opposed to block scheduling it like an event), and then it just kind of disappeared. Centennial occasionally showed up on cable, but NBC never re-aired it. Luckily Universal released the whole shebang on DVD back in '08, and it's available so affordably that it's an easy recommend. Also, you can find the entire first episode online (for now):

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Three Years Ago in Nostalgia Theater: Crazy Like a Fox

Four Years Ago in Nostalgia Theater: Man From Atlantis

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