Judge Victor Valdivia doesn't understand what was so hard about living in frontier times. As long as he could have his iPod and his Blackberry, he would have been just fine.
It is their story. It is our story. It is the story of America.
They don't make 'em like this anymore. Centennial is the king of epic miniseries of the late '70s, the biggest behemoth that followed the success of Roots. It's a sprawling twenty-one-hour (twenty-six with commercials) monster that spans over two hundred years and follows dozens of characters over many generations. In today's reality crazed network TV climate, it's unlikely that any broadcast network today would ever even consider a miniseries of Centennial's magnitude; only a cable channel like HBO would even attempt anything like this today, which is a shame. Even though Centennial isn't always great, it's still a dramatic achievement worthy of respect.
Facts of the Case
Here are the 12 episodes collected on the six discs:
• "For as Long as the Waters Flow"
• "The Longhorns"
• "The Storm"
"The Winds of Fortune"
• "The Scream of Eagles"
Centennial is an epic miniseries, and clearly no expense was spared in its production. The battle scenes are spectacular and the costumes and sets lavish, and there are plenty of shots of beautiful Colorado vistas. The heart of Centennial, however, is its characters, and their stories. Yes, Centennial is long, complicated, and deliberately paced. However, it's also frequently engaging and thoughtful. Credit must go to writer and producer John Wilder, who adapted Michener's overstuffed tome into a carefully laid-out miniseries. The writing makes us care about these characters, and their stories are recognizable. Those stories are frequently small by themselves, but together add up to a larger, more remarkable whole. They also interlock carefully, so that characters that are newly introduced in an episode are allowed to develop before their relationship to previously introduced characters is revealed. Consequently, it's easy to see how each character progresses, and how some are fated to meet tragic or prosperous ends.
Indeed, one of the advantages of making an extended miniseries is to allow characters to develop. Sheriff Axel Dumire, for instance, initially comes off as a smug and ineffectual lawman, but as the series progresses, it becomes clearer that he sees and knows more than he initially lets on, and his decisions begin to make more and more sense in the overall story. Pasquinale is maybe the most complex character, a man of considerable courage and honor, who respects and even prefers the ways of Indians to those of his countrymen. He is also selfish, greedy, and irresponsible, and both sides of his personality are clearly intertwined. Even an ostensibly one-dimensional villain like Col. Frank Skimmerhorn is given a fleshed-out backstory that makes it hard to dismiss him as just a monster, and makes him more painfully recognizable as one of the types of men who emerge during wartime.
The series is at its best when it jettisons the conventions of television. The massacre of women and children engineered by Col. Skimmerhorn, for instance, is depicted more graphically than one might expect from a TV show. The story dedicated to anti-Mexican racism is generally well-handled and is unusual for TV, which usually depicts racism purely between blacks and whites. Some storylines aren't solved quickly, but are instead allowed to run for many episodes, which magnifies their impact. Plus, in Centennial, just as in real life, the bad guys not only sometimes win, but even prosper.
As can be expected from such a massive cast, the performances are varied. Only one or two stand out as truly bad and most are solid. Conrad, McHattie, and Crenna are given the juiciest roles and show off with aplomb, but even the less showy roles get important scenes and are handled well. They add to the overall richness of the series.
The full-screen transfer is surprisingly clear for a show that's thirty years old. Some dirt and scratches and fading are expected, but there's very little here that will really stand out noticeably. However, for some, reason, "The Storm" suffers from a considerable amount of compression. No other episode does, and it's not even one of the longer episodes in the series, so why it should look so bad is a mystery. Also, in order to fit all twenty-one hours onto six discs, each episode only has about three chapter stops, so it will be something of a chore to find specific scenes. The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono mix is a little quiet, but acceptable.
The only extra on the set is on Disc Two. "Memories of Centennial" (17:39) consists of interviews with Atherton, Carrera, and Conrad about the making of the miniseries. All three tell some interesting stories, but the absence of any of the writers, directors, or producers makes this seem awfully skimpy for a project of Centennial's magnitude. It would have been interesting to hear more about how the story was conceived and how the series was made.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Centennial is weakest when forced to conform to TV norms. Sometimes the series gets too soapy. The plot involves no less than four love triangles, which is probably about two too many. Sometimes, it does settle for pat, easy endings, particularly in the cases of Col. Skimmerhorn or the story of the Mexican activists (which devolves, even more infuriatingly, into one of those Hollywood endings where oppressed minorities stand around mutely while noble white people do all the work). Sometimes, as is the case with shows of the '70s, the dialogue can get overly earnest and preachy. Some scenes are padded to fill the running time, doing in several lines of dialogue what could easily have been handled in one or two. The padding becomes more notable towards the end, when episodes increasingly rely on clips from earlier episodes for no good reason.
"The Scream of Eagles" epitomizes many of these flaws. It's by far the weakest episode of the series. The storyline is as thin and one-dimensional as TV gets. The preachiness is over-the-top, with characters giving long-winded speeches (at least three) while just standing around. The episode runs 150 minutes, but is padded with nearly an hour of flashbacks. Worst of all, it has very little to do with the episodes that preceded it. Far from providing a sense of closure, it actually leaves various fascinating story threads from previous episodes hanging. It's not enough to ruin the rest of the series, but it is a huge disappointment when compared to it. Viewers who have stuck with Centennial for this long deserve a better finale.
Centennial can seem like a daunting experience. It's not as gritty as Deadwood, nor as action-packed as a Western series. In fact, there are only a handful of action scenes, though these are done well. Also, it's hard to overstate just how deeply unsatisfying the final episode is. Up until that point, though, Centennial has enough gripping and well-written moments to be worth watching. Anyone who likes historical epics, especially ones built more around characters than spectacle, should give Centennial a try.
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