The ‘70s were the age of the TV mini-series, and the undoubted king of the mini-series was Richard Chamberlain. While Chamberlain is better known in the UK for Shogun and The Thorne Birds, Centennial is still widely regarded as his best work—and one of the greatest TV mini-series of the era.
Based on James A. Michener’s best selling novel of the same name, Centennial was one of the longest and most ambitious television projects ever attempted at the time. The series employed four directors, five cinematographers, and featured over 100 speaking parts. The show was also unusual in that Centennial itself was a leading ‘character’, with the show following the intertwining lives of the men and women, loves and adventures, of the generations who make the town their home. Think of it more as a portmanteau piece with lots of stand-alone(ish) stories.
Starting in 1795, the series has it all: the nostalgia and grit of the American ‘wild’ west and the political power-plays of the early 20th Century. What the series doesn’t have, of course, are dragons or zombies–which would seem to a requirement for a modern-day successful TV series. But, it has the next best thing: sweeping story-lines, engaging characters, sex, drama, intrigue, and machinations aplenty. The acting is top-notch, including a horrifyingly young Mark Harmon (NCIS), an even younger George Clooney, a scene-stealing Donald Pleasence, and a surprisingly villainous Timothy Dalton.
Centennial won’t appeal to everyone. It’s an unashamed slice of Americana. And, yes, there are moments that seem a little clunky, slow and cringe-making to modern audiences. The make-up and sets haven’t aged well. But, unlike many period pieces, Centennial doesn’t flinch away from the bloody origins of the United States either. It tells its stories with sensitivity and verve—admittedly to the point where you’d sometimes prefer to linger on one character’s tale rather than move on. However, for those looking for something to while away the (next) lockdown, Centennial makes a great introduction to ‘70s TV drama—even if all you do is spend the episodes spotting the stars of yesteryear.
Extras: Memories of Centennial – A Retrospective Look at Centennials Place in TV History.