‘Success is never so interesting as struggle.’ ― Willa Cather
American mini-series on television were quite the thing when I was a teenager in the 1980s. Longer than a film, far shorter than a regular TV series, they ranged from the historical (North and South) to science fiction (V).
More often than not, however, they were based on trashy bestsellers, those beach-read doorstoppers that sold in the millions and had a built-in audience keen to see their favourite plot-over-prose books come to life. They often starred the popular TV actresses of the day – Stefanie Powers (she of Hart to Hart) or Jaclyn Smith (she of Charlie’s Angels). Production value was often high with locations spread across multiple countries, big costume budgets and starry names as guest stars. They felt grown up and glamorous.
This was long before satellite and cable made our attention spans shorter by giving us endless options to zap over to see what we were missing. And it was eons before the more recent trend of television becoming more edgy and compulsive than cinema.
Television shows in those days – whether hour-long like The A-Team or comedy half-hours like Happy Days – commonly re-set to status at the end of each episode. Unlike soap operas (the saga-esque qualities of which are now followed by every type of TV show today), you could miss a few or watch them out of sequence and not feel lost. Like when the guy in Crocodile Dundee, saying he’d seen TV once before, turns on the set which is showing I Love Lucy and says, ‘Yup, that’s what I saw’; even the long-running shows mostly continued at their gentle pace and we could dip in and out as we wished.
Mini-series, on the other hand, had the beginning, middle and end structure of films, but were – tantalisingly, gratifyingly – longer, the tension reaching new crescendos, the thrills teased out. If the original American version was in two parts shown on consecutive days, then our local television channel split it further, into four parts. Each episode would be telecast one day a week, keeping our interest for a month. The excitement was deliciously uncontainable.
My cousins and I watched mini-series together quite often. None captivated us as much as If Tomorrow Comes, a three-parter that came out in 1986. Shown as they were late on school nights I had the episodes recorded on videotape, which allowed us to watch them later and again.
We had the intensity and capacity that young teens often do – of listening to the same music, watching the same films, reading the same books over and over again until they became a part of our very fabric.
I think we must have watched the 300 minutes of If Tomorrow Comes at least a dozen times over the course of a year. It was our respite from school exams, political strikes and the hormonal chaos of being teenagers in Dhaka. We rejoiced escaping into the world of con artists, glamorous European travel and cat-and-mouse chases.
The story, for those unfamiliar, is of a young ordinary woman (played by Madolyn Smith) who works at a bank, who through a series of catastrophies lands in jail. When she gets out she is unable to get a regular job again and becomes a cat burglar. Oh, the drama! She meets her match in a young conman (Tom Berenger) and they compete over stealing the same jewels and paintings. Oh, the romance! An Interpol inspector (Liam Neeson) and an insurance investigator (David Keith) start to put the pieces together and close in on their game. Oh, the thrills!
Yes, it was intensely trashy but, really, such fun. It had a number of things in its favour over many of its fellow mini-series. One was its star, Madolyn Smith, who seemingly appeared out of nowhere and then disappeared soon after (Google tells me she married a hockey player and gave up showbiz). Unlike her insipid namesake, Jaclyn Smith, who was all simper and cheekbones, Madolyn was vivacious and convincing in her many guises within the story.
Tom Berenger was also very watchable, his rough-under-the-surface demeanour let him play both the suave playboy as well as a nimble con artist who grew up on his uncle’s fairground. The settings – Cannes, Paris, London, the Orient Express – were appropriately glitzy. And the cons were ingenious plots, or so we thought at the time. To keep our conscience at bay, we knew our heroine and hero only stole from those who stole themselves, who basically ‘deserved’ to be robbed for their crimes.
I read the book by Sidney Sheldon on which the show was based some time later. The mini series was mostly faithful to it, though it omitted some of the con tricks mentioned in the book – a double theft of a diamond, a Goya painting from the Prado. The book also had a more quirky ending for the Keith investigator character, rather than what they used in the TV version – a predictable trussed-up pseudo climax.
Possibly to balance out the pacey effervescence of the Smith/Berenger scenes, the TV version dragged out the investigator storyline, giving him an unnecessary and repetitive personal sub-plot. So when the creepy sequence music would start and poor David Keith would appear, we would hit the fast forward button on the VCR. (VCR! It positively belongs to the era of Pez sweets, rock ballads, and sea-monkeys and X-ray specs seen at the back of comics.)
Fast forward again, this time nearly 30 years, and to my surprise and delight, I saw If Tomorrow Comes had been re-issued on DVD. I impulsively ordered it online, though I was convinced I would view it and wonder what on earth had enthralled me so in my youth. It would be unwatchable now, surely? I felt superior merely thinking about how far I had come.
Except when I popped the DVD in, and the ’80s electronic guitar and trumpet soundtrack started over the opening credits, I got up and started dancing around my room. Oh, the joy of it! Proust travels back because of the episode with the madeleine and I was transported back to my youth thanks to Madolyn (sorry, I couldn’t resist that one).
I did watch the whole thing again – and, once more, fast forwarded through the creepy investigator bits – but I can’t honestly say how well it’s held up. I’m still far too close to it to view it with any sort of fair perspective (and if 28 years doesn’t give me distance, I don’t know what will).
I remembered the whole intricate plot – and it really zings from one adventure to another. I remembered all the lines. The fashions – big hair, big makeup, big shoulders – hurt the eyes more now than they did then, and it has the cheesy veneer that everything from the 1980s does to me, but it is still entirely watchable and good fun.
With the circularity of fashion, mini-series are making a comeback on American television. Now, they are original programming rather than the airport-bestseller-based ones of yesteryear. Perhaps there’s a teenager watching one now who will come back to it three decades later to drum up all the fun and cosy memories that it’s creating today.
‘We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.’ ― Anaïs Nin
These escapist tales were probably aimed at housewives in Middle America but were, clearly, equally appealing to bored teenagers around the world. Travel back to the 1980s for more so-cheesy-they’re-awesome mini-series:
Deceptions. Stefanie Powers plays twins – one a stressed, downtrodden hausfrau and mother in the US, and the other a glamorous jet-setter living in Europe. They come together to celebrate their birthday and decide to switch places for a week, at which point, inevitably, much plot-twisting drama ensues.
Lace. Three best friends at a boarding school make a pact to not reveal to anyone else which of them has become pregnant. Decades later, the daughter (Phoebe Cates) who had been given up for adoption and is now a big sex star, plots to find out which of the three is her mother so she can exact revenge.
The Thorn Birds. The Australian outback, a Catholic priest (Richard Chamberlain) and a young girl who inconveniently grows up to be an attractive woman. Epic in its time span and sweeping melodrama, it became the second most watched mini-series in US television history, after the far more worthy Roots.
Anything based on a book by Judith Krantz. With one bonkfest bestseller after another being turned swiftly into mini-series, she appeared to keep the entire industry afloat: Scruples, Princess Daisy, Mistral’s Daughter, I’ll Take Manhattan, Till We Meet Again. They have elements common to popular mini-series: a feisty female protagonist, an obsession with the glamour and sophistication of Europe, and a desire to avenge someone from the past. Hey, if the formula works…