Miniseries are often exactly what you're looking to watch. They're longer than movies, but each installment is shorter, so they fit more easily around the rest of your life. On top of that, they don't require the extended commitment that many long-running series do. They're kind of like a good beach read. For many miniseries, the best place to look for great stories is in history. After all, those stories don't require as much original creation. They already exist.
Even so, telling stories based in history comes with its own challenges. For one thing, there's an obligation to tell the stories accurately. For another, stories set in the past require a lot of extra work on reproducing details precisely. Even so, there are many miniseries that take on these challenges gladly and produce tremendous series as a result. Here are 16 miniseries that do deep dives into real history.
We all think we know the story of how our country was founded, but John Adams, an HBO mini-series that aired in 2008, offered an entirely new perspective on the events of our nation's founding. The series earned widespread acclaim when it first aired, and with good reason.
Starring Paul Giammati in a gripping central performance, John Adams dove into the details of the revolution as well as its aftermath. It also told the story of the country's second president, a founding father that very few people had considered in great detail. Hamilton would use many of the same tricks less than a decade later, but John Adams did it first.
Chernobyl is the most recent entry on this list, and also one of the most depressing. The series tells the story of the meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. It's a tribute to the bravery of the Soviet people who sacrificed their lives to keep the disaster from escalating and a detailed accounting of the attempt to cover up how the meltdown happened.
It's a series that excels in detailed explanation, and one that shows us how horrifying the meltdown was. Nuclear poisoning is a terrible way to die. Chernobyl is a story most people thought they knew. Most people were wrong.
Band of Brothers is telling the story of a group of men. It's a chronicling of one company of American soldiers as they work their way through World War II. Although the series has a number of central players, the show has no one "main character." As a result, it gives us a sense of how a wide variety of personalities experienced the war.
The show received enormous acclaim when it aired on HBO, and it's considered one of the very best miniseries ever produced. The attention to detail is incredible, and the show doesn't pull any punches. This is what it was like during World War II, or as close as TV can get to showing us.
The Pacific almost works as a sequel or complement to Band of Brothers. The series tells the story of three marines whose lives are intertwined as they battle across the pacific front during World War II. Like Band of Brothers, The Pacific received widespread acclaim.
Oftentimes, it can feel like the story of the soldiers fighting in the Pacific is overwhelmed by the heroism of D-Day and the events surrounding it. The Pacific functions as a kind of corrective, giving audiences a story they don't see as often. Plenty of Americans gave their lives on beaches outside Normandy, and their stories are worth telling too.
When They See Us tells a harrowing story that might be hard for some to handle. It follows the Central Park Five case, in which five young black boys were accused of raping and assaulting a woman in Central Park. The story chronicles all of the breakdowns in the criminal justice system that led to their conviction, as well as their eventual freedom after another man was identified as the perpetrator.
When They See Us is a story of racism and the ways it interacts with our justice system. It's a story that's more relevant than it should be in 2019.
There are plenty of stories about cults scattered throughout American history. On Waco, we follow the events surrounding a standoff between FBI agents and David Koresh's Bran Davidians. When the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms raids the Davidian compound, a gunfight breaks out that eventually leads to a 51-day stand-off.
The story is fascinating, and many of the show's main characters are fascinating real-life figures. Whether you think the events depicted on Waco are horrifying or justified, the story is worth watching for its attention to detail and deeply compelling performances. The story is one of the richest in America's long history.
During its two seasons, American Crime Story has told two different, fascinating stories about famous crimes, and the ways they intersect with American history. On the first season, we get a gripping recounting of the OJ Simpson murders and subsequent trial. As the series plays out, it manages to touch on race and gender discrimination, and on the ways that fame creates a shield in American society.
On the second season, we follow the serial killer who murdered Gianni Versace. This season touches on life as a gay American. Both seasons are beautifully made and perfectly acted. The show is one of the very best on TV.
Roots is the definitive TV miniseries. It chronicles the journey of an African man as he becomes enslaved, and then has children in the American South. The show is heartbreaking in its depiction of the brutal realities of slavery, and when it aired in the 1970s, it opened many Americans' eyes to the horror of the institution.
Even today, Roots is a beautiful example of the way a limited series can tell an extended story that spans generations. It's a story that has an ending, and one that's largely based in actual history. We all know slavery was horrific, but Roots showed us how horrific it was.
Creator David Simon specializes in small stories about the difficulties of working within systems, and Show Me a Hero does just that. The show follows Nick Wasicsko, the 28-year-old mayor of Yonkers who dealt with the civil rights and housing crisis that was brewing in the city.
At its core, Show Me a Hero is a story of a young man with lofty ideals who faced with brutal reality after brutal reality. In a city plagued by racism and injustice, even politicians can become paralyzed. The show is honest about the limits of his power, and about the toll that being mayor placed on him.
Although Alias Grace is adapted from a novel, the story it tells is based on the true story of Grace Marks, an Irish immigrant who is convicted of the murder of her employer and his housekeeper. The series depicts the events leading up the murder, as well as its aftermath, in fascinating detail.
Grace is a fascinating character, and she's brought to life vividly. The show becomes as fascinated by her reasons for murder as people really were, even as it becomes a story about the ways women are used and abused even when that abuse is not totally obvious.
Every member of the Kennedy family is intriguing for one reason or another. At various times, the stories of each Kennedy has been told as a movie or in books. On The Kennedys, we get many of the stories surrounding the Kennedys combined into a single narrative.
Because of this broader canvas, we get a sense of how each of these stories interacts with one another. After all, this family did a lot of things, and it makes sense to connect the dots between them. As one of the most famous families in American history, it only makes sense that they would make for a compelling miniseries.
A Very English Scandal tells the story of Jeremy Thorpe, who was tried and eventually acquitted of conspiring to murder his former lover. The series tells the story of Jeremy, who was once a very powerful member of British parliament even as he was carrying on an affair with a man at a time when homosexuality was still illegal.
The series is not just an intriguing look at British high society, it's also an examination of norms and laws that, until quite recently, kept people from being who they wanted to be. It's marvelously acted, occasionally hilarious, and altogether well worth your time.
One of the earliest miniseries on this list, I, Claudius tells the stories of the Roman emperors who came after Julius Caesar. Sort of like Game of Thrones, the series follows the political intrigue and backstabbing that dominates the world in the aftermath of an empire's creation.
The series also doubles as an incredibly informative history lesson that details the many emperors in the earliest days of Rome. The series is about the pains of governing. It's not a story of glory or war, but one about the difficulties of sustaining a massive empire, and it's fascinating for that reason.
Although Trust may eventually become an anthology series, right now, it tells the single story of the kidnapping of John Paul Getty III by the Italian mafia in Rome. In telling that story, the series examines the Getty family, and the corrupting nature that money has on those who wield it.
The show, with its sprawling cast of incredible actors, is worth watching for its cast alone. The story at its center is also deeply compelling, though, in the way that it unfolds, and in the things that money can't buy. The Getty family is insanely wealthy and still unhappy. That should say something.
Escape at Dannemora tells a pretty small-scale story, but it's one that's fascinating nonetheless. It tells the story of two inmates at a maximum-security prison in upstate New York who both become romantically entangled with a prison guard, who eventually helps them to escape.
The story is as bizarre as it sounds, but it's also deeply human. In spite of their criminality, all three of these people are deeply sympathetic, and the relatively intimate story allows for plenty of jaw-dropping direction from Ben Stiller, who directed every episode of the show. It may not be a sprawling story, but Escape at Dannemora is perfectly executed.
The Act is set to be an anthology series that tells disturbing true crime stories. During its first season, viewers follow Gypsy Rose Blanchard as she's abused by her mother. Eventually, Gypsy kills her mother and is then put on trial for the crime.
The story at the center of the show's first season is shocking and cruel and speaks to the forms that abuse can take. It's also a heartbreaking story of a little girl who's pushed to the brink and ultimately decides to take measures into her own hands. It's heartbreaking, gripping, and profound in equal measure, and well worth watching.