It never fails to shock me that certain television shows are available on DVD-often in their entirety-while clearly superior shows are not. I’ve written before about the travails of trying to find certain classic episodic television shows-why is it that Hazel is available on DVD, for instance, but Thirtysomething is not-but now I turn my attention to the miniseries. Two miniseries in particular. Why is the entire North & South miniseries collection readily available on Netflix, I am compelled to ask, whereas neither Rich Man, Poor Man nor Washington: Behind Closed Doors have yet been released on a DVD format that American players can recognize?
If you read some histories of the miniseries genre in America they will mistakenly claim that Roots was the first long form miniseries produced directly for American television. The confusion, I suppose, stems from the fact that Roots was the first to mark the movement toward nightly serial broadcasts. But before that excellent examination of the history of slavery in America, there existed a long form miniseries that aired every Tuesday night over the course of a few months. Based-some might claim loosely-on Irwin Shaw’s sprawling, multi-generation novel, Rich Man, Poor Man remains, in my opinion, the ultimate miniseries. The story of two brothers who took vastly different routes in their lives made stars out of Nick Nolte and Peter Strauss and, at least briefly, changed the medium of television. The rest of the cast featured many instantly recognizable faces of the time: Ed Asner, Susan Blakely, Ray Milland, Robert Reed, Bill Bixby, Kim Darby.
Rich Man, Poor Man condensed and compressed events and characters in Irwin Shaw’s novel to make it more palatable; in my opinion improving upon the book. The story follows the rise of the good Jordache son Rudy and the fall of the bad Jordache son Tom before their paths finally, fatally cross at the end. Along the way, it tells interlocking stories that, yes, are the stuff of soap opera, but what incredibly well written and acted soap opera. Nobody who ever saw this miniseries could ever forget the terrifying Falconetti (for the longest time I thought his name was Falcon Eddie!). Although it was Nick Nolte who achieved real lasting superstardom as a result of Rich Man, Poor Man, I actually always preferred the arc involving Rudy. Whether it’s just because rising from rags to riches is more interesting, or because I think Peter Strauss is the better actor I don’t know, but it just always seemed to me that Rudy Jordache’s story was far more appealing. Rich Man, Poor Man is available on DVD in the UK, but unless you’ve got a DVD player with multiregion capability you’re out of luck in America.
Washington: Behind Closed Doors is a miniseries that took the exact opposite approach of Rich Man, Poor Man to its source material. Whereas the latter had to edit down the expansive approach taken by Irwin Shaw, Washington: Behind Closed Doors took its source material and expanded upon it to the point of non-recognition. The source material in this case was John Ehrlichman’s novel The Company. Ehrlichman, of course, was a major player in the Watergate scandal and it was that scandal that forms the real basis of Washington: Behind Closed Doors. Ehrlichman’s novel is only ostensibly about Watergate, whereas the miniseries is a very thinly veiled account of the entire Nixon administratino with recognizable Watergate figures caricaturized. Jason Robards, for instance, plays Pres. Richard Monckton. As good as Robards is, however, he is upstaged by Robert Vaughn as the H.R. Haldeman character and Nicholas Pryor as the Ron Ziegler/Jeb Stuart Magruder combo character. In fact, Robert Vaughn won a richly deserved Emmy for his absolutely chilling performance and Pryor should have been nominated for his utterly goofy performance. Of course, if you’ve ever seen Ron Ziegler in his capacity as Nixon’s press secretary you’ll understand why this character is such a dork.
How much of Washington: Behind Closed Doors is accurate? Hard to tell for sure, of course, but despite the fact it was presented as entirely fictional, I know it’s more accurate than ABC’s “docudrama” allegedly based on the 9/11 Commission Report. What The West Wing valiantly tried to be, Washington: Behind Closed Doors actually was: the best inside look at Washington politics in television history.
It definitely remains a mystery as to why neither Rich Man, Poor Man nor Washington: Behind Closed Doors haven’t been released on DVD. Especially considering the fact that such patently inferior miniseries as The Sacketts or The Winds of War have made their way to the little silver discs.