Here is our list of the Top 20 Limited Run/Miniseries.
Lonesome Dove (1989)
Many C&I readers insist Lonesome Dove isn’t merely the best western miniseries of all time — it’s the best western of all time, period. And, really, after repeated viewings of this epic four-part adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, we aren’t hankering to argue the point. Lead players Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones are a match made in cowboy heaven as Captain Augustus “Gus” McCrae and Captain Woodrow F. Call, two former Texas Rangers who defy anything and everything — even their own mortality — while driving cattle from Texas to Montana. They’re backed by a dream-team supporting cast that includes Ricky Schroder as Newt Dobbs, the son Call comes to respect but never really acknowledges; Danny Glover as Joshua Deets, the guide who proves too good-hearted for his own good; the late Robert Urich as Jake Spoon, a fellow former Texas Ranger who falls in with bad companions; Diane Lane as Lorena Wood, a young prostitute who is seduced by Jake’s smooth talk but drawn to the supportive Gus; Chris Cooper as July Johnson, the sheriff who sets out to bring Jake to justice; and Anjelica Huston as Clara Allen, the woman who never forgives Call for luring Gus away from her. And you can keep a dry during the final encounter between Gus and Call — well, you’re made of stronger stuff than us, pardner.
This isn’t your father’s Wagon Train. Instead, producer Taylor Sheridan’s ten-hour, instant-classic Yellowstone prequel is brutally realistic — and, at times, realistically brutal — as it follows Oregon-bound settlers on a harrowing overland odyssey. Perfectly cast lead players Sam Elliott, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Isabel May and LaMonica Garrett make the arduous journey not just bearable but breathtaking. Still, we are repeatedly given proof of the warning from series narrator Elsa Dutton (Isabel May): “Here, there can be no mistakes. Because here doesn’t care. The river doesn’t care if you can swim. The snake doesn’t care how much you love your children. And the wolf has no interests in your dreams. If you fail to beat the current, you will drown. If you get too close, you will be bitten. And if you are too weak, you will be eaten. We are in the land of no mercy now.”
Broken Trail (2006)
Robert Duvall and Thomas Haden Church shine in this exceptional made-for-cable miniseries directed by Walter Hill (The Long Riders, Geronimo: An American Legend ) as two cowboys — Prent Ritter and his nephew Tom Harte — who set out to drive horses from Oregon to Wyoming, where they plan to sell the steeds to the British Army. Along the way, they save five young Chinese women who had been sold into slavery as prostitutes, and a more experienced, badly mistreated shady lady (Greta Scacchi). Naturally, no good deed goes unpunished, and the cowboys find themselves pursued by the minions of a vengeful madam.
Hatfields & McCoys (2012)
Winner of five Emmy Awards, including a Best Actor prize for Kevin Costner and a Best Supporting Actor honor for Tom Berenger, Hatfields & McCoys deftly entwines elements of Greek tragedy and classic western in a gripping retelling of a true-life American folk tale. In lesser hands, this could have come off as a simple story about a family feud — basically, hillbillies shooting other hillbillies. But director Kevin Reynolds, his scriptwriters and the exceptional ensemble cast — including the late Bill Paxton as Randall McCoy, sworn enemy of Devil Anse Hatfield (Costner) — elevate the familiar narrative to the level of engrossing drama.
Writer-director Scott Frank’s binge-worthy limited-run series is set in La Belle, New Mexico, a Wild West town populated primarily by women in the wake of a mining accident that killed most of the menfolk. After turning against his mentor, Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels), the vicious leader of an outlaw gang, Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell) seeks refuge from his vengeful former partner in La Belle. But when Griffin and his band of bad hombres show up in search of Goode, well, sometimes women like rancher Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery) and feisty widow Mary Agnes McNue (Merritt Wever) have to do what women have to do.
A miniseries? More like a maxiseries. The 12-hour adaptation of James A Michener’s epic novel artfully mixes fiction and fact while recounting the history of Centennial, Colorado from 1795 to the 1970s, and populates its sweeping story with vividly drawn characters played by such notables as David Janssen, Robert Conrad, Richard Chamberlain, Richard Crenna, Timothy Dalton, Brian Keith, Mark Harmon, A Martinez and Chief Dan George. Take it from us: It’s well worth devoting a weekend to binge.
Into the West (2005)
Executive producer Steven Spielberg’s lavishly produced and groundbreaking six-part miniseries offers an enlightening and even-handed view of two families — one white, one Native American — whose fates are intertwined during the period of westward expansion from roughly 1825 to 1890. The star-studded cast features such established actors as Josh Brolin, Keri Russell, Michael Spears, Rachel Leigh Cook, Wes Studi, Graham Greene, Tom Berenger, Sean Astin, Raoul Trujillo and Gary Busey — and then up-and-comers Gil Birmingham and Zahn McClarnon.
How the West Was Won (1977)
This is a tricky one, since it was preceded by a one-shot TV-movie titled The Macahans (1976), and followed by a 1978-79 weekly series. In other words, depending on your point of view, How the West Was Won might qualify for any or all of the categories here. We chose to list the three-part miniseries primarily for sentimental reasons: It gave us our first opportunity to ride again with James Arness on a weekly basis after the cancellation of the long-running Gunsmoke. As Zeb Macahan, a straight-shooting Army scout and defender of his extended family, he is first among equals in an exceptional ensemble cast that included Eva Marie Saint, Bruce Boxleitner and Anthony Zerbe.
The Sacketts (1979)
A fan favorite two-part miniseries based on two novels — The Daybreakers and Sackett — by the great Louis L’Amour, The Sacketts focuses on three Tennessee brothers — Tell (Sam Elliott), Orrin (Tom Selleck) and Tyrel Sackett (Jeff Osterhage) — who head West after the Civil War, hoping to make their fortune and, if they’re lucky, avoid trouble. But trouble is just what they find when they become embroiled in a land dispute between Mexicans and Anglos in Santa Fe. The terrific supporting cast includes Glenn Ford, Ben Johnson, Gilbert Roland, Jack Elam and Slim Pickens.
Children of the Dust (1995)
Sidney Poitier gave one of his finest late-career performances as Gypsy Smith, a bounty hunter of Black and Cherokee descent who devotes himself to protecting Black homesteaders, in director David Greene’s miniseries adaptation of the novel by Clancy Carlile (Honkytonk Man). Smith also becomes involved with a Cheyenne youth (Billy Wirth) he rescues after his camp comes under attack by the U.S. Cavalry. The young man takes the name of Corby as he is raised by a white family — but renames himself White Wolf when he is reunited with his own people. Meanwhile, Smith must defend himself from KKK vigilantes who invade the Black community where settlers have hired him as sheriff. Variety TV critic Ray Loynd may have overstated the case a tad when he claimed Children of the Dust “ranks up there with Lonesome Dove,” but it’s easy to understand his enthusiasm.
Davy Crockett (1954-55)
Before anyone had ever coined the term “miniseries,” Fess Parker memorably starred as frontiersman Davy Crockett in three hour-long dramas — Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter; Davy Crockett Goes to Congress; and Davy Crockett at the Alamo — that aired as part of the Disneyland TV series. The dramas were so enormously popular and sold so much tie-in merchandise — there was a time when it seemed every boy in American owned a coonskin cap — that Disney decided to finesse around the minor detail of Crockett’s death at the end of Alamo by producing two more dramas (Davy Crockett's Keelboat Race and Davy Crockett and the River Pirates) set during the years before the hero’s demise. So, yes, not only was this a miniseries before miniseries were cool, it also pioneered prequels. And then there was that theme song: “Davy, Davy Crockett — King of the wild frontier!”
Streets of Laredo (1995)
James Garner was considered for the role of Captain Augustus “Gus” McCrae in Lonesome Dove (1985), but had to bow out for health reasons. That turned out to be career-defining twist of fate for Robert Duvall — and a blessing in disguise for Garner, who was able to persuasively play Captain Woodrow F. Call (the character originally played by Tommy Lee Jones) in this impressive sequel based on Larry McMurtry’s novel of the same name. Set in the early 1890s, the three-part drama has Call hunting for the vicious Mexican bandit Joey Garza (Alexis Cruz) with help from Pea Eye Parker (Sam Shepard) and Kickapoo tracker Famous Shoes (Wes Studi).
This is another tricky one, since it wasn’t originally as a limited series — USA Network simply canceled it after a nine-episode Season One — but the final episode does provide a satisfying conclusion for the show’s narrative arc, with Jared Stone (Tom Berenger) discarding his retirement plans and remaining the marshal of 1880s Silver City, Colorado. And besides, we really liked how old-school lawman Stone solved crimes using new-fangled forensics techniques with former Pinkerton Larimer Finch (Peter O’Meara) and mortician/pathologist Katie Owen (Amy Carlson).
The Good Lord Bird (2020)
Ethan Hawke earned rave reviews for his vividly detailed and richly multifaced portrayal of radical abolitionist John Brown in this engrossing adaptation of James McBride’s National Book Award-winning 2013 novel about events leading up to Brown’s leading his ragtag “army” during an ill-fated raid 1859 raid on the federal armory in Harpers Ferry, W.V. But the miniseries wouldn’t work nearly so well without the sterling co-starring performance by Joshua Caleb Johnson as a fictional character, Henry “Onion” Shackleford, a young ex-slave through whose viewpoint we see the well-intentioned but wildly impractical would-be liberator.
Dream West (1986)
Richard Chamberlain rides tall in this multipart adventure epic as John C. Frémont, the legendary 19th century explorer, soldier and politician — he ran in 1856 as the first Presidential candidate of the modern Republican Party, but lost to Democrat James Buchanan — who remains a controversial figure in the eyes of many historians. His exploits are predictably embellished and romanticized for TV viewers in the script Evan Hunter adapted from David Nevin’s 1984 historical novel, but the overall narrative is absorbing, and Chamberlain gets strong support from such notables as Ben Johnson as Jim Bridger, Rip Torn as Kit Carson, and Alice Krige as Jessie, Frémont’s loyal wife.
Son of the Morning Star (1991)
Meticulously balanced in its depiction of George Armstrong Custer (Gary Cole) as a vainglorious military commander whose prideful ambition led to his demise at Little Big Horn, this well-crafted, Emmy Award-winning miniseries — scripted by Melissa Mathison (The Black Stallion, E.T.: The Extraterrestrial) from a novel by Evan S. Connell — also boasts a fine performance by Rodney A. Grant (Wind in His Hair from Dances With Wolves) as the warrior Crazy Horse.
Buffalo Girls (1995)
Angelica Huston dominates this Emmy-winning adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s 1990 novel with her rip-snortin’ performance as Martha Jane Canary, better known during her Old West heyday as Calamity Jane. The picaresque miniseries traces Jane’s efforts to relocate the daughter she bore with Wild Bill Hickok (Sam Elliott), then put up for adoption — a search that eventually takes her all the way to England as a member of the Wild West Show of Buffalo Bill Cody (Peter Coyote). Along the way, she connects with such real-life figures and fictional characters as sharpshooter Annie Oakley (Reba McEntire), Sitting Bull (Russell Means), brothel madam Dora DuFran (Melanie Griffith), lovesick cowboy Teddy Blue (Gabriel Byrne), and grizzled trapper Bartle Bone (Jack Palance).
Rough Riders (1997)
Directed and co-written (with Hugh Wilson) by John Milius, this rousing two-part historical drama showcases Tom Berenger in an aptly larger-than-life performance as Theodore Roosevelt, the future U.S. President who formed and led the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry — the “Rough Riders” of the title — in Cuba during the Spanish-American War of 1898. The strong supporting cast includes Sam Elliott, Gary Busey, Brad Johnson, Illeana Douglas, Chris Noth, Brian Keith — and as William Randolph Hearst, the powerful newspaper tycoon largely credited with influencing the United States’ entry into the war, George Hamilton.
True Women (1997)
Director Karen Arthur’s expansive two-part epic (based on Janice Woods Windle’s historical novel) follows the lives of three formidable women over fifty years, from the Texas Revolution to the earliest days of suffragism in the Lone Star State. Sisters Sarah (Dana Delany) and Euphemia (first Tina Majorino, then Annabeth Gish) and good friend Georgia (first Rachel Leigh Cook, then Angelina Jolie) are the resourceful protagonists, aided and/or impeded by male characters portrayed by Michael York, Powers Boothe — and a young Michael Greyeyes, appearing sporadically as a Comanche brave named Tarantula.
Return to Lonesome Dove (1993)
Larry McMurtry had nothing to do with this four-part sequel to the 1989 Lonesome Dove miniseries based on his novel. And many purists have rejected it — along with the subsequent Lonesome Dove: The Series — as a noncanonical divergence from the books authored and the miniseries co-written (with Diana Ossana) by McMurtry. So maybe it’s best to imagine that the whole thing takes place in some parallel metaverse, where Jon Voight does an outstanding job of playing Captain Woodrow McCall alongside Lonesome Dove veteran Ricky Schroder as Newt Dobbs.