Before we talk about Band of Brothers, Game of Thrones, and the embiggening of television, there’s a relic from the past I need you to see.
Earlier this month, the Twitter/X account “Nostalgia From Your Childhood” posted a video from before the 21st Century. It features one middle class American man ushering in the new millennium by showing his friends a bit of cutting edge entertainment technology that he bought for the reasonable price of $5,000. Give it a look below:
There, in all its standard definition glory, is what an expensive television set looked like on New Year’s Eve 1999. Heavy as boulders and providing about as crisp an image, the TVs of 1999 were far from the paper-thin 4K models that we’ve come to appreciate today. It’s no wonder then that the medium was considered comfortably inferior to its movie counterpart.
By the end of the 20th century, things were actually starting to look up for the small screen entertainment format that started as a way to sell soap. By that time, network procedurals like NYPD Blue and HBO dramas like Oz were delivering a level of storytelling sophistication that home viewers were unaccustomed to. Then, in January 1999 (just 11 months before that guy found his $5,000 TV), The Sopranos premiered and jumpstarted what came to be known as the era of “Prestige TV.”
The Sopranos was a game-changer for television in every way – proving that episodic storytelling could craft narratives as rich as any one could encounter in a novel or on a movie screen. For all The Sopranos‘ brilliance, however, its production value still couldn’t live up to that of the average Hollywood blockbuster. Spectacle was still exclusive to film. Or at least it was until WWII miniseries Band of Brothers premiered Sept. 10, 2001 on HBO.
Following a syndication deal with HBO parent company Warner Bros. Discovery, all 10 episodes of Band of Brothers are now available to stream on Netflix in addition to their usual home on Max. The show’s arrival to Netflix at this point in history is a fitting one, as no other series made the big budget streaming era more possible than Band of Brothers. Without Band of Brothers setting the precedent, our pristine flatscreens might not have epic episodic content like Game of Thrones, Stranger Things, or The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power to bring to life.
Based on Stephen E. Ambrose’s non-fiction book of the same name (among other primary sources), Band of Brothers spared no expense in dramatizing the most terrifying and grand human conflict ever. The 10-episode miniseries follows the story of American Parachute Infantry Regiment “Easy Company” in World War II as they train, land in Europe, and then traverse the continent to bring down the Third Reich. The project was created by heavy-hitters Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, with the latter bringing to the show visual techniques that he gleaned from directing 1998’s Saving Private Ryan to create a grittily realistic depiction of total war.
Thanks to the influence of its very famous creators and the revelatory patience of executives at HBO, Band of Brothers was the rare show of its time that cut little to no corners in its production. The series budget was $125 million (around $173 million in today’s dollars), which was notably double the budget for Saving Private Ryan itself. The series’ average of $12 million per episode would still be notably huge today, putting it on a level similar to major Netflix hits like The Crown and The Sandman and behind only a handful of others (though admittedly quite a ways away from Stranger Things season 4’s $30 million and The Rings of Power‘s eye-popping $58 million).
The show’s production team puts that budget to good use, creating a devastatingly realistic depiction of war-torn Europe by building whole towns in Hertfordshire, England and working in Switzerland to depict scenes in Austria and Germany. The budget also allows for a downright Peter Jackson-ian attention to detail with the art department scouring through WWII material, including interviews with veterans, to perfectly recreate weapons and uniforms from the era.
And then there’s the cast. As we discussed a bit over here, Band of Brothers features one of the most overwhelmingly huge casts in TV history. The show’s attempt to recreate an realistic roster of Easy Company doesn’t extend to only the lead figures but to the whole regiment itself.
According to the 2001 documentary The Making of Band of Brothers, the series brought in over 10,000 extras while the credited main, recurring, and guest cast of Band of Brothers includes nearly 100 actors. Much of that cast was sent to participate in a bootcamp together in Longmoor to better build camaraderie and learn the life of a soldier. It was a strategy that Spielberg also deployed on Saving Private Ryan and one that has become a regular feature of war movies since.
It’s probably worth pointing out now that Band of Brothers also happens to be very good. Simultaneously entertaining, stirring, and devastating, the show is a remarkable piece of writing and filmmaking. But even its quality aside, Band of Brothers is notable for what it proved. The success of this miniseries indicated that television could rise to cinematic levels of grandeur if given the resources and trust to do so.
It’s easy to forget in hindsight, but not even Game of Thrones was given an extravagant budget right out of the gate. The first season of the fantasy epic cost roughly $50-60 million or $5-6 million per episode. When that season proved to be a hit and showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff advocated for a $2 million increase for season 2 battle episode “Blackwater,” HBO ultimately obliged, perhaps realizing that in a post-Band of Brothers world, even $8 million is entirely reasonable. By the time Game of Thrones final season rolled around, each episode reportedly had $15 million to work with.
Band of Brother‘s DNA persists throughout television today – from an embrace of cinematic-level imagery, to ambitious budgets, to even the prevalence of series pickups over the pilot model. And whether we watch episodic storytelling on ludicrously big screen TVs or on mobile phones, the technological quality is better than ever. Thanks to Band of Brothers, that technology has plenty of fittingly huge productions to work with.
All 10 episodes of Band of Brothers are available to stream on Netflix in the U.S. and U.K., Max in the U.S., and Now in the U.K.