Oct 30, 2019

The Most Underrated Made-for-TV Movies

The phrase “made-for-TV movie” was coined in 1960. Producers were looking for a way to convince moviegoers that the programs they were offering on TV were as interesting as the movies being shown in theaters. In 1961, the program NBC Saturday Night at the Movies premiered, which was simply a showing of a popular film that had recently had a theatrical release. The first real made-for-TV movie that wasn’t shown in a theater first is generally thought to be See How They Run, which premiered on NBC in 1964. Since that time, made-for-TV movies have developed a reputation for being lower quality productions that are made to appeal to the lower common denominator. Although that’s true of many movies in this genre, there are some definite standouts that deserve praise.


  • Duel was Steven Spielberg’s film debut. It’s easy to see how the young director used his experience on this film to build up an aesthetic, which can be seen in his later films like Jaws and Jurassic Park.

    The film, which premiered on ABC in 1971, follows a businessman who is crossing through the desert on his way to a meeting when he unexpectedly becomes the target of a madman driving a gigantic truck. The script was written by legendary horror author Richard Matheson based on his own short story. As such, the movie is tense, terrifying, and dramatic without being over-the-top.

    Even though this thriller is almost 50 years old, it still holds up well.

  • If you’re looking for a movie that’s equally rich in moments of football glory and genuine connection between two men of very different backgrounds, Brian’s Song is a great made-for-TV movie that never fails to bring the tears.

    Released in 1970, the movie follows the true story of the first interracial NFL roommates, Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers. They were two players on the Chicago Bears who helped each other grow despite the differences in their backgrounds. Later in the movie, a heartbreaking revelation brings them even closer together.

    Brian’s Song is not only a great sports movie. In fact, the story that takes place off the football field is more moving than any rousing sports montage could ever be.

  • The Last Seduction was originally intended as a sexy, late-night low-budget thriller. However, the writer and director of the movie secretly took money from the studio, then used it to make an art-house, neo-noir film that took the tropes of the sexy, late-night “skin flick” and turned them on their head. The film follows a woman who steals money from her husband, then hides out in a small town in search of her next victim.

    There was even talk of an Oscar nomination for Linda Fiorentino. She received praise for her convincing but unconventional portrayal of seductress Bridget Gregory. Unfortunately, the Academy declared her ineligible because the movie was shown on TV before it was released in theaters. Despite not qualifying for the Oscars, she ended up winning several other honors including Best Female Lead at the 1994 Independent Spirit Awards.

  • This early made-for-TV movie was released in 1962 as part of an anthology of sports-themed films. Requiem for a Heavyweight follows an aging boxer named Mountain Rivera. Rivera becomes a wrestler in order to pay off his manager’s gambling debts, despite the fact that he’s suffering from fighter’s dementia and has vowed to leave the ring forever. The movie starts out with a fantastic boxing sequence of Rivera versus Cassius Clay and the story builds from there.

    Written by Rod Serling — who is most famous for writing The Twilight Zone — the movie featured Jackie Gleason and Mickey Rooney, as well as Muhammad Ali as Cassius Clay.

  • Late-night horror movies have always been a beloved staple of networks and fans alike. One of the most underrated made-for-TV movies of all time is Trilogy of Terror, a compilation of three short horror films that all starred actress Karen Black.

    Directed by Dan Curtis, the anthology that premiered in 1975 on ABC was a failed pilot for a TV series. However, it now stands on its own as one of the best horror anthologies of all time.

    Black plays four separate characters across the three shorts, including:

    • A sexy and murderous English professor;
    • Psychotic twin sisters, and;
    • A woman terrorized by a fetish doll come to life.

    The movie was so well-received that Curtis made a sequel in 1996. It was a joint production between three different Canadian and American production companies.

  • Released on HBO in 2014, The Normal Heart was based on a play of the same name by Larry Kramer. Directed by Glee producer Ryan Murphy, the movie follows Ned Weeks, a character that Larry Kramer based on himself, who founds an HIV advocacy group in order to combat the ignorance and misinformation about the deadly condition that’s rapidly spreading around the United States.

    The star-studded cast includes:

    • Mark Ruffalo;
    • Matt Bomer;
    • Jim Parsons;
    • Alfred Molina;
    • Julia Roberts, and;
    • Jonathan Groff.

    The Normal Heart won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Television Movie in 2014.

  • It’s not just modern films that have done a great job at capturing the struggles of soldiers who are unable to withstand the psychological damage inflicted by war.

    In 1979, CBS released All Quiet on the Western Front, a tragic drama that follows a young, passionate German soldier named Paul Baumer who yearns to create, rather than destroy. Directed by Delbert Mann, the film starred popular character actor Ernest Borgnine, as well as Ian Holm and Richard Thomas.

    The tense standoff between Baumer and a young French soldier in the trenches is one of the high points of the film and remains one of the most iconic war movie moments in cinematic history.

  • Before she appeared in Mrs. Doubtfire or Forrest Gump, Sally Field had a star turn as the titular character in Sybil. Sybil is a 1976 made-for-TV movie miniseries about a woman with multiple personality disorder who submits to intense treatments in order to lead a normal life. Although the premise of the movie may seem overly dramatic, the script actually does a great job of exploring the deep-rooted traumas and anxieties caused by Sybil’s childhood relationship with her abusive mother.

    The movie was based on a biography of psychiatric patient Shirley Ardell Mason, written on her behalf by her doctor. Along with Fields, the movie starred legendary actress Joanne Woodward as Sybil’s doctor.

    Sybil was later remade in 2007 with Jessica Lange in Woodward’s role.

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