It first ran in 1978-79 on NBC when mini-series were all the rage. Shogun, Roots and other mini-series had run successfully but Centennial was different. It was thirteen episodes that spanned the beginning of the west and covering more than 200 years worth of history to what would be the present day (back then) fictitious town of Centennial, Colorado.
I first watched it in a subsequent run on TBS and was immediately hooked. Stories about the old west was already something I was interested in because I had already spent time in the Rocky Mountain west, and the story tied in neatly with the love I had started for the mountains. I had seen the Platte River that Pasquinel struggled so mightily to get his canoe to navigate. I had seen "Ft. John" in the series in real life, as Bent's Old Fort in southeast Colorado. I had seen the cliffs of western Nebraska and the names of the real life emigrants, and could immediately relate to Levi Zendt and his travels. As a boy this was as real as it could get for me. I soaked it up, and many other westerns that told a similar story, and I read the book as well. To this day it's one of the few novels I have read from start to finish.
It had a deep impact on how I saw the world. It had a strong message that Native Americans were not treated fairly by the U.S. Government. It had a strong message that the land was to be taken care of and not used up carelessly. It had a deep tie to history, even though it was fiction. You could see it in the characters, whether it was Maxwell Mercy breaking himself for the Indians while wearing an Army uniform, or in Alexander McKeag and his respect for the land. Honesty and respect trumped greed, corruption and carelessness. How could that not make an impact on a young kid?
I've watched the series many, many times over my adult life. The story is great and each time I watch it, it's like visiting old friends. I think it's a major reason why I prefer the wide open spaces to the big city, and can see a sea of beauty on the prairie where others might only see a lot of grass. It had a lot to do why I'd rather have an untouched land vs having fences and wind turbines everywhere. It helped develop the respect I have for Native Americans and their story, and has a hand in me seeing the West as it should be seen.
It's about 35 years old now. Many of the actors have passed on, and it would look very dated to someone who is just now watching it. But the story remains the same, and the message also carries on. "The Earth isn't something you take from without ever thinking of giving back. The Earth is something you protect everyday of the year, a river is something you defend every inch of it's course." What a great message.