A new year and a new review: North and South miniseries
Happy New Year! Hopefully you didn't over-indulge last night. We passed the evening quietly, which suited my mood after watching Michigan State's toothless offense give away yet another winnable game.
But let us move to happier topics.
One of my Christmas gifts was the complete North and South miniseries trilogy on DVD. This sprawling epic can't be contained in a single review, and besides, I haven't finished re-watching all of them. So today we will concentrate on the first entry, North and South (sometimes called North and South Book I).
Before digging in, it's worth recalling that this film is very much a creature of its time, when the "big three" networks (ABC, NBC, CBS) dominated the popular culture. It's strange to read about shows "dominating" ratings these days with only a couple of million or so viewers out of a global audience, but the marketplace has gotten a lot more fragmented. Back in the 1980s, however, you could have 60 million people watching a given show each week.
The advertising revenue generated by reaching such a vast population was considerable, and thus the networks would pull out all the stops to generate what they called "a major television event."
North and South was such an event. Running over six consecutive nights, it had a cast of - well, if not thousands - dozens at least. It was a hodge-podge of emerging talent (notably Patrick Swayze), contemporary network television stars (such as Inga Swenson and Robert Guillaume from "Benson") as well as tons of cameos from the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Robert Mitchum, Johnny Cash and Gene Kelly, to name but a few.
It's based on the book of the same name by John Jakes which I never bothered to read. The plot has numerous twists and turns but we can summarize simply by saying it is a sprawling drama about the fates of two families - one from the north, one the south - in the two decades before the Civil War.
At the heart of the tale are two men, Orry Main (Patrick Swayze) and George Hazard (James Read) who meet as cadets at West Point. They will forge their lifelong friendship through the harsh hazing and discipline of the U.S. Military Academy and later on the battlefields of the Mexican War.
The families are set up as mirrors of each other, with the Mains being aristocratic planters in South Carolina while the Hazards are foundry owners in bustling Pennsylvania. Each character is an archetype from the era.
George's older brother, Stanley (Jonathan Frakes before he became Will Riker of Star Trek fame), is an unscrupulous businessman run by his ambitious wife. George's younger sister, Virgilia (Kirstie Alley before the weight gain) is a fanatical abolitionist. Rounding out the brood is youngest brother Billy, (John Stockwell), who will follow George to West Point when he's old enough. Inga Swenson plays the matriarch who tries to keep everyone from turning on each other.
Meanwhile, south of the Mason-Dixon line there is Orry's father Tillett (Mitchell Ryan) and his wife Clarissa (Jean Simmons) plus their children: the afore-mentioned Orry and two daughters, Brett and Ashton
Brett is the baby of the brood, and the "good" sister, played by none other than Genie Francis, who was a household name when soap operas were still a culture touchstone (her character's wedding on General Hospital still holds the record for daytime viewership). Brett's older sister Ashton (Terri Garber) is the wild child of the family, consumed by malice, lust and ambition.
The interactions of these two tumultuous families will keep things moving for 12 hours of serious melodrama.
And I do mean drama. Everything about the show is dramatic, much of it due to the classic television tropes that were at their zenith. Some might say they date the show, but everything is a product of its time and it's best to savor the closeup-before-cutaway transitions that drive the pacing.
Who could forget David Carradine's utterly over-the-top portrayal of a sadistic southern plantation owner whose chief delights are whipping slaves and beating his wife? Kirstie Alley throws caution to the wind as her character literally turns into a raving lunatic.
Passion! Violence! Intrigue! Betrayal! It's all there, larger than life set on a historical stage that while not entirely accurate, helps elevate the show beyond the lurid plot lines of Dynasty and Dallas, it's contemporaries on the tube.
Some might wonder why a guy would watch this, given the soapyness, but there's tons of righteous action and made-for-tv violence. All the chewing on scenery makes the inevitable fight sequences that much more satisfying when the time for talk is finally over.
Yeah, sometimes the historical situations or figures feel contrived, and there's something wonderfully awkward about how the characters try to work an American History lesson into their dialogue ("not all Southerners support slavery, you know"), but at least the costuming is great.
An undisputed strength is Bill Conti's theme and score, which rises to the occasion. You may not know Bill Conti's name, but odds are you know his music. There is also excellent ambient music, much of it using instruments of the time.
Though it may seem a minor detail, I have to admit the title sequence to the show is outstanding, especially backed with Conti's soaring theme. The line drawings of the characters and scenes have the look of actual sketches from the period. Usually when binge-watching a show, I fast-forward over the credits, but not here.
In short North and South represents the television miniseries geared for a big audience at its zenith. To bring relative unknowns onto the small screen with seasoned regulars and peppered with Hollywood legends playing bit parts just for fun and attention is something we simply don't see any more.
As to the story itself, it grows on you. There is a level of cheesiness to the thing, but that only adds to its charm. The fact is that there are some clunky moments but also great performances here, and it's easy to understand why so many careers took off after this series aired.
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