HISTORY AS JUNK FOOD

An 18 hour-long miniseries adapted from two John Jakes novels about the Civil War as seen through the eyes of two West Point buddies, North and South is trashy but irresistible and absorbing; like a 19th Century National Enquirer, it’s history as junk food. Modeled after the sweeping TV saga Roots, the whole thing is Grade A soap: you find yourself amazed by how you get so immersed in the re-working of the old workhorse melodrama plot situations and clichés. Why it’s so deeply satisfying is that you see a genuine bond of friendship between the buddies James Read as a Philadelphia industrialist and Patrick Swayze a Southern plantation owner tested by upheavals, family betrayals, heartbreaking tragedies. It’s so reasonably as well as sentimentally stacked in favor of these two men who love one another that you’re in virtual suspended petition for their lives to be spared—and absolutely why you’re hooked until the very last scenes. At the conclusion of the first “book,” Read and Swayze are saying goodbye to one another, knowing that the coming war will not only separate them, forcing them to opposing sides, but that the loyalties they feel for one another are in conflict with their cultural politics—that is, the dangerous surreptitiousness and social prejudice inherent in “states’ rights.” As Bill Conti’s theme soars and the train slowly moves out of sight, you’re reeling from the swirling emotions. In the second “book,” the war commences and, inevitably, the two friends face each other on the battle field. What would we do in their position? Soap entertainment almost always has its supporting cast glories and Kirstie Alley as the Northern abolitionist and Terri Garber as the mandatory Scarlett are real standouts. Alley’s equality-bound duty forces her into a fatal public shame to morally acquit herself; as actress, she’s a dare devil—as she also showed in ABC’s Radiant City—but what gets to us is her disquieting ebullience. Garber’s all shame as the gossipy, power-hungry vixen from the start, and she hits the villainous lows with comic pleasure. The only regret you have is that she’s not punished as severely as she deserves, though in the tradition in giant sudzers, those who deserve to get it—David Carradine and Wayne Newton—really get it and Philip Casnoff as the revenge-obsessed Bent seems to get his just dessert. Lee Horsley, looking and sounding more like James Garner than ever, Elizabeth Taylor, James Stewart, Linda Evans, Olivia de Havilland, Jean Simmons, Anthony Zerbe and especially Hal Holbrook as Lincoln (enhanced by Dick Smith’s superb cosmetic rendering) add touches of class, and it isn’t until the second half that Leslie Anne Down (playing the series’ dipshittiest character) reaps the benefits of appreciating makeup artists. The costumes for the ladies by Joie Hutchinson, Vicki Sánchez and Robert Fletcher rank as the most fanciful, glittering, often conspicuously majestic scene-stealers ever designed for television. Even the men are dandified fashion shows. Gone with the Wind this miniseries ain’t and for this you’re very thankful: you can get mighty tired of Scarlett’s whining and conniving, while here you’re getting a huge and accurate dose of history. North and South is a genuine schlockbuster.

Note: The third “book,” Heaven and Hell, defeats everything that has come before it. The only way to watch it, if you must, is to wait a few dozen years, allowing your memory banks to be emptied, having forgotten that those who reappear really shouldn’t, and that those who die shouldn’t, either.

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Text COPYRIGHT © 2005 RALPH BENNER  All Rights Reserved.