The 19th Century in Television

Recently, I noticed there have been a good number of television productions in both North America and Great Britain, set during the 19th century. Below is a list of those productions I have seen during this past decade in alphabetical order:

THE 19TH CENTURY IN TELEVISION

1. “Copper” (BBC America) – Tom Fontana and Will Rokos created this series about an Irish immigrant policeman who patrols Manhattan’s Five Points neighborhood during the last year of the U.S. Civil War. Tom Weston-Jones, Kyle Schmid and Ato Essandoh starred in this 2012-2013 series.

2. “The Crimson Petal and the White” (BBC) – Romola Garai starred in this 2011 miniseries, which was an adaptation of Michel Faber’s 2002 novel about a Victorian prostitute, who becomes the mistress of a powerful businessman.

3. “Death Comes to Pemberley” (BBC) – Matthew Rhys and Anna Maxwell-Martin starred in this adaptation of P.D. James’ 2011 novel, which is a murder mystery and continuation of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel, “Pride and Prejudice”.

4. “Hell on Wheels” (AMC) – This 2012-2016 series is about a former Confederate Army officer who becomes involved with the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad during the years after the Civil War. Anson Mount, Colm Meaney, Common, and Dominique McElligott starred.

5. “Mercy Street” (PBS) – This series follows two volunteer nurses from opposing sides who work at the Mansion House Hospital in Alexandria, Virginia during the Civil War. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Josh Radnor and Hannah James.

6. “The Paradise” (BBC-PBS) – This 2012-2013 series is an adaptation of Émile Zola’s 1883 novel, “Au Bonheur des Dames”, about the innovative creation of the department story – only with the story relocated to North East England. The series starred Joanna Vanderham and Peter Wight.

7. “Penny Dreadful” (Showtime/Sky) – Eva Green, Timothy Dalton and Josh Harnett star in this horror-drama series about a group of people who battle the forces of supernatural evil in Victorian England.

8. “Ripper Street” (BBC) – Matthew Macfadyen stars in this crime drama about a team of police officers that patrol London’s Whitechapel neighborhood in the aftermath of Jack the Ripper’s serial murders.

9. “Underground” (WGN) – Misha Green and Joe Pokaski created this series about runaway slaves who endure a long journey from Georgia to the Northern states in a bid for freedom in the late Antebellum period. Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Aldis Hodge star.

10. “War and Peace” (BBC) – Andrew Davies adapted this six-part miniseries, which is an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s 1865–1867 novel about the impact of the Napoleonic Era during Tsarist Russia. Paul Dano, Lily James and James Norton starred.

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“HEAVEN AND HELL: NORTH AND SOUTH BOOK III” (1994) – EPISODE THREE Commentary

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“HEAVEN AND HELL: NORTH AND SOUTH BOOK III” (1994) – EPISODE THREE Commentary

Thanks to Episode Three, “HEAVEN AND HELL: NORTH AND SOUTH BOOK III” ended on a solid note, thanks to John Jakes and Suzanne Clauser’s screenplay. A good number of “NORTH AND SOUTH” fans have complained that the 1994 miniseries could have stretched into one or two more episodes. I have to disagree with that assessment. The 1987 novel was not as long as 1982’s “North and South” or 1984’s “Love and War”.

Episode Three began Charles Main’s confrontation with Scar and his discovery that the Cheyenne warrior was in no condition for any kind of duel. After mending Scar, Charles began to drink heavily in order to escape the failure of both his quest and his efforts to save the Cheyenne village from Captain Harry Venable and his troopers. George Hazard and Madeline Main’s story blossomed into a romance that proved to be a lot more satisfying than what was depicted in Jakes’ 1987 novel. After becoming sober, Charles learned about Gus’ kidnapping from George and his friend, cavalry trooper Magic Magee. The trio set out into the Indian Territory to hunt for Bent and the kidnapped Gus. With George gone, Madeline was forced to contend with a double threat – a recently wealthy Ashton Main Fenway determined to take Mont Royal from her; and the local KKK and brother-in-law Cooper Main, determined to kill her and destroy her school for former slaves.

More so than the previous two episodes, Episode Three seemed to be pack with action. It featured Charles’ ill-fated duel with Scar, the hunt for the Hazard and Main familes’ nemesis, Elkhannah Bent and Charles’ kidnapped son Gus, and the Klan’s attack upon Mont Royal. And I thought that Larry Peerce handled these scenes rather well. Not only was I impressed by Peerce’s direction of the Klan’s attack, but also by Don E. FauntLeRoy’s night time photography of the swamp where George chased a captured Madeline, Cooper and Klansman Gettys LaMotte. This episode also featured some effective dramatic scenes – especially George and Madeline’s romance, Cooper’s hostile confrontation with his wife Judith, and Charles’ reconciliation with actress Willa Parker. But my favorite dramatic moment was Magic Magee’s attempt to distract Bent at a whiskey ranch, while Charles and George tried to rescue Gus. That particular scene seemed like an excellent mixture of drama, humor and tension.

The only bad performance that turned me off in this episode came from Terri Garber’s return to an exaggerated portrayal of a Southern belle. I found this ironic, considering that Lesley Anne Down managed to avoid this travesty, for once. However, Garber more than made up her acting faux pas in a scene in which she very convincingly portrayed Ashton’s devastation upon her discovery of Mont Royal’s wartime fate. James Read and Lesley-Anne Down were very effective in conveying George and Madeline’s romance. Both Philip Casnoff and Steve Harris gave first-rate performances in the battle of wits between Bent and Magee. I could say the same about Robert Wagner and Cathy Lee Crosby in the scene featuring Cooper and Judith’s quarrel. Kyle Chandler really shone in this episode, as he portrayed the gamut of Charles’ emotional experiences from the drunken failed man to a determined father and finally, a man at peace with the woman he loved and with himself. Everyone else – including Rya Kihlstedt, Tom Noonan, Sharon Washington, Cliff De Young, Gary Grubbs, Gregory Zaragoza, Jonathan Frakes, Deborah Rush and Julius Tennon did some pretty solid work.

“HEAVEN AND HELL” is not perfect. Its production values were not as top notch as the first two miniseries from the 1980s. The miniseries included literary characters like Cooper Main without explaining their lack of appearances in “BOOK I” and “BOOK II”. And it featured moments of hammy acting – especially by Lesley Anne Down, Terri Garber and Keith Szarabajka. On the other hand, this miniseries was more faithful to Jakes’ third novel than “BOOK II” was to the second novel. Not only did “HEAVEN AND HELL” managed to feature excellent performances and outstanding action sequences, it featured what I consider are the two best scenes in the entire trilogy. And I still believe it was a lot better than most of the saga’s fans viewed it.

Top Five Favorite “HELL ON WHEELS” Season One (2011-2012) Episodes

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Below is a list of my top five favorite Season One episodes from the AMC series about the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, “HELL ON WHEELS”. Created by Joe and Tony Gayton, the series stars Anson Mount, Colm Meany, Common and Dominique McElligott:

TOP FIVE FAVORITE “HELL ON WHEELS” SEASON ONE (2011-2012) Episodes

1 - 1.07 Revelations

1. (1.07) “Revelations” – Financier Thomas C. Durant and widower Lily Bell leave the “Hell on Wheels” camp to travel to Chicago for different reasons. Thomas Moore and his Irish gang finds former slave Elam Ferguson in the tent of prostitute Eva.

2 - 1.02 Immoral Mathematics

2. (1.02) “Immoral Mathematics” – Vengeance seeking former Confederate Cullen Bohannon fights for his life, as he tries to evade camp security officer Thor “the Swede” Gundersen after killing one of the Union men who had murdered his wife during the Civil War. Joseph Black Moon track down the Cheyenne braves (including his brother) responsible for the attack on the surveyors’ camp.

3 - 1.10 God of Chaos - a

3. (1.10) “God of Chaos” – In the season finale, Cullen tracks down a former Union soldier named Harper, whom he believes was one of the men who killed his wife. Durant and Lily conspire to gain arriving investors’ interests. And Elam and Eva express different views on what their future should be.

4 - 1.09 Timshel

4. (1.09) “Timshel” – Cullen, Elam, Joseph Black Moon and a squad of soldiers find the Cheyenne responsible for the attack on the surveyor camp that led to the death of Lily’s husband and for the derailment of a train.

5 - 1.04 Jamais Je Ne T'oublierai

5. (1.04) “Jamais Je Ne T’oublierai” – Cullen initiates his search for Harper. Lily finally arrives at the “Hell on Wheels” camp, following the Cheyenne attack on the surveyor’s camp and the death of her husband. Elam becomes involved with a prostitute named Eva.

“HEAVEN AND HELL: NORTH AND SOUTH BOOK III” (1994) – EPISODE TWO Commentary

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“HEAVEN AND HELL: NORTH AND SOUTH BOOK III” (1994) – EPISODE TWO Commentary

Despite the tragic ending of the last episode, Episode Two of “HEAVEN AND HELL: NORTH AND SOUTH BOOK III” proved to be even darker. Bent continued his crime spree by assaulting an Illinois farm girl and kidnapping Charles’ son, Gus in St. Louis. Charles’ decision to become an Army scout in order to hunt down Scar led to his breakup with Willa Parker. Worse, he witnessed the massacre of a peaceful Cheyenne village by U.S. troopers led by Captain Venable. Madeline’s conflict with Cooper, Gettys LaMotte and the local Ku Klux Klan resulted in tragedy for one of the Mont Royal workers.

Overall, Episode Two was pretty first-rate. I only had a few quibbles. Stanley and Isobel Hazard (Jonathan Frakes and Deborah Rush) made a re-appearance in the saga without any explanation of how they avoided conviction for war profiteering. I guess anyone can assume that they were exonerated. Keith Szarabajka continued his over-the-top portrayal of Harry Venable. Even Gary Grubbs, usually a very dependable performer, indulged in some hammy acting during a scene that featured the KKK’s ambush of two Mont Royal workers. And aside from a few scenes of solid acting, Lesley Anne Down continued her exaggerated take on the Southern belle.

Fortunately, the good outweighed the bad. Ashton discovered that manipulating her second husband, Will Fenway, might proved to be difficult in a well-acted scene between Terri Garber and Tom Noonan. Genie Francis appeared like a breath of fresh air, when her character, Brett Main Hazard attended Constance’s funeral. This episode also featured an outstanding performance by Stan Shaw, in a scene about Isaac’s attendance of a political conference for freed slaves in Charleston. By the way, this particular conference actually happened and was hosted by activist Francis Cardoza, portrayed by Billy Dee Williams. Both Kyle Chandler and Rya Kihlstedt continued their strong screen chemistry, as they played out Charles and Willa’s stormy relationship. And James Read did an exceptional job in portraying George Hazard’s grief over the murdered Constance.

But the episode’s three showcases featured the KKK’s attack upon the two Mont Royal workers – Isaac and Titus, the U.S. Calvary’s massacre of a peaceful Cheyenne village and a kidnapping. Thanks to Peerce’s direction, I found all three scenes very chilling. Grubbs’ hammy acting was unable to spoil the scene featuring the KKK attack. And I could say the same about Szarabajka in the cavalry massacre scene. One last chilling moment featured Bent’s latest attack upon the Hazards and the Mains – namely his kidnapping of young Gus. The entire sequence was swiftly shot, but Peerce’s direction and Casnoff’s performance left chills down my spine.

By the end of Episode Two, I found myself wondering about the fandom’s hostile attitude toward this third miniseries. Granted, the production values of “HEAVEN AND HELL” did not exactly matched the same level as the first two miniseries. But the miniseries’ writing seemed to match and sometimes improve the quality of the writing found in the 1986 series. So far, so good.

“HEAVEN AND HELL: NORTH AND SOUTH BOOK III” (1994) – EPISODE ONE Commentary

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“HEAVEN AND HELL: NORTH AND SOUTH BOOK III” (1994) – EPISODE ONE Commentary.

If there is one chapter in John Jakes’ NORTH AND SOUTH saga that is reviled by the fans, it the television adaptation of the third one, set after the American Civil War. First of all, the theme of post-war Reconstruction has never been that popular with tales about the four-year war. More importantly, fans of Jakes’ saga seemed to have a low opinion of “HEAVEN AND HELL: NORTH AND SOUTH BOOK III”, the 1994 adaptation of Jakes’ third North and South novel, published back in 1987. 

My opinion of the 1994 miniseries slightly differs from the opinions formed by the majority of the saga’s fans. The three-part miniseries failed to achieve the same level of production quality that its two predecessors had enjoyed. But unlike the second miniseries, 1986’s “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II”, this third miniseries was more faithful to Jakes’ original novel – as I had pointed out in a previous article. And to my surprise, I discovered that some aspects of the miniseries were an improvement from the novel.

Episode One of “BOOK THREE” struck me as a solid return to John Jakes’ saga. Not only did it re-introduce some of the old characters from the previous two miniseries, but also introduced new characters. Ironcially, one of the new characters turned out to be the oldest Main sibling – Cooper Main. As many fans know, his character was left out of the first two miniseries. Why? I do not know. But Cooper was introduced as a humorless man, embittered by the South’s defeat. And Robert Wagner gave one of the best performances in the miniseries in his portrayal of the deeply bitter Cooper. Another praiseworthy addition turned out to be Rya Kihlstedt, who portrayed Charles Main’s new love interest, actress Willa Parker. Not only did Kihlstedt did a great job in portraying the idealistic Willa, she had great chemistry with Kyle Chandler, who took over the role of Charles Main. Many fans had howled with outrage over Chandler assuming the role of Charles, following Lewis Smith’s portrayal in the previous miniseries. So did I. But after seeing Chandler do a superb job of conveying Charles’ post-war angst and desperation to find a living to support his son, my outrage quickly disappeared and I became a fan of the actor. James Read gave a solid performance as a grieving George Hazard, who seemed to be having difficulty in dealing with the death of his best friend, Orry Main, at the hands of their former enemy, Elkhannah Bent. Cliff De Young made a surprisingly effective villain as Gettys LaMotte, the manipulative and vindictive leader of the local Ku Klux Klan.

Unfortunately, there were performances that failed to impress me. I got the feeling that director Larry Peerce harbored an odd idea on how a 19th century upper-class Southern woman would behave. This was quite apparent in the performances of Lesley-Anne Down as Madeline Fabray Main and Terri Garber as Ashton Main Huntoon. The performances of both actresses struck me as unusually exaggerated and melodramatic – something which they had managed to avoid in “BOOK I” and “BOOK II”. Fortunately for Garber, she occasionally broke out of her caricature, when portraying Ashton’s more sardonic nature. Down only got worse, when her voice acquired a breathless tone in several scenes, which director Larry Peerce seemed to associate with Southern upper-class women. Fortunately, Down ignored the Southern belle cliche in one effective scene and gave a deliciously sardonic performance in which Madeline revealed the difficulties of maintaining a ravaged plantation in the post-war South to an outraged George. Being a fan of character actor Keith Szarabajka from his stint on “ANGEL” and other television and movie appearances, I was shocked by his hammy performance as a vengeful Kentucky-born Union officer named Captain Venable, whose family had been ravaged by Confederate troops. His performance was one of the most wince-inducing I have witnessed in years.

Episode One possessed some bloopers that left me scratching my head. Cooper’s sudden appearance in the miniseries was never explained by the screenwriters. Neither was the introduction of former slave Isaac, who was portrayed by Stan Shaw. And I am still curious about how Gettys LaMotte learned about Madeline’s African-American ancestry, let alone the other neighbors in the parish. I do not recall Ashton or Bent telling anyone.

Fortunately, Episode One was filled with excellent scenes and moments. One of the scenes that really seemed to stand out featured George and Madeline’s argument about the state of post-war Mont Royal. Charles’ hilarious introduction to a Cheyenne village involved marvelous acting by Chandler and Rip Torn, who portrayed mountain man Adolphus Jackson. One other scene that had me on the floor laughing featured Ashton, who became a prostitute in Santa Fe, kicking a smelly would-be customer out of her room. The episode featured very chilly moments. One of them featured Gettys LaMotte’s creepy rendition of the KKK theme song (I forgot that De Young was also a singer). Another was the murder of Adolphus Jackson and his nephew Jim by a Cheyenne warrior named Scar. But the best scene in the entire miniseries (and probably the entire trilogy) was Elkhannah Bent’s murder of Constance Hazard, George’s wife. I found it subtle, creepy and beautifully shot by Peerce. Also, Philip Casnoff and Wendy Kilbourne acted the hell out of that scene.

Despite some bloopers that either left me confused or wincing with discomfort – including some hammy performances by a few members of the cast – I can honestly say that “HEAVEN AND HELL: BOOK III” started off rather well. In fact, I believe it started a lot better than I had originally assumed it would.