'Heaven and Hell' has good old miniseries feel

February 26, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Now that the scheming and treachery of the war on ice is over at the Olympics, the second great melodrama of February can begin.

The third saga of John Jakes' Civil War potboilers, "Heaven and Hell: North and South III," begins at 9 tomorrow night and continues for a total of six hours Monday and Wednesday nights on ABC (WJZ-Channel 13).

The series is a continuation of the 1985 and '86 miniseries, which made Patrick Swayze a star and brought ripped bodices, heroes on horseback and Southern accents back to prime-time TV.

It's a reminder of just how lavish, ambitious and sprawling prime-time TV used to be before they started pinching pennies and cutting costs. The press kit for this miniseries looks like it cost more to produce than some of the newsmagazines and talk shows on TV today.

"North and South III" won't win any Emmys, just as John Jakes doesn't win National Book Awards. This is the land of one-dimensional renderings only. The women, for example, are all soiled doves or saints in petticoats.

But the series will probably win viewers and hold them the way Saturday matinees used to do, as we see Jakes' characters try to come to terms with emancipation, poverty, racism, the Klan, violence, hatred and one beauty of a villain, Elkannah Bent, played by Phillip Casnoff.

Bent is murdered no less than twice but somehow manages to survive. Serious miniseries fans will remember Casnoff as the actor who played Frank Sinatra in last year's miniseries.

The scenes are short, the characters are simply drawn as either good or evil, and the cast is huge.

Swayze's character, Orry Main, is killed off in the first moments tomorrow night. In an opening scene filled with so much fog that Milton Berle could pass for Swayze, Orry is ruthlessly stabbed to death by his old West Point nemesis, Bent.

His widow, Madeline, played by Lesley-Anne Down, struggles to save her version of Tara, Mont Royal.

James Read, as George Hazzard, is still wandering around looking for the other half of the dollar bill he once split with Orry. Ultimately, he comes South to help Madeline and builds a sawmill for her. Serious fans of antebellum melodrama will remember Scarlett's venture into business, too.

And the bright future is symbolized by Charles Main, Orry's younger brother. He's like Hamlet in that he can't decide what to do after the war. Charles, vulnerable and brave, is played by Kyle Chandler of "Homefront."

This might be the last big miniseries any network offers up in the new world of downsized prime time -- especially if it doesn't rack up big numbers on these closing nights of February sweeps.

Gather your children to watch it -- if nothing else to remind them that not everything on TV needs to resemble an infomercial.

VTC

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