PBS tries to relive its glory days

They don't tell `Saga' like they used to

TV Preview

October 05, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

The miniseries The Forsyte Saga signals a foundering PBS trying to get back in touch with its roots and re-create the kind of Sunday-night buzz that has been missing on public television since the arrival of another sprawling Sunday-night family saga, HBO's The Sopranos.

As entertainment, the eight-hour adaptation of John Galsworthy's Victorian epic on the Forsyte family delivers most of the goods. There is a great performance by Damien Lewis (Band of Brothers) as Soames Forsyte, the tormented lead character, a lawyer highly skilled in making money but a desperate failure in making love to the woman he weds. There are also very good performances by Rupert Graves and Ioan Gruffudd in secondary roles.

With lavish sets, silk gowns, starched collars, smoldering sex and a grand waltz number featuring elegant couples twirling in splendid syncopation across the floor, there are moments when the series almost feels as if it has it all. But it really doesn't: It's certainly not a "magnificent display of 21st-century production values," as PBS claims in its advertising campaign.

Calm down, PBS, please. What you have here is a nice, big, entertaining miniseries. But this is not a huge cultural event. The landscape of television and culture has changed enormously in the 33 years since the first version of The Forsyte Saga, weighing in at a whopping 26 hours, played on public television to great reviews and an audience that grew week to week.

The history of The Forsyte Saga needs to be mentioned because the success of the original series led directly to the creation of Masterpiece Theatre and PBS' identity for more than three decades as the home of great British drama on American television. That was until Pat Mitchell took over as PBS president in 2000 and started tinkering with landmark series like Masterpiece Theatre, mandating that it do more American drama and moving it to Monday nights. (Can anyone say Wall Street Week with Louis Rukeyser?)

Now, all of a sudden, it's back to British drama on Sunday nights with a passion. Well, actually, passion is the one major problem I have with the The Forsyte Saga: There is not enough of it in the leading lady, Irene (Gina McKee) Forsyte, Soames' wife.

The fundamental plot of the first five hours: Soames loves Irene, but Irene loves Bosinney. That would be Philip Bosinney (Gruffudd), a handsome, young architect engaged to June Forsyte (Gillian Kearney), the daughter of Soames' bohemian cousin, Jolyon (Graves). Soames hires Bosinney to design a grand country home for his increasingly unhappy wife. But instead of falling in love with the new house, Irene falls for the architect

By the time the full eight hours end, no less than four primary male characters have fallen in love with Irene, whom Galsworthy describes as a "heathen goddess."

While I don't know exactly what Galsworthy meant by "heathen goddess," I think it is supposed to suggest a kind of primal energy, sensuality, power or passion. But there is none of that in this Irene.

All cheekbones and luminous skin, McKee (Notting Hill) plays Irene as enigmatic and remote. Even when we see her supposedly letting herself go - first on the dance floor and then in bed with Bosinney - there is barely a lick of passion. This is a serious failing. While some see Irene as representing modernity and the inability of the Soames Forsytes of the Victorian era to reconcile to it, I think she also represents the past - the vitality of the pagan past lost in the march to become a "civilized" nation run by men like Soames.

The miscalculation in casting Irene would probably have killed a lesser production. Here it results in making Saga very good instead of great entertainment. Credit much of that to Lewis whose precisely calibrated performance forces us to see parts of ourselves in Soames even at his most repulsive moments as when he viciously forces himself upon his wife.

Once upon a time in American television, such a rape scene would have shocked us. But, for better or worse, we and television have changed greatly in 33 years - something PBS has yet to figure out.

Tomorrow

What: The Forsyte Sage

When: Tomorrow night and for six successive Sundays at 9

Where: MPT (Channels 22 and 67).

In brief: A big, fat and fine -- but not great -- Brit mini-series.

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