America and the miniseries in infancy

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In a late 1970s "Doonesbury" comic strip, the cartoonist Garry Trudeau imagined the NBC programming wizard Fred Silverman's pitch for a docudrama about the Camp David accords -- starring John Travolta and Suzanne Somers as Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat.

"So they'll have to stretch a little," Mr. Silverman admits.

That episode comes to mind with Acorn Media's recent DVD release of "The Kent Chronicles," a three-part historical miniseries from 1978-79. Depicting the adventures of the fictional Kent family against the backdrop of the evolving American panorama, the production featured, among many others, Tom Bosley as Benjamin Franklin, Kevin Tighe as Thomas Jefferson and Peter Graves as George Washington.

Not to mention William Shatner as Paul Revere.

"The Kent Chronicles" occupies a charmed period in TV miniseries history, firmly sandwiched between the early opus "Rich Man, Poor Man" and the last great entry in the genre, "War and Remembrance." (No, "American Horror Story" doesn't count.) Produced as part of Operation Prime Time, one of many efforts to form a fourth network, the show also capitalized on the mega-popularity of "Roots," a multigenerational saga about a family whose fortunes mirror those of the republic.

The source material was a series of historical novels by John Jakes, who from 1974-79 published eight chunky volumes with bold titles like "The Furies," "The Titans" and "The Warriors." They were such hits that each sold at least 3.5 million copies.

"I approached that whole series with one question: What if this given book was the only book that the reader read about the time period?" Mr. Jakes, 80, said by phone from New York. "Would it be accurate?"

Beginning with "The Bastard," about a young French emigre who under the name Philip Kent becomes caught up in the American Revolution, Mr. Jakes' novels had their debut amid Bicentennial fever and touched a national nerve.

"Permeating the entire series -- whatever villains do, whatever cynicism or greed may appear -- is Jakes' powerful belief in the United States and the principles for which it stands," Mary Ellen Jones wrote in "John Jakes: A Critical Companion" (Greenwood Press, 1996). "The series is, thus, an anodyne to the national disillusionment resulting from political scandals and the war in Vietnam."

Readers devoured the Kent yarns as much for their potboiler qualities as for their message. The books are suffused with adultery, deathbed promises, unlikely chance encounters, secret documents, abductions, revenge, difficult pregnancies, wrongful killings, ample bosoms, contested fortunes and similar staples of pulp fiction. The author pleads guilty on all counts.

"I love melodrama," he said. "I never outgrew my fondness for melodrama."

To further ensure viewership, the TV versions of the Kent saga were stuffed with boldface names. Their sheer profusion is perversely fascinating today, especially with wigs, period garb and foreign accents. Some of the players were major, at least by the standards of the day (Patricia Neal, Buddy Ebsen, Robert Vaughn). Some were less so (Doug McClure, Keenan Wynn, Edie Adams). Some were pure '70s (Peter Bonerz, Robert Reed, Randolph Mantooth). Some were then unknown (Don Johnson, Kim Cattrall, Ed Harris).

And some were inexplicable. As Washington, Mr. Graves evinces his leadership by growling out of the side of his mouth. A 65-year-old Jim Backus has a memorably bizarre turn playing 39-year-old John Hancock.

As for Mr. Shatner as Paul Revere, the once and future Captain Kirk fortunately does not shout, "The British are coming, the British are coming!" But when he does declaim, "The British! Away! And godspeed!" he does so with his trademark halting intensity.

(In a different vein is George Hamilton as the War of 1812's tannest American naval officer.)

Not all the casting was dubious. Speaking only German, Nehemiah Persoff makes a brief but powerful impression as Baron von Steuben in the second installment, "The Rebels." And William Daniels as Samuel Adams in "The Bastard" conveys the firebrand energy that he did as Adams' cousin John Adams in "1776" on Broadway and its film version just a few years before.

"That's because it was the same actor," he said in a telephone interview from California. "I have a corner on the Adamses." Indeed, Mr. Daniels also appears as John Adams in "The Rebels."

The 568 minutes of "The Kent Chronicles" are filled with guilty pleasures. This being a bodice-ripper, it is only appropriate that Olivia Hussey breathily announces as she seduces Andrew Stevens, who plays the family patriarch: "All the dreams you've ever had, all the things you've ever wanted, they're not dreams anymore, Philippe. They're real -- as real as I am! Take me, Philippe, take me!"

Alas, there are only so many of these moments; "The Kent Chronicles" concluded prematurely with Volume 3, "The Seekers," and the westward push following the War of 1812. Mr. Jakes recalled that the series was supposed to go forward with "The Furies," which would have starred Suzanne Pleshette amid the Battle of the Alamo. But that plan expired with the executive producer Robert A. Cinader's death in 1982.

As for the novels, which left off at the turn of the 20th century, Mr. Jakes had intended to extend them to the present day. But he became preoccupied with his "North and South" trilogy.

So for the past 33 years, the televised Kent family has been stuck in time, never to experience the Civil War, the Gilded Age or anything beyond the Era of Good Feelings. Still, you know what they say about the past repeating itself. Surely "The Furies" could be done with Ashton Kutcher as Davy Crockett, Kevin Dillon as Jim Bowie and Christian Slater as Santa Anna.

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