Tuned In: Famous family dramas debut
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Family drama will be all over cable this weekend with three series premieres: "Camelot" (10 tonight, Starz), "The Borgias" (10 p.m. Sunday, Showtime) and "The Kennedys" (8 p.m. Sunday, ReelzChannel).
Which scheming family gives you the most entertainment for the time spent? To some degree it depends on your areas of interest -- fantasy, distant religious history or more recent political history, respectively -- but none of these projects is a home run.
"The Borgias" is most resplendent with high production values, elaborate costumes and sexiness while "Camelot" and "The Kennedys" retell familiar stories. Each of these programs has its flaws, but all things being equal, "The Kennedys" turns out to be the most engaging drama -- and also the most old-school.
That does not mean "The Kennedys" is great television. It's obvious, shallow, the Kennedy accents are often terrible and actor Greg Kinnear, who plays JFK, sports a hairstyle (or wig) that often looks like it's about to leap from his head. But "The Kennedys" does tell a more coherent, straight-ahead story, using flashbacks to illuminate character motivations.
A lot of ink has been spilled chronicling this hot potato miniseries that was commissioned by cable's History channel then dumped after reported behind-the-scenes maneuvering by members of the Kennedy family. Producers shopped the eight-hour miniseries around, and it was bought by ReelzChannel, owned by the Hubbard family, whose patriarch was a major Republican donor from 2001-08, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
Anyone hoping to learn new dirt on the Kennedys in this miniseries will come away disappointed. JFK is depicted as a womanizer, Bobby's a Boy Scout and patriarch Joe is the ambitious puppet master. Can any of that be considered new information? Seems like the same depiction that's been brewing in American popular political culture for the past 50 years.
Whether it's accurate, that's up to historians to debate, but the miniseries balances its negative portrayals (Joe kisses his secretary/mistress in front of his sons and later in front of his wife; JFK and Jackie pop pain pills; Jack has multiple affairs including one with Marilyn Monroe, which the miniseries suggests may have led her to commit suicide) with more positive attributes (Bobby is Mr. Do-the-Right-Thing; JFK integrates the secret service; Jackie tells one of her kids, "Your daddy just saved the world" at the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis).
"The Kennedys" does not evince the high production values of "The Borgias" or "Camelot" -- much of "The Kennedys" is shot in cost-saving interiors where it's easier to fake period detail -- but it is pulpy fun, playing like "Dallas" with Rose Kennedy (Diana Hardcastle) as Miss Ellie.
Most of "The "Kennedys" production team comes from "24," including director Jon Cassar, writers Stephen Kronish and Joel Surnow and composer Sean Callery, whose "Kennedys" theme song is stirring with moments of malevolence.
Katie Holmes stars as Jackie and looks the part but can't pull off the accent. MVP awards go to Barry Pepper as a soulful Bobby and Tom Wilkinson as a near-mustache-twirling villain as the elder Joe Kennedy.
"The Kennedys" has the look and feel of a 1980s miniseries, and it's not trying to be anything more exalted. Unlike "The Borgias" and "Camelot," its reach does not exceed its grasp.
After Sunday's two-hour premiere, subsequent episodes will premiere at 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday with the final two hours at 8 p.m. April 10.
Locally, ReelzChannel is carried on traditional Comcast systems (Channel 161), Verizon's FiOS TV (Channel 233), DirecTV (Channel 238) and DISH Network (Channel 299). ReelzChannel is not available on Comcast's former Adelphia systems or on Armstrong, but the miniseries is sure to be released on DVD down the road.
Showtime replaces "The Tudors," its Henry VIII costume drama, with another historical drama, "The Borgias," the story of an amoral, licentious, murderous pope and his family.
On the surface "The Borgias" has all the same trappings as "The Tudors": A powerful family with a strong-willed patriarch who wants what he wants when he wants it, whether that's a new fair maiden for his bed or the head of a rival served up on a platter.
But where "The Tudors" had a natural framework and trajectory -- progressing through Henry's wives -- "The Borgias" is a bit pell-mell and almost cartoon-like as Pope Alexander VI -- nee Rodrigo Borgia (Jeremy Irons) -- and his sons send an assassin after the pope's rival, Cardinal Della Rovere (Colm Feore). Through the first four hours of the series, the pope comes off as Wile E. Coyote to the cardinal's Road Runner.
And while the Pope doesn't get Della Rovere in these episodes, he does take down others to the point that every time a new character is introduced, viewers will be forgiven if they see the newbie as the equivalent of a red-shirted crew member from the original "Star Trek."
If you don't mind a cynical story of politics set against a religious backdrop, there is some fun to be had in "The Borgias." Indeed, any opportunity for Mr. Irons to slither about in period garb, sin-filled intentions dripping from his tongue, makes for juicy television.
"God will forgive us, my son," he tells reluctant priest son Cesare (Francois Arnaud), who is charged with bribing cardinals for votes for Borgia to become pope. "But I will not forgive failure from you or your brother. Am I understood?"
"The Borgias" has a somewhat talky, two-hour premiere Sunday night, but it also moves through history at so fast a clip that character motivation is sacrificed. Borgia is crowned pope within the first hour, but the show never bothers to show viewers why, power grab aside, he wants it so badly. Also, he appears to take a mistress within hours of becoming pope when a young woman shows up from seemingly out of nowhere. Imagine how much more satisfying the series would be if it had built to Borgia's ascension to the papacy.
Similarly, there is much telling but little showing why Cesare would prefer to forgo the priesthood.
As "The Borgias" settles in for upcoming episodes, the focus shifts away from a fairly passive pope to his more active family. The show hints at incest to come between Cesare and his sister, Lucrezia (Holliday Grainger) -- they have creepily close conversations -- and Cesare's brother, Juan (David Oakes), plots to ensure the family's wealth by killing off a friendly, charming visitor.
"Here endeth the first lesson," Cesare says in a bit of too on-point melodrama once the deed is done.
"The Borgias" is an adequate soap but one that's also rife with missed opportunities.
FYI: Comcast has an on demand preview for Showtime available to Comcast digital subscribers and on xfinity.com, including "The Borgias" premiere, through April 8.
Syfy is already airing the British import "Merlin." So it's not clear why Starz executives saw a need for another telling of the Arthurian legend in "Camelot." By virtue of airing on premium cable it can be sexier, of course, but it's a lot less graphic than Starz's ultra-sexy, ultra-violent "Spartacus" franchise. Dramatically, "Camelot" also pales in comparison. It's dull and talky and its first three episodes offer few surprises in storytelling.
Written by Chris Chibnall, tonight's premiere episode is filled with awkward exposition, like when Morgan (Eva Green) says, "Who better than you, King Lot, my father's strongest opponent?" Granted, "Camelot" is a period piece, but that dialogue is stilted even on those terms.
The story opens with the death of King Uther by the hand of his angry daughter, Morgan. The magician Merlin (Joseph Fiennes), a master manipulator, gets the king to declare that his illegitimate son should be the new king. Merlin sets out to find the young man, Arthur (Jamie Campbell Bower, "Twilight: New Moon"), who has no idea he's in line for the throne. He's too busy seducing his brother's ex-girlfriend, a tendency that will resurface once he's installed in court at Camelot in next week's episode and meets an already-engaged-to-be-married Guinevere (Tamsin Egerton).
It's somehow perfect that Mr. Fiennes, who starred in the ABC dud "FlashForward," plays a Merlin who is capable of having his own flash forwards that provide glimpses of the future. He uses these to justify the orders he barks at Arthur. Mr. Bower, with his androgynous appearance, makes for a latter-day emo Arthur, more boy than man.
Perhaps television is suffering from an overdose of period costume dramas. Maybe we need more distance from "The Tudors," which ended its run last year. Regardless, this retelling of the Arthurian legend feels overly familiar and there's just not enough that's new or different to make it worthwhile. Save your TV time for HBO's far superior fantasy "Game of Thrones," premiering on April 17.
Fox has renewed "Fringe" for the 2011-12 TV season, putting to rest worries fans had about the future of the low-rated series. In addition, CBS this week renewed "The Amazing Race" and "Undercover Boss" for next season, and Comedy Central ordered two more 13-episode seasons of animated series "Futurama," the first of which will air in summer 2012. FX also re-upped "Justified" and "Archer" for third seasons.
On the other hand, HBO announced it's done with "In Treatment," at least in its current form. The network issued a statement saying the old format -- five half-hour episodes with five patients each week -- is toast, but there are "continued conversations" with the show's producers about other means of storytelling.
Vote for the shows you would keep or cancel in our annual poll at post-gazette.com/tv.
On June 13, WPXI will replace its Retro TV on Channel 11.2 with ME-TV, basically swapping out one syndicated service for another.
Like Retro TV, ME-TV will carry reruns of old TV shows, including "I Love Lucy," "M• A• S• H," "Happy Days" and "The Twilight Zone."
Ken Burns' PBS documentary "The Civil War" was re-released on DVD this week to mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, including an hour of previously unreleased interviews and a companion collector's booklet. In addition, WQED will re-air "The Civil War" at 8 p.m. Sunday through Thursday next week.
Other Civil War-themed programming on Channel 13 will include "American Experience: Robert E. Lee" (10 p.m. Sunday), "Gettysburg: Stories From the Battlefield" (10:30 p.m. Wednesday) and "Stone Soldiers: Saving the Gettysburg Monuments" (10:30 p.m. Thursday).
After a week of contentious negotiations, late Thursday AMC and Lionsgate announced a new two-year deal with "Mad Men" series creator Matthew Weiner for the show's fifth and sixth seasons. But due to delays, it's likely season five of "Mad Men" will not air in late summer, as usual, instead returning in January 2012. ... Back in December we reported that MTV's "Made" would expand to CMT with a new version of the show. A casting call for adults 25-45 will be held Saturday, 10 a.m.-3 p.m., at Pittsburgh Musical Theater, 327 S. Main St., West End. For details visit: www.madecasting.cmt.com. ... CBS stars will tweet on Twitter during some of the network's shows next week. For details, visit CBS.com/Tweet_Week. ... Cable network Logo has acquired reruns of British comedy "Absolutely Fabulous" and will air the show beginning with a marathon at 2 p.m April 16. ... Veteran journalist Robert MacNeil returns to "PBS Newshour" for a six-part report on autism airing during the newscast April 18-26. ... Fox Sports Pittsburgh gets renamed Root Sports today. The change will take effect in the Post-Gazette's TV grids on April 17. ... Pittsburgh company Deep Local created the online experience of controlling a model train for National Geographic Channel's Expedition Week at NatGeoTV.com/expedition.
Today's TV Q&A column responds to questions about "The Closer," "Mike & Molly" and "Entertainment Tonight." This week's Tuned In Journal includes posts on "United States of Tara," "Coal" and "Mobbed." Read online-only TV content at post-gazette.com/tv.
This week's podcast includes conversation about "Mildred Pierce," "Nurse Jackie" and John Wells' gift to Carnegie Mellon University. Subscribe or listen at post-gazette.com/podcast.
First Published April 1, 2011 12:00 am