Approximately equal heaps o' faith and begorra are required to get through it, but the first mini-series of the new fall season, ABC's "The Manions of America," is just lusty, fusty and fatuous enough to be quite entertaining. Like much that's on television, it's fitfully satisfying so long as it isn't mistaken for something worth doing.
Soap opera impressario Agnes Nixon ("All My Children," "One Life to Live") "created," as the network puts it, this six-hour saga about the founding of an Irish-American dynasty, airing for three successive nights starting tonight at 9 on Channel 7. How nice it must be to "create" things without actually having to write them. The screenplay is by Rosemary Anne Sisson and the novelized paperback puts the billing this way: "Agnes Nixon's 'The Manions of America' by Rosemary Anne Sisson."
Imagine if a hundred years ago or so Herman Melville had gone out and hired himself a writer and told him to dash off something about a big white whale and a crazy sea captain. We'd have "Herman Melville's 'Moby Dick' by Ishmael Irving."
Nixon, who gave the longest and most self-congratulatory acceptance speech at this year's Daytime Emmy Awards, has thrown familiar soap opera elements into this production, which also owes something to gothic novels about women who go into major swoons over swarthy fellows. This is supposed to be a story about the Irish who emigrated to America but, not very deep down, it's really just another excuse for brawling and whoopie. They might as well be Newfoundlanders or Bosnia-Herzegovinians.
Not very far into the first episode, one couple is rolling about on the grass and another is a-smoochin' by the olde creeke. Thus the course is set, and held.
And of course the characters get to say very Irishy things like "Michael O'Connor, what the divvil're ye doing?" and "Put the wind to yer back!" Aye, methinks I also heard a wee broth of a lad say, upon entering a cabin, " 'Tis pouring, and here's a horse!"
Some highly presentable actors are caught up in all the tumbling and coupling, including stalwart Linda Purl and fierce-eyed Pierce Brosnan as a poor brother and sister, Kate Mulgrew as a wealthy Englishwoman sympathetic to the persecuted Irish (there are a couple of decent Brits carefully interpolated into the story), and Simon MacCorkindale -- that dashing blaggard in cahoots with Mia Farrow in "Death on the Nile" -- as a British soldier who takes a large shine to Purl.
The story starts during the potato famine of 1845 and in some ways resembles "Upstairs, Downstairs" as it chronicles the contrasting fates of the poor and the rich; they might have called it "Indoors, Outdoors" as the poor folks spend much of their time running about the fields. There are births, deaths, shootings, lootings and shouting -- all of it kept as turbulent as a rinse cycle by director Joseph Sargent ("The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3").
Soaps have been considered marketable prime-time fare ever since "Dallas" started attracting enormous audiences on Friday nights. Even daytime soaps seem to be growing in popularity, despite the fact that with more women in the work force, daytime viewing audiences are going down. It may be that soaps are expanding their target audience to include the newly arrived ranks of men in the daytime; today some of the soaps look more like James Bond movies or True Detective stories.
No less a luminary than Elizabeth Taylor is about to join, if briefly, the cast of a daytime soap. Taylor, a fan of the top-rated "General Hospital" on ABC, will appear on two episodes of the serial to be taped "sometime in October," according to an ABC spokesman. Taylor will be playing a character, not just making a glamoroso guest appearance as herself.
The problem with daytime soaps also afflicts "Manions." Even though the mini-series has been handsomely filmed, and ABC shelled out enough bucks to send the company to Ireland for location shooting, the story still boils down to an arbitrary succession of calamities and hysterics. At times viewers may feel like they are watching a six-hour commercial for Irish Spring deodorant soap, except that there is some sort of mad trauma about every 12 minutes or so.