"North and South" is a mini-series for people who think that Reader's Digest articles are too complex, Barry Manilow's songs too esoteric, and Jack Kemp's speeches too intellectual. "North and South" is for people who move their lips when they watch TV.
The ABC serial about the two decades leading up to the Civil War runs an unmerciful 12 hours, from Sunday night (at 9) on Channel 7, through Sunday, Nov. 10, skipping Monday and Friday nights. The production suggests a sorry decline for the television network that once presented "Roots" and "Roots II," not to mention "Friendly Fire" and "The Day After." Instead of a would-be consciousness-raiser, "North and South" plunders painful American history for a national wallow in what is by turns tedious, vicious and salacious banality.
This is just what television needed more of, right? Sudsy pulp about degenerate dead-heads. How discouraging that executive producer David L. Wolper, who did "Roots," has now sunk to this. Wolper handily exorcises the good will he earned for producing the festivities at the 1984 Olympics. Nor can he ever utter another word about improving the quality of television after having committed this gauche professional disgrace. David Wolper has become Aaron Spelling.
In an exercise of cynical whorishness, the network's "20/20" news magazine show just happened to profile Wolper flatteringly Thursday night on the eve of the "North and South" premiere.
Publicity for "North and South" tries to dignify it with social significance. Issues of this era would haunt American life for the next century, the network says. It is true that the Civil War never quite goes away, but that's partly because the networks won't let it. Portrayals of the period seem so conducive to sure-fire exploitables like sex, violence and violent sex. "North and South" drops in a few factual footnotes here and there (some abolitionists opposed the election of Lincoln, for instance), but these things are just frost on a mountain of high-gloss smut.
"North and South" is American history as cleavage, the heaving bosom school of antebellum bedlam. As Civil War mini-series go, this one is infinitely inferior to "The Blue and the Gray." It is even inferior to "Beulah Land." That's quite an accomplishment.
For viewers who do make it through all the rapes, brawls, beatings, duels, attacks, bedroom scenes and arduous boring conversations of "North and South," the reward is a goopy booby prize. Even when it ends, it isn't over. Nothing is resolved because it all continues next spring in yet another mini-series of equal length, "Love and War," also derived from the historical "novels" of rich John Jakes.
As for those flashy guest stars, you have to be on your toes to catch them. Although her name is billboarded every night in the credits, Elizabeth Taylor does not appear until Part 5, which airs Saturday night. One of her few lines is, "I hope I haven't kept you waiting." Only for four nights, Liz honey. She plays the madam at a fashionable (if overlit) southern brothel and she's gone before you can say "Raintree County."
Gene Kelly had it even easier. He doesn't even have to get up from behind a desk for his teensy-weensy, itsy-bitsy scene in Part 2 (Tuesday). Johnny Cash and Robert Mitchum also stroll through in tiny cameos. Hal Holbrook's shrunken Lincoln, in Part 6, suggests a man whose stovepipe hat was filled all those years with lead. Jean Simmons, meanwhile, does hang around for nearly the whole thing, but she just lurks. She barely says boo. "Boo" would qualify as a bon mot in the pitifully derivative scripts by Douglas Heyes, Paul F. Edwards, Kathleen A. Shelly and Patricia Green.
Blink and you miss Liz Taylor, but a viewer will get all any viewer could possibly want of winsome Patrick Swayze and squash-nosed James Read. Who are they? They're the stars.
Swayze plays a southerner named Orry Main and Read a northerner named George Hazard. They meet in 1842 as cadets at West Point and become fast friends, or slow friends if you're talking about their brain power. The saga centers on their male bondage. They keep reuniting so as to argue about slavery and the ways of the South, then they make up, then they argue some more, then they exchange insults over which one has the more obnoxious sister. Crucial to the colossal triviality of "North and South" is that no sane person could give a hoot whether this friendship survives or not.
As for the women in their lives, they do have their little problems. Lesley-Anne Down does the most suffering. Orry is her Main man, but her father (Lee Bergere, the epicene butler of "Dynasty") marries her off to sadistic plantation owner Justin LaMotte, played by David Carradine with both nostrils in perpetual flare. Not content to knock her one upside the head, he knocks her downside the head as well, eventually locking her in her room and addicting her to drugs. And why? Just because he feels like it, that's why. It's not only reason enough for him, it's reason enough for the writers.
"Spying slut!" he snarls, just prior to one of her ritual floggings. "By God, I'll show you what it means to be my wife!" he curses, ripping off her clothes and throwing her onto the bed. There's another threat that comes early enough in this torturous ordeal to qualify as fair warning: "You'll suffer," Carradine growls, "as you have never suffered before."
Kirstie Alley seems the actress most eager to embarrass herself on these here premises as Hazard's hazardous sister Virgilia, so fanatical in her opposition to slavery that in one chapter she leads a torch-carrying mob on her own family home because a southerner is a guest inside.
The acting style of the principal players is so hokey and broad that the film suggests a D.W. Griffith melodrama, except of course one so badly and lamely directed and written that Griffith in his weakest moment wouldn't have gone near it. Indeed, an 1890s audience on Capt. Andy's showboat might well have hooted such hoary histrionics off the stage. But a couple of the actors playing villains do work up a certain playful lather in the roles: Phillip Casnoff as a hopelessly obsessive psychopath cleverly given the name of Bent, and Terri Garber as Ashton Main, a devious and frisky vixen who serially entertains the entire graduating class at West Point one chilly silly night.
"Hahahahahaha," she coos to her sister. "Don't be ridiculous. How could ah possibly love just one man?"
Georg Stanford Brown maintains a shred of dignity in the role of a liberated slave. Unfortunately he dies during the raid on Harpers Ferry. Olivia Cole's Caribbean sing-song delivery gives some sort of stature to the demeaning role of Maum Sally.
When you dress black actors up as slaves, you ought to have a compelling reason to do so. "North and South" contains numerous beatings of blacks and several uses of the most distasteful of all racial epithets. It also commits the unthinkable act of suggesting perhaps we should rethink our verdict on slavery. Sure, there were evil overseers who put hot coals on captive slaves' faces (Part 2), but in Part 1, southerner Main tells his Yankee pal Hazard that exploitation of immigrant labor is the moral equal of slavery, and Yankee pal says, "I guess there's probably room for improvement on both sides." Room for improvement? This is what the script passes off as a reasonable interpretation.
"North and South" probably isn't likely to stir up old regional animosities, though, since characters on both sides behave in ways so shatteringly stupid that you can't wait for war to come along and level all of them. Wolper doles out buckets of violence to keep the audience titillated, especially since Fort Sumter doesn't fall until the last miserable hour. In that episode, the evil LaMotte's beatings of his wife become dismayingly graphic; they end when she slashes his face with a sword, the blood spurting out via a makeup trick usually reserved for R or PG-13-rated movies.
I have heard "North and South" referred to as 12 hours of campy fun. If this is campy fun, so was Sherman's march through Georgia. You wonder if the people who made the mini-series are greedy cynics cashing in on low public taste, or hapless dolts who don't know any better. Or part of a sinister alien conspiracy to cure American viewers of their addiction to television. That's about the only conceivable good of which "North and South" would appear capable.