On one level hilarious and on another level ridiculous, "North and South: Book II," ABC's sequel to last November's "North and South" mini-series, offers further proof -- as if it were needed -- of a venerable television axiom: The only thing that pays better than having no taste is having no shame.
A continuation of the Civil War saga of two wealthy families, the northern Hazards and the southern Mains, "Book II" begins unraveling Sunday night at 9 on Channel 7, runs through Thursday night, then concludes on Sunday night, May 11. ABC made only the first four installments available for preview, but that turned out to be more blessing than inconvenience.
In Part 3, Hal Holbrook as a rather squished-looking Abraham Lincoln says, "We must endure this fiery trial. We must go on." He means there are still three more nights of the mini-series left. More frightening still is a pronouncement from Lewis Smith as Charles Main after a love scene with Kate McNeil as Augusta Barclay. "It's not over, Gus," he says. "It'll go on and on."
This sounds like a direct threat from Executive Producer David L. Wolper. Indeed, there's already talk at ABC of a "Book III" -- the Reconstruction and beyond. Maybe we'll eventually follow the Hazard and Main lines all the way to 2001.
The thing about "North and South" is that it's not really a mini-series in the sense of being a compelling, sustained, panoramic narrative. It's just a collection of bad movies from various genres strung together with the Civil War as totally arbitrary background. Every now and then a stray interesting fact about the war is thrown in (there were spectators picnicking at Bull Run, etc.), but mostly what you get is a Mason-Dixon "Dynasty."
Of all the heaving bosoms on the premises, Lesley-Anne Down's is the most photogenic; it is a veritable leitmotif for the series, the vision that holds it all together. "That is some kinda lady," an admiring Confederate soldier says -- in the vernacular of the 1860s, of course. Down is dazzlingly beautiful, but the character she plays, Madeline LaMotte, continues to be a featherhead. The producers bring back David Carradine as her vicious ex-husband Justin LaMotte and then prematurely kill him off in Part 2, apparently because the villain count got too unwieldy at that point.
Or maybe Carradine's agent just managed to wangle him a pardon. It's like the old joke: Who do you have to sleep with to get off this picture?
Patrick Swayze returns as Madeline's lover, the drearily virtuous Orry Main, who goes off to fight with the Rebs in what he calls "the wo-wa" ("The Winds of Wo-wa" would have been such a better title). Swayze actually has one nice scene, which is an accomplishment in these circumstances: his farewell to his mother, played by the still-regal Jean Simmons, in Part 3. It certainly is not original -- nothing in "North and South" is -- but it has at least a particle of recognizable feeling.
Otherwise, you could learn more about human behavior from a National Geographic special on tarantulas.
Orry Main's good friend is George Hazard, a Yankee equal to him in gentlemanly virtue. The part is played by James Read, who manages to be more colorless than the production itself. Naturally the two pals come face to face across enemy lines, but that's only the second-hoariest of Civil War cliche's. The hoariest is also represented: Two brothers face each other with weapons at the ready. The hoary, the hoary!
Because of the Civil War setting, and despite the fact that it was based on a "novel" by John Jakes, the mini-series often seems to be aping "Gone With the Wind." It even has a Rhett Butler surrogate showing up in Part 4: Lee Horsley as the rascally scoundrel (or is he a scoundrelly rascal?) Rafe Beaudeen. Rafe Beaudeen, Rhett Butler -- get it?
"North and South" is definitive in one sense: It is not too sophisticated for anyone. The most subliterate civilization in the remotest nook of the planet Earth would be able to feel superior to this ploddingly obvious trudge. Certainly no subtlety was allowed to creep its way into Richard Fielder's famous-writers'-school script. "Maybe a little pleasurin'll loosen your tongue!" snarls a sleazy Yankee to a young woman slave in Part 2.
But connoisseurs of silly purple poppycock may get considerable pleasurin' from "Book II" if they decide just to sit back and revel in its awfulness. Along those lines, it has to be admitted that two performances are steadfastly entertaining: Terri Garber as the mischievous Ashton and Philip Casnoff as the aptly named Bent. These two form a partnership in villainy, and every time they pop up with some new devious scheme they raise "North and South" to the level of ultracamp.
Garber has a high time with Ashton's belle tones: "I simply can't abide punch that's lost its potency." "How masterful! A man who takes what he wants!" "Some men have no more sense than a June bug." And so on. She and Bent have their little tiffs, though. "Don't you laugh at me!" he growls effetely in Part 2. "Don't you ever laugh at me. Or I will kill you."
To which she responds with the ever-popular, "Get your hands off of me!"
James Stewart and Olivia de Havilland (shades of "GWTW" again) have tiny cameo roles -- Stewart's is actually minuscule -- as do Linda Evans and Morgan Fairchild. Wayne Newton, of all people, shows up in Part 4 as a sadistic Confederate prison warden ("Ah believe ah told you boys to strip!"). He tells his Yankee charges, "You are lower than scum and you are lower than dirt." They shoot back with a zingy, "You're nothing but trash!"
Was this a wacky war, or not?
The most baffling characterization remains Kirstie Alley as Virgilia Grady, a woman with a lead heart who nonetheless volunteers as a nurse. At one point this headstrong upstart gives Olivia a near-fatal chair topple, which is unintentionally quite funny. At the hospital, Alley stomps around with designer blood smeared on her apron and her hair in a trendy coif.
Clearly, the goal of the filmmakers is to parade past the camera not just every cliche' in the book, but a few that even the book wouldn't have. If you don't see it in "North and South, Book II," then it hasn't been tried, elsewhere, before.
Garbagey and hootable network mini-series are hardly a rarity. What's slightly distressing about "Book II" is that Wolper, for a time, had a reputation as one of the quality Hollywood producers. Now he not only sinks to, but wallows in, this. Wolper has been chosen to produce the festivities at the 100th birthday party of the Statue of Liberty this summer. He's running around the country now insisting it will all be terribly tasteful. That's not very reassuring from a man with no more taste than a June bug. 'Vanishing Act'
Tomorrow being the first big Sunday night of the annual May ratings sweeps, all three networks have scheduled big wowser attractions to entice viewers. The most modest of the three is also by far the most engaging and enjoyable -- the CBS movie "Vanishing Act," a cunning but funny mystery thriller from the productive minds of Richard Levinson and William Link.
The film, at 9 on Channel 9, stars Mike Farrell as a ski resort vacationer who shows up at the local police station to report, "My wife seems to be missing." Married only a week, the woman has disappeared on her 30th birthday. The police chief, played by Elliott Gould, is a transplanted New Yorker who appears to care more about the pursuit of the perfect egg cream than the pursuit of the missing Mrs.
But the plot, if not the egg cream, thickens, and rather deliciously, with a very deft balance of character detail and curious developments. A local priest, played by Fred Gwynne, shows up with the missing wife in tow, but when the couple is reunited the husband has a small complaint. That Woman (Margot Kidder) may have been missing, but she is not his wife.
She says she is. He says she isn't. A local holistic veterinarian and animal therapist (shades of "Down and Out in Beverly Hills") says she isn't but then changes his mind and says she is. With Gould's help, we get to the bottom of this, and the surprise ending is disarmingly satisfying. This is a brisk, clever, completely entertaining little picture.
Farrell is fine, Gwynne is endearingly gargantuan, Kidder is very adept at duplicitous chicanery, and Elliott Gould proves again he is an ideal television actor. Cool and coiled and easy to take, he is also blessed with a face that is a carnival unto itself. Frame it in bunny-slipper earmuffs, and you have sure-fire stuff.
Director David Greene loves to ogle the scenery, but it deserves it, and the picturesque isolation of the location is crucial to the story (it's not tipping you off to tell you that even the casting is part of the authors' trickery). But all those references to "the Rockies" are a little misleading. Those are the Rockies, all right, but the Canadian Rockies; the film was shot in Banff, Alberta.
Ruses are entirely in keeping with the nature of "Vanishing Act," however. Levinson and Link are master rusers, and they've risen to yet another peak. 'The Deliberate Stranger'
As baby-faced killers go, Ted Bundy turns out to be an awful drag. "The Deliberate Stranger," a two-part NBC movie airing tomorrow and Monday nights at 9 on Channel 4, offers yet another exhaustive account of a homicidal sociopath's slaughterous career, but the genre is getting tired now, and viewers may be forgiven for feeling that if they've seen one mass murderer, they've seen them all.
Bundy, who is now on death row in Florida awaiting a Supreme Court appeal, is played by the personable but inadequate Mark Harmon. According to the film, Bundy left a long trail of bodies, most of them young women with dark hair parted in the middle, one of them a 12-year-old girl.
Most of these he sexually assaulted, it is stated, but except for a hesitant indication of possible necrophiliac tendencies (ah yes, such fine family fare for a Sunday night), none of this is portrayed on the screen. In fact, few of the murders are shown. Mostly we see girls walking down streets, the killer's dread footsteps behind them, and then director Marvin J. Chomsky fades to black. The women just disappear.
"Deliberate Stranger" is a study in exploitive compromise. It tries to be tastefully grisly.
Hesper Anderson's script, from an account of the case by a Seattle Times reporter, grows numbingly monotonous very quickly. Scenes of Bundy as the admired, chipper, devil-may-care Everyguy are alternated with scenes from his shadow life, in which he stalks prey in his Volkswagen bug. Interlaced with these sequences are scenes of police detectives huddling and muttering but not doing a great deal that is worth photographing and putting in a movie.
Productions like "Fatal Vision" manage to find some sort of social resonances in their stories of maniacal killers. There's almost none of that in "Stranger." It just keeps wading on through blood, pausing repeatedly to marvel at what a deceptively charming front Bundy put up, or depicting at arduous length the anguish of parents waiting for word on whether their daughters have become the latest victims.
From the boredom, glints of unintentional gallows humor emerge. The police give a mother a positive identification of her daughter. She says she wants to have a funeral mass. A cop says, "Of course there can be a mass, but the bones will have to be returned." A little later, we see mourners emerging from the mass and the detectives show up. Forgive me, but I half expected them to march up to the distraught mother and say, "We'll have those bones now, ma'am."