'I believe the miniseries format is healthier than ever," said director Buzz Kulik. "Witness the success of 'The Long Hot Summer.' The audience needs a break from series television."
This is the month to test Kulik's theory.
Following 12 hours of "North and South" and preceding two more network offerings next week ("Mussolini" and "Doubletake"), comes this week's "Kane & Abel" from CBS.
Peter Strauss and Sam Neill star in the three-night, seven-hour adaptation of Jeffrey Archer's best-selling novel from five years ago. Strauss plays Abel Rosnovski, an emotional and ambitious Polish immigrant who soon becomes a driven hotel magnate with a mean streak as wide as the grand foyer. Neill is William Lowell Kane, a Boston Brahmin banker whinadvertently becomes a life-long hate-object for Rosnovski. The story spans about 60 years, starting with the births of Kane and Able on separate continents on the same day in 1902.
"I disagree with David Wolper," said Kulik, referring to the "North and South" producer's assertion that a miniseries needs to be a noncontemporary costume drama in order to succeed. "I think a series (simply) has to be good and interesting."
He has certainly assembled a good and interesting cast. Strauss, a veritable miniseries pioneer in "Rich Man, Poor Man," gets to holler a lot in his Polish accent, a welcome change for him from his previous role as a brooding alcoholic in the multi-part Showtime version of "Tender Is the Night." "It was a pleasure to work with Buzz," he said, "and to do an angry, external character."
Neill, a New Zealander remembered by PBS devotees for his portrayal of "Reilly, Ace of Spies" and remembered by film buffs for his part in "My Brilliant Career" (and preferably forgotten for playing the adult Damien in "The Final Conflict"), has found a comfortable role as the reserved Boston banker.
"Playing contained people is hard," he said. "I understand those people. I am one myself. My family is that sort of people. I was sent off to boarding school as a child and would shake hands goodbye with my father."
Veronica Hamel commuted from the "Hill Street Blues" set to play a widow who becomes Kane's wife. Kate McNeil plays Rosnovski's daughter, who adds heat to the potboiler when she falls in love with the son of her father's mortal enemy.
Fred Gwynne turns in the show's most memorable performance as a businessman who befriends Rosnovski. His Texas drawl is terrific.
The Kane-Abel vendetta around which the show revolves hangs on a slim thread, the sort of simple misunderstanding that could be cleared up in five minutes if the right two characters had a calm five- minute conversation. For some viewers that will be okay, for others tedious.
In either case, Kulik acknowledged that miniseries, which are often plentiful during ratings sweeps months such as November, also are sometimes lengthy. "Maybe," he said, "we learn that from our English brothers who tend to play a moment long."