No one depicts U.S. history worse than U.S. television.
First came last November's "North and South" on ABC, 12 hours of pre-Civil War melodrool that turned out to be the season's most-watched miniseries.
And now, suh, there's mowah--much, much mowah.
Arriving at 9 p.m. Sunday on ABC is the six-part, even scorchier "North and South, Book II," another dozen hours based on another John Jakes novel (appropriately titled "Love and War") and continuing the hot-breathed saga of two epic families.
It is 1861, and the Southern plantation-owning Mains and Northern industrialist Hazards are now on opposite sides in the War between the States, caught up in the gory action, enduring chaos and destruction with a stiff upper lip.
From Bull Run to Lynchburg, though, from Antietam to Petersburg and from Gettysburg to Appomattox, they unleash their biggest firepower between the sheets.
The pivotal characters remain former West Point classmates, Mexican War comrades and business partners Orry Main (Patrick Swayze) and George Hazard (James Read), who are now following their separate destinies, accompanied by separate swells of symphonic music. Coincidentally, they are almost opposite numbers--Orry as a general and adviser to Confederacy President Jefferson Davis and George as a colonel and adviser to President Abraham Lincoln.
Everyone else is progressing as expected, with little shading or gradation:
Orry's sweetheart, the oppressed Madeline La Motte (Lesley-Anne Down), is still good. Madeline's husband, the oppressive Justin La Motte (David Carradine), is still bad.
Orry's youngest sister, Brett (Genie Francis), is still good, as is her husband, George's younger brother, Billy (Parker Stevenson). Orry's conniving other sister, Ashton (Terri Garber), is still bad. George's confused younger sister, Virgilia (Kirstie Alley), is still mostly sort of good, but still also occasionally sort of bad.
And Elkanah Bent (Philip Casnoff), who has envied and despised both Orry and George since their West Point days together, is still bad.
So much for the war.
Well, not exactly. If you want knowledge of U.S. history, however, Books I and II of ABC's "North and South" probably should not head your sources, even though the battle sequences are gorgeous. They're staged with such sweep and scope by director Kevin Connor and photography director Jacques Marquette (and re-enacted by some 1,500 enthusiasts whose hobby is re-creating Civil War battles) that they may be the best ever mounted for American TV.
Although there are some moving emancipation scenes, you get a softened picture of slavery from "Book II" if only because the Main family is so untypically humane that their slaves don't have it that bad.
The rest of "Book II" sometimes borders on the screwy. In a representative absurd scene, for example, Brett rescues her slave, Semiramis (Erica Gimpel), from a Union camp and they escape by disguising themselves as Union troops. Where did Brett get the Union uniforms? Maybe she always carries a couple with her, just in case.
More than anything, this is a story of fighting men and their ladies. At one time or another, everyone seems to pair up in front of a roaring fireplace against a crescendo of violins. A warning: The love scenes are explicitly silly.
The story's most interesting character, and the least predictable--played with some nuance and mystery by Alley--is Virgilia, the Hazard family outcast. An abolitionist and widow of a former slave, she goes to work in a Union army hospital and is headed for a murder charge. Her mind and motivations would make a fascinating character study.
But not here.
The most diverting characters are the vastly overdrawn heavies, personified by the titillating Ashton and that psychopathic twit Elkanah Bent. He woos the greedy Ashton into an affair and a war-profiteering business, but is especially comical while maniacally plotting to assassinate Jefferson Davis and take his place.
When it comes to mad and bad, though, no one rivals whip-wielding Justin La Motte, who has lost not a single sneer since Book I. As a bonus, he now has long stringy hair, giving him the appearance of a studied Lon Chaney. This is the performance of Carradine's career, making his early exit a blow from which "Book II" never fully recovers.
Looming ahead, though, is another heavy--devastatingly played by Wayne Newton.
After Sunday's opener, "Book II" continues Monday through Thursday nights at 9, with the conclusion airing the following Sunday at 9.
ABC is boasting about this being the first time that dramatizations of a best-selling novel and its sequel have been aired in the same season. Executive producer David Wolper doesn't match his "Roots" here, and "Book II" is also considerably less than "Gone With the Wind." But frankly, my dear, when the ratings are good, ABC doesn't give a damn.
On, suh, to Book III.