"Bluegrass" has an immediate credibility problem. As any Kentuckian knows, Louisville is pronounced Lou-vul , not Louie-ville .
Probably no one will approach this undistinguished two-part CBS drama (9 p.m. Sunday and Monday on Channels 2 and 8) seeking enlightenment, however. They'll tune in for its amorously intricate quintuplicate:
Determined Maude Sage Breen (Cheryl Ladd) is loved by earnest Dancy Cutler (Brian Kerwin), but is seduced by lecherous Michael Fitzgerald (Anthony Andrews), to the dismay of Fitzgerald's cynical lover Irene Shipleigh (Judith-Marie Bergan), whose ruthless husband, Judge Lowell Shipleigh (Wayne Rogers), once tried to rape Maude in a stable.
There's also a sub-romance between stable boy Merlin Honeycutt (Kieran Mulroney) and stable girl Alice Gibbs (Shawnee Smith)
More importantly, there are the horses.
In fact, romantic relationships merely share the center of Mart Crowley's "Bluegrass" script, which has Maude rising from humble origins as the daughter of a Lexington horse-farm worker to become a major figure in the Kentucky thoroughbred industry. But it isn't easy.
Returning to Lexington from New Mexico as a wealthy widow hoping to breed, train and race top thoroughbreds, she faces initial skepticism from her attorney (Arthur Rosenberg) and others, dirty tricks from her conniving neighbors, the Shipleighs, and snobbery from the local horse set.
"They can freeze me out socially," declares Maude, "but they can't freeze me out professionally."
With Dancy, the reformed alcoholic managing her Outlaw Farms, and with a few other loyal employees for support, Maude overcomes crisis after crisis en route to thoroughbred glory and a shot at the Kentucky Derby, her fortunes ultimately resting on the outcome of a 2-minute race. And then it's hanky time.
Based on a novel by Borden Deal, "Bluegrass" manages to dull some of the glamorous thoroughbred industry's surface shine, showing the bottom-line business environment, the adversarial fervor, the high risks and the heartbreaks associated with failure.
Essentially, however, "Bluegrass" is your routine story about an underdog who bravely endures hardship to win out in the end. It's a predictable exercise, separated from the pack only by its having been filmed on location in the rolling magnificence of Lexington horse country.
But is "Bluegrass" a total loss? No.
Horse and Stephen Foster lovers, stay tuned. There is some nice, tender footage here of a foal being born--a thrill no matter how many times you've seen it. Moreover, thoroughbreds kicking up their heels are always a sight to see. And although the "Bluegrass" racing footage is unremarkable, its Churchill Downs sequences are so sweetly and genuinely atmospheric that you may feel a lump in your throat even before the Kentucky Derby is run.
Unlike his work in the lovely Australian horse racing film "Phar Lap," though, director Simon Wincer is unable to sustain in "Bluegrass" a level of intensity that keeps you occupied much beyond the pretty scenery. The passionate words are there but, for the most part, the energy is not.
It's not that Ladd turns in a bad performance, only that she's uninspired, except for one very nice scene in Part 2 when Maude's firm resolve briefly cracks and she makes trainer Brock Walters (Jerry Hardin) promise not to reveal her tears. What's more, there is absolutely no chemistry between Ladd and Andrews, a fine actor who's squandered here as a vaguely written Irish playboy.
Kerwin does much better, conveying an attractive vulnerability as the former drunk Dancy, and Mickey Rooney contributes a nice turn as a colorful businessman.
If you're looking for show stealers, though, heading the list (discounting all horses) is Rogers, who seems to have found his niche as a menacing villain. His vicious, corrupt Lowell Shipleigh is a portrait of exquisitely unrepentant rottenness: "I'm a judge. I don't go to jail. I put people in jail." Maybe.
And they're off.