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HOWARD ROSENBERG / TELEVISION

One Priest, One Cop, Two Misses

February 09, 1996|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Father Ralph vs. Det. Jane.

"The Thorn Birds" is the second highest rated miniseries in history with Nielsens that trail only "Roots." And now, coming soon to your television screen, again courtesy of producer David L. Wolper, more of Richard Chamberlain as tormented, love-struck Father Ralph de Bricassart in "The Thorn Birds: The Missing Years."

Not missing long enough.

Absent too long, though, is England's "Prime Suspect," starring Helen Mirren as a police detective superintendent in an intricately plotted, supremely executed, transfixing occasional series from Granada Television that has helped energize PBS drama in the '90s. It's back for a second single-episode stint this season, all right, but only sort of, for the "Prime Suspect" resuming Sunday on "Masterpiece Theatre" opposite "The Missing Years" is an impostor--a looks-like, walks-like, sounds-like automaton that lacks the brain, passion and nerve-jangling intensity of the previous stories that displayed formidable Jane Tennison for U.S. audiences.

This time Tennison is working in the London boonies, pushing her way into a grisly murder case that involves the suburban country club set while again antagonizing a sexist male colleague. Although the driven, obsessive Tennison remains magnetic, this is the thinnest, most predictable, least appealing "Prime Suspect" yet, famished for plot and mystery and far, far beneath the quality of its predecessors.

At least "Prime Suspect" still has that fine actress, Mirren, reason enough to tune in and see for yourself what's what. As for "The Missing Years," no strong reasons for watching immediately come to mind.

As if its Tuesday night movie with Tori Spelling as a coed hooker who held men in her power weren't enough, CBS has cooked up something even more stupefying for evenings ahead: "The Missing Years" takes place in 1942-43, featuring most of the major characters "The Thorn Birds" previously depicted from the 1930s to 1962, as if the latter's fast-forwarding through their lives in the '40s somehow short-sheeted epic figures of literature.

Thus, if you've been waiting 13 years for greater detail about the middle years of a wayward priest and the fetching female who diverted him from matters spiritual--even though they were polished off in the original series--this gurgling two-parter is for you.

At least CBS is not repeating the mistake that ABC made in 1983 when it angered many Catholics by selecting Holy Week to air its tale of the Australian outback, where Father Ralph broke his vows of chastity with a sultry young virgin named Meggie Cleary.

Moreover, "The Missing Years" happily is six hours thinner than ABC's 10-hour fatty, which was based on a novel by Colleen McCullough. Amanda Donohoe's new Meggie is more persuasive than Rachel Ward's original Meggie. The filming this time is actually in Australia instead of Simi Valley and Hawaii. And except for an occasional clunker imposed on poor Father Ralph when he speaks to Meggie ("Every moment--waking, sleeping, praying--you've been in my heart and in my mind"), the story is unburdened of the tonnage of camp dialogue that buckled its predecessor.

Love it or leave it, what's more, there's something refreshingly nostalgic about television as old-fashioned as "The Missing Years," recalling earlier times when networks pegged their fortunes on movies and miniseries that didn't traffic in terrorized females and other gory horrors.

But c'mon! This is really dreadful stuff.

Father Ralph resurfaces here initially as an archbishop in Rome, heroically saving Jews from fascist Mussolini's black shirts, yet still so haunted by Meggie that he begs God to "take this burden from me." Like . . . sure.

Instead, the Vatican has him arrange resettlement of Jewish refugees in Australia, returning him to the site of his flesh-lust--the church-owned sheep spread managed by Meggie, where she lives with her nasty twit of a daughter (Olivia Burnette) and 10-year-old son (Zach English), whom the priest doesn't know he fathered.

Uh oh.

At the train depot, Father Ralph's and Meggie's eyes lock like magnets, and soon the Jews he risked his life for in Rome are out of mind. Besides Meggie, very much on his mind is her cruel, anti-Catholic, misogynist of a husband, Luke (Simon Westway). In an amazing coincidence, Luke also returns after a decade's absence, just in time to snarl repeatedly at Father Ralph and force a bitter custody fight after Meggie declines his invitation to share his life in bumpkinville. What a yutz.

No wonder that Father Ralph mopes and groans through this calamitous, angst-ridden melodrama, his shoulders drooping under the weight of his own suffering and his words heavy with pain and confusion.

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