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ABC's 'Titanic' can't stay afloat with so many stories to tell

Julian Fellowes' overly stuffed script for the 'Titanic' miniseries makes one yearn for the sweeping simplicity of the James Cameron film.

April 14, 2012|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • Julian Fellowes' "Titanic" miniseries revisits the disaster.
Julian Fellowes' "Titanic" miniseries revisits the… (Laurence Cendrowicz / ABC )

Although I never thought I would say these words in this lifetime, what I really missed was Celine Dion.

While watching "Titanic," ABC's ill-paced, sanctimonious and overly stuffed four-part miniseries airing this weekend, it is impossible not to compare it with the James Cameron film of the same name. Completely unfair to screenwriter Julian Fellowes (creator of "Downton Abbey") or anyone else associated with ABC's "Titanic," but as the more than 1,500 folks who lost their lives on that fateful night 100 years ago could tell you, life is often completely unfair.

But where I expected to miss the sweeping cinematic imagery of the ship itself or the absurd but still affecting love story at its center, what I really missed was that crazy theme song. Not because it has insidiously woven itself around the historic incident but because it symbolized a clarity of storytelling utterly lacking here.

Not that I envy Fellowes his task, which was to figure out a way to tell the story of the famous liner that sank in a matter of hours four days into its maiden voyage without putting a tragic love story at its center. A problem he solved by … putting a dozen tragic love stories at its center.

Promoted as telling what really happened the night of April 15, 1912, "Titanic" aims to illustrate the disparate nature of those doomed 1,500 — rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief (or in this case, police-murdering Russian anarchist) — while also touching on the various causes of the tragedy including an out-dated maritime law that allowed too few lifeboats and a British class system that valued, quite literally, the lives of those in first class over those in second; the vast majority consigned to steerage were, essentially, exterminated. Also addressed are the issues of Irish home rule, America as the promised land, the various "celebrities" on board and women's suffrage.

In other words, steamer trunks, duffel bags and jewel cases are not the only baggage weighing down this RMS Titanic.

Each hourlong episode follows a similar timeline, from ship's boarding to assignation with iceberg, intended to allow events to be seen from the perspective of the various characters, some historical and some fictional. Unfortunately, this diminishes whatever natural tension the actual tale still has and makes it even more difficult to keep track of who loves whom and why.

Front and center are Hugh, Earl of Manton (Linus Roache), his glacially snotty wife, Louisa (Geraldine Somerville), and their daughter, Georgianna (Perdita Weeks), who is being taken to New York in hopes she will abandon her feminist leanings. They are tended to by their servants, Barnes (Lee Ross) and Watson (Lyndsey Marshal), who have one of those uneasy alliances that so often turns to love. The Earl's solicitor, John Batley (Toby Jones), is also on board, albeit in second class, to the chagrin of his proud, unhappy wife, Muriel (Maria Doyle Kennedy), who bristles under Louisa's autocratic gaze.

There are dozens of other characters as well, including an Irish Catholic engineer fleeing the oppression of Belfast with his family, the obligatory pert parlor maid type falling for the obligatory romantic Italian porter and, of course, famous folks like Molly Brown. Still, for the record, unsinkable.

So many characters, in fact, representing so many issues — the Russian anarchist's story line is particularly ridiculous — all colliding on the tilting decks and struggling to say the words they never said and get their womenfolk into the boats that it's difficult to care too much about one death or the other (although the children who did not get into boats remain heartbreaking).

Which just adds one more layer of tragedy to that horrible night — the cast is universally fine, but there's honestly nothing much it can do to avoid being swamped with Fellowes' arrogant attempt to capture the social dimensions of turn-of-the-century Britain, oh, and the sinking of this big boat too. Anniversary or not, if you can't think of something interesting to say about the Titanic, you'd be better off not saying anything at all.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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