There needs to be a term invented that conveys the message, “You might enjoy this show a lot, if you’re a fan of this kind of thing, as long as you don’t need it to be, in any grand sense of the word, actually good.”
The term “guilty pleasure” doesn’t quite apply to a project like Starz’s The Pillars of the Earth, debuting tonight. The miniseries, based on a Ken Follett novel about power struggles and cathedral building in 12th-century England, doesn’t seem guilty about anything at all, nor does it seem to intend guilt on the audience’s part. It’s positively virtuous, in a way: a big, old-fashioned historical epic of sweep and passion and melodrama, hearkening back to the days of the old you-could-learn-something-from-it network miniseries like Shogun. But despite its epic scale and impressive cast, the miniseries seems out of place and time.
The premise, briefly: England is in a succession struggle (a period called the Anarchy) after a ship disaster killed a royal heir. The intrigue draws in the Church, which is experiencing its own power battle: the very very upright Prior Philip (Matthew Macfayden) rises in the Church and comes into conflict with the very very corrupt bishop Waleran Bigod (Ian McShane). Among the points of contention, the building of a planned massive cathedral. Around the edges of this story comes in a lot of the juicy stuff: warring nobles (one played by Donald Sutherland) with their lusts and shifting alliances, and the trials of poor but virtuous stonemason Tom Builder (Rufus Sewell) who wants to design the cathedral and whose life is complicated by his Wiccan consort Ellen (Natalia Wörner). (I would say Tom Builder is aptly named, but people were aptly named by design in the 12th-century.)
Normally I would be all over anything with Ian McShane in it, but the scale of his character is not up to the scale of the show’s production, nor to his history of playing complex villains. Waleran comes across at first as a scheming, hypocritical bad guy, but once you get to know him, he is really a scheming, hypocritical bad guy. He’s barely a shadow even of McShane’s monarch in NBC’s Kings, let alone Al Swearengen in Deadwood. And so it goes for the rest of the cast: the good guys are very good, the bad guys very bad, the wrongs terribly unjust and the crises melodramatic.
In 1980 on NBC, this show (with the sex and violence heavily cut back) would have been a landmark. But after a decade of complex, sophisticated, morally challenging cable dramas, it’s a letdown. At times it makes even The Tudors seem like a work of subtle restraint.
All that said, the production values are high enough and the history heady enough that the show should appeal to fans of big historical pics willing to overlook some simplistic drama. Pillars can be an intriguing look at a period of history that we tend to see covered more in mythic stories of Holy Grail parodies.
Medieval cathedrals are a fascinating topic and a worthy centerpiece: for their society and a largely illiterate population, they were TV, the Internet, a community center and the front porch of Heaven all rolled into one—a medium and a message whose psychological import is hard to exaggerate. (When one of them suffers a catastrophe in the opening episode, it’s not an exaggeration to say that the effect on the onlookers, with the mindset of their time, is like seeing the collapse of the Twin Towers and then some.) For a casual historical-fiction buff or an old-school miniseries fan, Pillars may well be worthwhile. I just wish its story and characters were better constructed.