An "Irish 'Roots'" that's to epic for its own good
"O'Roots" is how the Irish newspapers referred to "The Manions of America" when that mini-series was filming in Ireland. This ABC romantic drama, which chronicles the lives of an Irish immigrant family a la "Roots," airs from 9 to 11 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, Friday -- Sept. 30 through Oct. 2 -- check local listings). Created by Agnes Nixon, one of the nation's foremost writers of daytime serial drama (also known as soap opera), this mini-series is filmed entirely in Ireland and based upon tales heard by Miss Nixon during her childhood. It has the epic feel of such past massive audience-winners as "Roots" and "Holocaust."Skip to next paragraph
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In following the tale of the Manions from potato-famine time from 1845 until the American Civil War, Miss Nixon (the creator of "All My Children" and "One Life to Live") chose Rosemary Anne Sisson, who wrote much of "Upstairs, Downstairs," to bring the story from idea to script. I have seen the first three hours -- and it is beautifully photographed picture of rough days in Dublin and a rough beginning as immigrants in America.
Featuring such fine actors as Kathleen Beller, Pierce Brosnan, Linda Purl, Anthony Quayle, Steve Forrest, and Kate Mulgrew, the six-hour drama is, like its popular predecessors, a mixture of good and bad, sensitivity and insensitivity, melodrama and drama, entertainment and monotony. But in the long run it's so monumental an endeavor that one becomes almost amused by its persistent tempstuousness and its determination to squeeze every possible ounce of angst and turmoil from the epic story of an immigrant family finding its way to American financial and social glory.
Miss Nixon, the one responsible for the story line, has always been a fascinating figure to me since she has become known in the TV industry as "the Queen of the Soaps." I was anxious to chat with her not only about "Manions," But also about soap opera -- and the harm so many people and feel it does by daily feeding its audience large doses of what many consider immorality or, at best, amorality.
What would Miss Nixon consider success for "The Manions of America?"
"Aside from numbers? That people will be entertained and educated, that those who watch will come to understand our country better and the melting pot that we are and must be."
It is clear that Miss Nixon, a skilled worker in her chosen medium, regards television as a business in which her main goal is to attract as many people as possible, while at the same time atrracting as little negative attention from watchdog groups as possible. She seems honestly to believe that she is helping people solve their real problems by creating prolems on TV and explaining them daily on soaps.
A slim charmer of a mature woman, Miss Nixon is endowed with a determination to answer straightforwardly, if a bit defensively, all of my sometimes touch questions.
"First of all," she said coolly -- after I had (tactfully, I thought) referred to soap opera as "daytime continuing dramas" -- "I don't consider 'soap opera' a denigrating term.I've done them for 25 years and I feel that they deal with the actual problems people face more honestly than most prime-time shows. And perhaps sometimes that is uncomfortable for some people."
But couldn't soaps be leading viewers into accepting attitudes they might not otherwise accept, because of the implication that the kinds of lives portrayed on soaps are actually happening all over the country?
"Why are you so certain that these things are limited to New York?" she responds, and proceeds to name a long list of delicate problems faced on soap opera, never faced head-on in prime-time TV. "That's what is happening out there," she insists.
"As an example, six or seven years ago, the New York Times had an article on teenage prostitutes. . . . And eight weeks later we had the story of the rehabilitation of a teenage prostitute on the air in a soap. . . . We had the time to do it properly -- eight or nine months to show why this girl had run away from home. Out of that, came our next story line about child abuse."