Two miniseries manage -- partially -- to recapture the ancient past

Television is so often accused of turning viewers into passive zombies, it is sometimes overlooked that certain television also has the unique knack of turning spectators into active participants. Television is so contemporary that it seems to project the present into an instantaneous future -- and what we sometimes forget is its magical ability to project the past into the present and vice versa. Usually through programs, dramatic or documentary, which try to put long-distant events into universal, timeless perspective. Two miniseries airing next week try -- and both succeed and fail to some extent. But, both are well worth noting -- if not watching in their entirety:

``A.D.'' (NBC, Sunday 8-11 p.m.; Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, 9-11 p.m.; Thursday, 8-11 p.m.) and ``Ancient Lives'' (PBS, Monday April 1, 8-9 p.m., and for three succeeding Mondays, check local listings). `A.D.'

``A.D.'' picks up where NBC's ``Jesus of Nazareth'' left off, spanning the years AD 30-69. According to producer Vincenzo Labella, also the producer of ``Jesus of Nazareth'' and ``Marco Polo,'' the focus of the miniseries is ``the rising confrontation between the mighty Roman Empire, Jewish zealots, and the early Christians.''

Let me assure you first off -- ``A.D.'' is not a campy, cutesy bit of fluff like the recent ``Last Days of Pompeii.'' It is a serious (perhaps too deadly serious) attempt to authentically re-create the years following the Crucifixion, written with authenticity by Labella and Anthony Burgess.

Utilizing a vast array of famous and interesting if not always superbly skillful actors, the panoramic miniseries ranges from Jerusalem to Rome to Capri and back to Jerusalem. In the journeying it traces the simple lives of ``ordinary'' disciples as well as the outrageous lives of such characters as Tiberius, Caligula, and Nero.

James Mason as Tiberius, Anthony Andrews as Nero, Denis Quilley as Peter, John McEnery as Caligula are especially good.

Ava Gardner as Agrippina (Nero's mother) is surprisingly effective, but Jack Warden sounds more Seventh Avenue than Appian Way, and John Houseman sounds more Professor Kingsley than Rabbi Gamaliel.

If ``A.D.'' is slow getting started in Jerusalem, it perks up considerably on Capri and in Rome. Whether you like it in part or as a whole, you cannot help but admit that ``A.D.'' is a serious attempt to bring the social fabric around the year AD 50 into vivid perspective.

Viewers who stick with it will learn much about the everyday life of this early period of Christianity . . . and they may even be entertained as well. `Ancient Lives'

PBS is taking viewers back even farther -- 3,000 years. The four-hour, four-part miniseries, ``Ancient Lives,'' brings daily life in ancient Egypt to life vividly, if a bit repetitively.

In the first of the series, host John Romer, an enthusiastic Egyptologist and amateur archaeologist, delves with a seemingly unsatiable curiosity into the private lives of the people who built the tombs in the Valley of the Dead. In later episodes he includes everything from erotic papyruses to famous tombs as well as the search for still-undiscovered pharoah's tombs.

``Ancient Lives,'' produced by Central Independent Television of England, is a presentation of WTTW in Chicago. It is filled with fascinating facts and the feel of arid terrain overflowing with lush Nile-based activity.

Viewers will learn much about life in this unique Egyptian civilization which has fascinated the world for thousands of years. But ``Ancient Lives'' could have been tightened to around two solid hours, thus freeing up a couple of hours for our own contemporary lives.

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