Two Television Productions Show What Period Dramas Ought To Be
BOSTON — MANY viewers say they feel weary and a bit manipulated by network television's November ``sweeps,'' the period whose ratings help determine prices paid for commercial air time next quarter. But those who are surfeited with high-viewership-at-all-costs miniseries and specials - and the hype that goes with them - can take heart in two productions airing soon.
``The Return of the Native,'' a version of the Thomas Hardy novel, airs Dec. 14 at 9 p.m. on CBS's Hallmark Hall of Fame. TNT will offer a British theatrical film (it first aired on Sky TV) of Emily Bronte's ``Wuthering Heights'' Dec. 5 at 8 p.m. Both are treatments of classic 19th-century British works.
``Return of the Native'' tells the long, often anguished story of an ethereal, otherworldly girl of the English heath named Eustacia Vye - viewed as a witch by her superstitious neighbors - and her love affair with Clym Yeobright, the man who returns from Paris and is the ``native'' of the title.
Surprisingly, this is the first major film treatment of the Hardy novel, and its love story patterns in some way the earlier novel ``Wuthering Heights.'' In that story, Heathcliff is also an outcast, a ``filthy gypsy'' brought home to a family he grows up among and later seeks to destroy. His famous love affair with the daughter, Cathy (sensitively portrayed by Juliette Binoche), is the heart of the TNT dramatization, but it tells the whole story, going beyond the 17 chapters covered in the famous 1939 film with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon.
The two shows bear a super- ficial similarity to miniseries like the recently aired ``Scarlett'' - CBS's blockbusting, somewhat aimless sequel to ``Gone With the Wind'' - that continued the saga of Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler. All three programs feature noteworthy actors in the main roles. Timothy Dalton, for instance, was one of the few men who could have followed Clark Gable as Rhett and gotten away with it. In ``Wuthering Heights,'' Ralph Fiennes makes a startlingly effective transition from his concentration-camp commandant in ``Schindler's List'' to the brooding Heathcliff. Catherine Zeta Jones is often brilliant in the tricky, demanding role of Eustacia Vye in ``Return of the Native.''
All three shows boast stunning location shots and elaborate, carefully researched costuming.
Glossy, forgettable sequel
``Scarlett,'' however, was a forgettable if triumphant bid for ratings. It earned an impressive 32 share - the percentage of TV sets in use tuned to the show - and its first episode was the highest-rated ``movie'' of the new season. That put ``Scarlett'' ahead of shows like NBC's ``Seinfeld'' and ``E.R.'' (its new hit medical series) and ABC's ``Home Improvement'' and ``Monday Night Football.''
``Scarlett's'' share more than met the level that CBS had guaranteed advertisers who signed on for the show.
But these other two programs, although destined to reach far fewer people, will be serving viewer interests in a way conspicuously missing in ``Scarlett'' and all too rare on the medium as a whole. These presentations are rooted in a credible sense of period, reflected powerfully in character and language. They searingly evoke the prejudice and ignorance of some country folk of the time. Beneath the passionate sweep of the main story lines, the shows capture a little of the novels' subtext of psychological subtleties. And the ironclad social conventions of the period are palpably present in the tone and body language of the players.
Serving TV's real purpose
That's what makes the eccentricities of figures like Heathcliff and Eustacia so explosive: The standards they flout have been made real to viewers. This isn't nearly as true in a miniseries like ``Scarlett,'' which some viewers saw as a modern story in period costume. It was a story set in the past, while ``Heights'' and ``Native'' are stories from the past.
Many viewers have never read the novels and may be motivated to do so by these two programs. Others may have read them, but some I spoke with say they don't remember the plot lines very well. But they also say they carry an impression of the haunting mood, the compelling characters, so human despite the romantic flourishes. If a TV show does little more than offer a taste of that feeling - of Hardy's sense of life and its inexorable forces, or of Bronte's complexity and potent nature imagery - it is serving what should be TV's real purpose.