Old West tales fit for families

Historical dramas about Mark Twain and Laura Wilder grip the imagination

So-called family television is often mere pap. But when two well-made family shows come along in the same week, it reminds us that outstanding storytelling doesn't have to have graphic sex or violence to grip the imagination.

Roughing It (The Hallmark Channel, March 16 and 17, 8-10 p.m.) and Beyond the Prairie II: The True Story of Laura Ingalls Wilder Continues (CBS Sunday Night Movie, March 17, 9-11 p.m.) are delightfully told, and each offers insight into American history as real people experienced it.

The Hallmark Channel (which reaches 44 million households) offers a delicious mix of humor, pathos, and wisdom in "Roughing It," based on Mark Twain's autobiographical account of his youth.

As the wonderful, recently televised biography of Twain by Ken Burns points out, he had always planned to get rich quick. So young Samuel Clemens (Twain's real name) began by prospecting for gold. He nearly succeeded, but a family emergency and crossed messages caused him and his partners to lose their claim. It was a dark moment in his life, until he stumbled into the newspaper business where he "struck it rich" as a reporter with a $25 weekly salary.

The docudrama opens with the elderly Clemens (James Garner, in one of his best performances) giving a talk at his daughter Susie's college graduation. Susie scolds him into good behavior, reminding him not to make a fool of himself at this august occasion. He begins the story of his youth mildly apprehensive of his daughter's opinion.

But when he launches into his reminiscences (young Clemens is played by Robin Dunne), the tales he recounts are inherently wise. They are about human nature at its best, and sometimes at its worst, set against the backdrop of the burgeoning West, where anything is possible.

Clemens has no trouble satirizing his own shortcomings and minor hypocrisies for the sake of his narrative. He runs up against the most notorious killer in the West, Slade (played with icy wit by Ned Beatty), who may or may not deserve his creepy reputation. He partners up with a couple of eccentric miners to find gold, loses his grub stake twice, and wanders off alone. He discovers a kindly mountain man, Henry, who is awaiting his wife's return. Henry's tale is the most poignant, and Adam Arkin makes him a man of great soul.

The whole "lecture" is designed to encourage the graduating class not to easily give up their search for their own identity. The detours Clemens made along the way still ended where they should have - with his writing about those deviations to hilarious effect.

A writer observes people and events, giving them context and discerning patterns of meaning. And that's what Mark Twain did best - capturing all the quirks and contradictions of the individual.

Without judging his characters too harshly, he managed to reveal the whole range of peculiar American behaviors and beliefs. He was often kind, but not always gentle.

Another writer took a quite different perspective on the American frontier. There's quite a contrast in experience and sensibilities between "Roughing It" and "Beyond the Prairie II: The True Story of Laura Ingalls Wilder Continues."

This new television movie takes up where Part I (which aired a year ago in January) left off. Laura (Meredith Monroe of "Dawson's Creek") is now married to Almanzo Wilder, and they set out with their young daughter Rose (Skye McCole Bartsiak, a tiny Meryl Streep) for a better life in Missouri. Laura writes letters to her parents and begins to write the stories that will be published much later in her life.

Little Rose is so bright and loves words so much, it is clear she will become a writer one day herself. And she did: Rose Wilder was the first woman reporter to cover the Vietnam War, says executive producer Dori Weiss.

"I wanted to tell a story about how a writer becomes a writer," says Ms. Weiss about her involvement with this and the first "Prairie" film. "Laura didn't start publishing until she was in her 60s."

Laura and her father were very close, peas in a pod, and when she married Almanzo she set off, as her Pa had done, to make a new life for her new family, Weiss says.

"Laura was a different kind of woman," she says. "She had a unique relationship with her father and inherited his dynamism. But her husband had no interest in training her into becoming a [drudge]. He adored her for who she was."

As the story opens, the little family says goodbye to Dakota and heads for Missouri. There they buy a small farm and plant apple trees with the help of a local outcast - a man driven over the edge by personal tragedy. Little Rose is so much brighter and so much poorer than the other children at school, her life in the new homestead is miserable. But even though the first year is rough, they all love each other through it.

It's an authentic view of family life at its best - only minimally sentimentalized - and that's why it feels worthy of our attention.

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