Ellen Gray: 'The Pillars of the Earth' recalls TV miniseries from back in the day

Alison Pill portrays Maud, daughter of Henry I, who's engaged in a power struggle for the throne.
Alison Pill portrays Maud, daughter of Henry I, who's engaged in a power struggle for the throne.
Posted: July 21, 2010

THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH. 10 p.m. Friday, Starz.

WRITING ABOUT television might not have been as interesting back in the days when there were only a handful of channels, but it had to have been simpler.

For one thing, if a TV critic praised or panned a program, chances are it was one most readers would actually have the opportunity to see, assuming the rabbit ears worked.


We get what we pay for (or can otherwise track down), whether it's a first look at "Friday Night Lights" - whose seasons now run on DirecTV's 101 Network before coming to NBC - or another two years of "Damages," which won't be available to FX fans unless they're signed up for DirecTV and its 101 Network.

Want to see more "Torchwood"? Starting next year, you'll need premium Starz, not just digital-basic BBC America, to do it.

Yet as much as I love each of them, those are all niche shows, so-called cult hits that might never have made it as far as they have in a TV universe paid for entirely through advertising.

Without enough of an audience to attract the kind of advertising money that pays for quality, I'm grateful someone's figured out any way at all to keep them in production.

But the divide between so-called free TV and its pricey cousins widens dramatically this week as Starz launches the U.S. premiere of "The Pillars of the Earth," a $30 million, eight-hour miniseries about the construction of a 12th-century cathedral that will play out over six consecutive summer Fridays, beginning and ending with two back-to-back episodes.

Based on the 1989 international best-seller by Ken Follett, which has sold more than 6 million copies in the U.S. alone - and continues to sell about 100,000 paperbacks a year - "Pillars" isn't the miniseries we have come to expect from, say, HBO, which shelled out a reported $195 million for "The Pacific," Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg's follow-up to "Band of Brothers."

Instead, it's the kind of sweeping, old-fashioned miniseries you might have grown up seeing on a network like ABC, which brought Alex Haley's "Roots" to the small screen, as well as Colleen McCullough's "The Thorn Birds" and the Herman Wouk sagas "The Winds of War" and "War and Remembrance."

Ian McShane ("Deadwood") stars as Follett's ambitious bishop, Waleran Bigod, Rufus Sewell ("Eleventh Hour") as the appropriately named Tom Builder and Matthew Macfadyen ("Pride & Prejudice," "Little Dorrit") as Prior Philip, the monk who shares Tom's dream of a new cathedral. They're backed up by a large and accomplished cast that includes Alison Pill ("In Treatment") as Maud, the sometime queen of England, Donald Sutherland as the earl of Shiring, one of Maud's supporters, Sarah Parish ("Mistresses") as Regan, a schemer who wants the earldom for her own family, and Natalia Worner as Ellen, a witchy woman with scores to settle.

It's a sprawling soap opera, set against the background of the struggle between Maud, daughter of Henry I, and her cousin, Stephen (Tony Curran), for the right to rule England after Henry's death.

Most of the real romance is left to the fictional commoners, of course.

The language is occasionally anachronistic, McShane's bishop is perhaps a bit too Snidely Whiplash to be believable and I'm not sure there's a subtle moment in the entire eight hours, but "The Pillars of the Earth" is nevertheless the television equivalent of a page-turner: Once I'd stuck the first DVD in my player, I could find time for little else until I'd finished it.

They just don't make them like this anymore. Or if they do, they may be on a channel many of us don't get.

Acquiring the U.S. rights to "Pillars" for Starz and its 17.1 million subscribers was one of the premium-cable network's first big moves under CEO Chris Albrecht, who used to head HBO, and it's clearly meant to entice an audience of millions who've read Follett's book and its 14th century sequel, "World Without End," into becoming Starz customers.

To that end, the first two hours of the series are scheduled to become available to some 60 million cable and satellite customers starting today, as well as online through Comcast-owned fancast.com. (Check with your provider for details, but for most cable customers it's likely to be found under On Demand.)

Netflix customers have benefited from a deal in which Starz's original programming is made available through instant streaming after it first appears on Starz, an arrangement that appears to include "The Pillars of the Earth," which should be accessible on Netflix the day following the premiere of each week's episode.

Not that Netflix, which reportedly has some 14 million subscribers, is free, either.

But at least if you get hooked after two hours, you won't have to pay any more than you already are to keep going. *

Send e-mail to graye@phillynews.com.

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