Titanic: Blood And Steel debuts tonight on Encore at 8 p.m. Eastern, airing two episodes a night through Saturday.
Encore’s developing reputation as a way station for secondhand but worthwhile TV events takes a serious, self-inflicted hit with Titanic: Blood & Steel. (It’s already been shown in Germany, Denmark, Italy, and Canada.) The miniseries format, which allows for self-contained storytelling with a much longer running time than a conventional movie, has been the backbone of the TV renaissance of the last several years; some of the best recent multi-season shows, such as The Wire, could even be seen as a series of linked, multi-volume miniseries. At 12 hours, Titanic: B & S (hey, I’m sorry, but you try to find a better way to shorten it) is fully as long as most seasons of The Wire, but the secret to making something as good as The Wire is to map out the story you want to tell. In order to convey the meaning that each episode is expected to carry, you must figure out how much space needs to be devoted to each character and each development in the narrative.
It’s a process that must involve a lot of torturous pruning and shaping. Titanic: B & S looks as if its creators settled on how much airtime they would agree to fill, then picked out which stock characters they would use to populate the sets, and just started throwing soap-opera complications at them until the clock ran out. It’s a throwback to the Jurassic era, when TV networks defined a miniseries as something that ran a week, featured recognizable actors in period costume, and had James Michener’s name in the title. It may be of some interest to those who are nostalgic for 8-track tapes, VHS cassettes, the Comics Code Authority, and other stumbling blocks on the way to progress. Most other viewers will get fair warning about what they’re in for during the opening credits, when they see Chris Noth wearing a walrus mustache that appears to have been assembled from belly-button lint.
Because people who like to clear their calendars to watch a ship sink already have a number of viewing alternatives readily available at Netflix, Titanic: B & S opts to tell the story of how the great ship came to be built. The central figure is Mark Muir, a hot-blooded young scientist who loves him some metallurgy. (He is played by Kevin Zegers, in a mustache that makes him a ringer for J.R. Ewing III.) Noth—who looked much more comfortable wearing a toga in his last big historical miniseries, the 2002 version of Julius Caesar—plays J. P. Morgan, who hires Muir to help supervise construction in Belfast. Little does Morgan or anyone else know that Muir is actually Marcas Malone, a fine broth of a boy who fled Belfast to make a new life for himself in America, leaving behind a pregnant girlfriend and a drunken old father.
He reconnects with his father, who comes in handy whenever the show needs to sum up all the misery of the downtrodden Irish working class in one pathetic face, but his girlfriend has died, after giving birth to a daughter. Muir makes noises about how important it is that he find the child, but he already has a full plate at work. His secret background as a poor Irish Catholic makes him damaged goods to the snobbish Englishmen and Irish Protestants who think they’re in charge, and when the truth comes out, his job is in peril until Morgan stomps back onto the set and reminds the snooties that it’s the 20th century and he, the American, is the one paying for this shit show.
Poor Muir also needs all these women to back up off him. He does a little flirting with Neve Campbell, playing a reporter whose “modern woman” outfit and hairdo make her look like Fran Lebowitz impersonating Oscar Wilde. Recognizing his limitations as romance material, she tells him, “You’re the guy who never wants to get serious unless it’s with a boat.” “Ship,” he corrects her. Muir also has a brief but steamy affair with Kitty, a saucy pussycat of a rich girl played by an actress with the “Top this, Ian Fleming!” name of Ophelia Lovibond. (When her dullard of a fiancé confronts her over it, she sniffs, “Did you really think I was coming virginal to the marital bed?”) But she’s just a momentary distraction from his finding true love with a progressive-minded Italian named Sofia (Alessandra Mastronardi, the newlywed bride in Woody Allen’s To Rome With Love.) For her part, Sofia is pursued by her father’s apprentice, Andrea (Edoardo Leo). He’s a nice guy, but she refuses his marriage proposal because she doesn’t love him, causing Papa to indulge in much hand-waving and yelling about how the family is being disgraced.
Titanic: B & S presumes to have something to do with class tensions and labor disputes. Derek Jacobi plays the head of the shipyard, Lord Pirrie, a Santa-like idealist whose hope is that the Titanic will become “a symbol of what might have been achieved if differences are set aside” and “a cause for rejoicing in the hearts of men.” (Like many a starry-eyed dreamer, this pig-ignorant, sugary old coot discovers that he does not live in the best of all possible worlds and swings all the way over to extreme disillusionment, saying things like “So much for political democracy!” and vowing to never vote for Obama again.) Liam Cunningham gives the series’ best performance, by far, as the labor leader Big Jim Larkin. Or at least he suggests that he’d be able to give a memorable performance, if he had anything to do besides make roaring speeches that are meant to fire up the other, duller characters.
The way that Cunningham’s Larkin stays peripheral to the real action is the tip-off that the stuff about capital and economic justice is only there to provide for action and melodrama, to allow for scenes in which extras fight it out in the streets, in riots and brawls that can be used to knock off inconvenient secondary characters. These head-cracking mob scenes are meant to provide some relief from the main story, which, stripped of the family drama and other crap, come down to a bunch of arguments about whether the steel being used in the construction of the ship is up to snuff. One might think history has established pretty conclusively that it wasn’t, but Titanic: B & S isn’t meant to be a historical expose about the builders’ incompetence. Muir and the other people at the center of the enterprise are hard-working and honorable, and though some time is given to the decision to stock the ship with too few lifeboats, the basic impression given is that the iceberg that sunk the ship would have taken out King Kong. The series ends with the Titanic setting out to sea, with many of the characters we’re now supposed to care about onboard, and maybe the producers are hoping that there’ll be a clamor for a sequel, so we can see who made it and who wound up floating alongside Leonardo DiCaprio’s bluish, bloated corpse. I’d rather watch a 24-hour miniseries about the formation of the iceberg.