Titanic 

Titanic debuts tonight on ABC at 9 p.m. Eastern.

The screeners of Titanic supplied to critics begin with the following plea from ABC: “As always, we kindly ask that you not reveal major plot points to our viewers.” Sorry, ABC, but I’m afraid there’s no way around it this time. I can’t think of any way to discuss this four-hour miniseries without revealing its central twist: The ship sinks.

Actually, this fairly major plot point comes surprisingly early in this oddly structured retelling of an all-too-familiar story. Although Titanic is airing in the U.K. as four weekly one-hour episodes, ABC has made the peculiar decision to lump the first three hours together tonight, with the final hour airing tomorrow. The British model makes much more sense, as each of the four episodes builds to the same climax, as seen from different points of view. Credit for that creative decision goes to screenwriter Julian Fellowes, best known for his script for Robert Altman’s Gosford Park and, of course, for creating Downton Abbey. Fellowes’ pet theme—perhaps his only theme—is the state of the British class system circa the early 20th century. So it should come as no surprise that Fellowes has again implemented his favored Upstairs/Downstairs dynamic in this re-telling of the Titanic story.

The first hour is primarily concerned with the upper crust, including imperious Lord Manton (Linus Roache), his almost psychotically snobby wife Lady Manton (Geraldine Somerville), and their free-spirited suffragette daughter Georgiana (Perdita Weeks of The Tudors). While Georgiana strikes up a romance with wealthy American scion Harry Widener, her mother frets about the poor class of people she’s forced to rub shoulders with, most notably her husband’s lawyer John Batley (Toby Jones) and his earthy wife Muriel (Maria Doyle Kennedy). It feels like these stories have just gotten underway when, toward the end of the first hour, the iconic moments from the Titanic story begin to play out in rather abrupt and unconvincing fashion. The ship scrapes an iceberg. The crew begins evacuating the passengers, lowering half-full lifeboats into the ocean. The order “women and children first” somehow becomes “women and children only.” The band plays on.

Without knowing Fellowes’ plan for the rest of the series, all of this seemed very sudden to me. I wondered if this was going to be a different take on the Titanic tale, concerned mainly with the aftermath of the disaster. That proved not to be the case when the second hour began by turning back the clock to the construction of Titanic in Belfast. Now the focus shifts to the steerage class, including Jim Maloney (Peter McDonald), his wife Mary (Ruth Bradley), and mystery man Peter (Dragoș Bucur), with whom Mary develops an illicit connection. Scenes from the first episode play out again from different perspectives, filling in some missing details. With the third hour, devoted mainly to the servant class, some of these same scenes recur again, playing out almost in full. By now it’s clear that what we’re watching is basically a tony soap opera, or a stiff costume-drama version of an Irwin Allen disaster picture from the 1970s.

Because the 100th anniversary of the Titanic sinking is also being commemorated with the re-release of the most popular version of the story (in an upgraded 3-D format, no less), it’s probably just as well that Fellowes and company make no attempt to compete with James Cameron on the level of spectacle. Even with the advances in technology since 1997, there’s no way a television miniseries could come close to matching the budget of what was, after all, the most expensive movie ever produced at the time. For the most part, director Jon Jones avoids anything resembling an action sequence, and while the meshing of sets and green-screen CGI is mostly serviceable, the seams do show from time to time. The most effective moment from a visual standpoint is the ship’s final descent into the ocean, which plays out in background darkness like the death throes of some leviathan from the deep.

Instead, the focus is on character and theme, with decidedly mixed results. Although Titanic offers a handful of strong performances, notably from Weeks and the ever-reliable Toby Jones, most of the actors struggle to breathe life into stereotypical characters. Just as there are too many passengers for the available lifeboats on Titanic, there are too many storylines playing out in all sections of the ship, with the result that they tend to blur together. By the final hour, we’re watching a nearly endless succession of indistinguishable teary farewells and declarations of undying love (often between people who have known each other for a matter of hours).

Worst of all is Fellowes’ heavy-handed approach to his favorite subject. It’s as if he sees the sinking of Titanic as a metaphor for the downfall of the British class system. In fact, his dialogue on this subject is so didactic, it’s a wonder that he doesn’t have one of the characters say, “You know, the sinking of this ship is a metaphor for the downfall of the British class system.” (He comes close, though, as when Georgiana says, “How funny we are with all these rules. Don’t you think people are getting tired of it?”) By the time the freezing waters of the North Atlantic are crowded with floating bodies, it doesn’t feel like we’ve lost very much of importance. This Titanic isn’t quite a disaster, but it’s no pleasure cruise either.

Stray observations:

  • Burning off the first three hours on Saturday night doesn’t suggest a great deal of confidence on ABC’s part. That may be because the ratings in the U.K. plummeted each week following the first episode. The final hour airs Sunday night on Britain’s ITV.