The Pillars of the Earth airs its first two episodes tonight at 10 p.m. Eastern on Starz. It will air one episode a week after that.
The Pillars of the Earth is the very definition of passable televised entertainment. There are things in it that work very well. There are things in it that are simply atrocious. But for the most part, what happens in the first two hours of the miniseries is just enjoyable enough to keep watching while never enjoyable enough to make a viewer sit up and take notice of what's going on. There's a nice build throughout the two hours toward the final moments of the second hour, but there's also a sense that the whole thing is pitched directly at people who've read the book the miniseries is based on. There are a handful of fantastic performances, a couple of very good ones, and a majority that just don't leave a mark, and the production values are good but bland.
Good but bland, really, could describe the whole endeavor. At no point while watching these first two hours did I long to gouge out my eyes or do something else, but it was also easy to let my mind wander. The Pillars of the Earth needs to be gripping, and it just never makes the leap up to that level. It's, for lack of a better word, gripp-ish. Based on Ken Follett's novel of the same name, the project takes as its central story the long period in British history when there was no unquestioned heir to the British throne and a variety of lords and potential contenders for the throne vied in battle to sit upon it. At the same time, in a fictional version of Kingsbridge, England (thanks, Wikipedia!), the fates conspire to bring together a master builder with a newly elected church head who needs a new cathedral.
The best thing about these two hours is the way the intrigue and incident steadily builds throughout them. By the time that master builder Tom is beginning properly on the cathedral and many, many different political intrigues are intertwining with each other at the end of hour two, the show feels like it's really headed somewhere. Indeed, the last 15 minutes of the second hour are probably the best moments in the whole thing, the moments that feel like the show definitely has a handle on where the story is heading and where the characters are going to go with it. The problem, as it always is, is the voyage it takes to get there, which is bumpy.
Viewers will be forgiven if they abandon this project in the first half hour of its running time. The first hour has its moments, but it has a tendency to toss in bald-faced exposition, clumsy character introductions, and moments designed to beat us over the head about how crazy and hard life was in the Middle Ages. There's basically nothing subtle about anything here, as the episode struggles to condense a decade of history into about ten minutes. Little girls are telling their dads that they'll help pop conceive a male heir (and I think we're supposed to find it charming), boys are accusing women of being witches, and the heir to the throne is perishing in a boat fire. Also, there's a swirling miasma of bad CGI, and at least a couple of fights break out over a pig. Yes, a pig. (I understand that the desire for sustenance was such that such an animal could cause feuds, but the show unintentionally makes this seem like the people trying to seize the pig are playing a part in Homer Simpson's prank war.)
After that first hour, though, the rhythms start to settle in. There's never a sense that the show knows how to introduce its characters or make them anything other than thinly-veiled historical figures who are absolutely perfect in every way or absolutely evil in every way, but at least the pacing isn't so frantic and all over the place. There's a lot of backstory that Pillars tries to dispatch with in these early moments, too much, really, and it might have been better to have started the story roughly where the half hour mark is in the first hour. There's a real need to spend time with these characters when they're not warring with each other, to get a sense of the history seeping in around the edges of the piece or of these people as compelling people, rather than pure plot devices. With the amount of story that needs to be laid down, the show just doesn't give that to us.
Fortunately, most of these characters are played by competent actors. Ian McShane, sadly, is mostly wasted as a villainous bishop who seems to constantly be looking for some railroad tracks to tie someone to. But Rufus Sewell is good as Tom Builder, a kind of moral constant the show continually falls back on, and Eddie Redmayne (who recently won a Tony award) and Hayley Atwell (who recently landed a gig in Captain America) are both very good as the two main teenagers in the piece (though I have no idea how the show will handle the aging it appears the characters will have to undergo). A large variety of very good actors turn up in bit parts, including everyone from Alison Pill to Donald Sutherland, and they're predictably good, even when the script reduces them to so many chess pieces.
The look of the series is fairly handsome without being standout in any way. There's a thin layer of grime over everything that's certainly realistic but also keeps the production values from rising out of the muck at the same time. This is a series that needs a striking directorial style or swooping cinematography, and it mostly gets neither, settling instead for the usual TV shot selection sheet and murky lighting. The editing favors longer shots that suggest something more subtextual will happen, but this never comes, making the whole endeavor feel needlessly stately. On the other hand, the editing in the battle scenes is often unnecessarily chaotic, so maybe stateliness is preferable.
In the end, The Pillars of the Earth is probably going to keep me coming back from week to week, but I'm not going to be overjoyed to be doing so. It's a good show with a lot of good elements, but it also feels dropped in from another time, when giant miniseries from big best-sellers with paper-thin characters and plots dominated the ratings because, well, there wasn't anything else to watch. I don't think a return to the miniseries as an event form is a bad idea at all, and numerous miniseries in the last few years have proved that it can work (including The Pacific, most recently), but the form needs to be wedded to the interesting characters and situations the best scripted shows now have. If we're just going to keep endlessly updating War and Remembrance or something like that, then there's no real reason to be doing these sorts of projects. The Pillars of the Earth is passable, but there's nothing really vital about it. For a story about people lusting after power, it feels curiously free of desire.