DAVID BIANCULLI

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MIKE HUGHES

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'The Long Song' Tells of Slavery in Jamaica
January 31, 2021  | By Mike Hughes
 


As The Long Song begins Sunday (Jan. 31), we're clearly in a distant time and place.

We are in Jamaica, early in the 1800s. It has blue sky, sprawling vistas, and deep, wrenching pain. Caroline Mortimer – who owns a plantation with her brother – mostly stays in the mansion while her sadistic overseer drives the slaves.

Then come all the events – love, lust, rape, revolt, betrayal – that we might find in many productions. By the end of the three-week miniseries (10 p.m. ET, Sundays, on PBS, check local listings), we're left with the same question raised by Netflix's recent Bridgerton miniseries: Where is the line that somehow separates tawdry soap opera from classy, period-piece drama?

Sometimes, it's all in the details: Long Song is on PBS's MasterpieceBridgerton is from Shonda Rhimes, whose shows – Grey's Anatomy, Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder – tend to be both smart and splashy.

Both of the shows have gifted British actors, gorgeous settings, and good intentions. We just have to accept the soap excess that goes with them.

Long Song has Hayley Atwell, a skilled actress whose roles – from the Howard's End reboot to lots of time as Peggy Carter in the Marvel universe – are usually in the pretty-girl-next-door range. This time, she has strikingly transformed her look and her attitude.

She plays Caroline, the clueless owner of July (Tamara Lawrance) and others. Then, late in the first hour, a newcomer (Jack Lowden) arrives; he's a handsome chap who brings news and high ideals.

To tell you more would be to ruin the plot twists. Be prepared, however, for quick highs and lows.

Long Song is a fragile tale, full of points where logic and common-sense could have changed everything. Then again, Bridgerton is even more fragile; a large chunk of the plot is tied to a vow that was only heard by two people, one of them now dead.

These are slender stories, redeemed by the skill of the people involved. As it happens, Long Song debuts on the eve of Black History Month, a time of rich television drama.

That same night (8 p.m. ET Sunday, Jan. 31), Turner Classic Movies is running Sounder (1972), a deeply moving portrait of a Black sharecropping family in the 1930s starring the late Cicely Tyson. And the next day, Sundance starts rerunning Roots, the triumphant 1977 miniseries (also featuring Cicely Tyson).

Other highlights on the small screen during Black History Month include A Raisin in the Sun (1961) at 10 p.m. ET, Feb. 3 on TCM; Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing (1989), 9 p.m. ET, Feb. 4 on Showtime; and Harriet (2019), the Harriet Tubman story, at 10 p.m. ET, Feb. 4 on HBO. 
Then, The Long Song continues on Feb. 7 and 14.

All big stories that pack huge emotions.

 
 
 
 
 
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