I freely admit I’ve been living under a rock for the last six weeks. I mean, I took the time to watch Zardoz. And it wasn’t even the first or second time I’ve seen it.
Anyways, watching people going absolutely nuts with the canceling, the banning and the statue-toppling, I realized that the one great hope for American unity lies in an awesome 80s miniseries that people of a certain age remember with fondness and that younger folks desperately need to watch.
I am of course referring to the two iconic “seasons” of North and South.
The Apogee of the Miniseries Format
Laugh if you want, but the mid-80s was the Golden Age of the “Television Event,” when big money was spent on multi-night television shows. The notion was to achieve total ratings dominance for a solid week.
Now I know this is entirely alien today, where studios think it’s super-smart to piss off their fan bases and burn down generations of goodwill in the cause of being woke. It’s like they have a visceral hatred of money, or something.
But long ago, Hollywood had this weird idea that you could mile piles of cash by creating quality products that appealed to everyone. Arguably, they made so much money that their spoil brat successors have piles of cash to burn – which they are now doing.
Anyway, the miniseries was a classic example of how TV could spend almost as much money as a movie, and get hours of footage that would never play in a theater. Nowadays, we think of shows as streaming for “seasons,” but in the pre-internet era, they showed for consecutive nights on prime time after weeks of hype. The affluent would tape them, but most poor folk just had to “binge watch” while it was on live TV (which included sprinting to the bathroom during commercial breaks).
We’ve Been Here Before
The core focus of North and South is two families (from the north and the south – clever, huh?) who are sharply politically divided but linked by even stronger bonds of friendship and love. Today’s SJW’s need to be strapped into chairs Clockwork Orange-style and made to watch this. Gosh, you can disagree on politics and still be civil to one another! What a concept!
What’s great about the show is that it does not try to soft-pedal the issues of the day. It’s brutal and up front in its portrayal of slavery and pulls no punches. Yet at the same time, it also shows human complexity, which is that not every slave owner was a raving Nazi/sadist/devil.
In fact, even after the North and South go to war – actual war, not some stupid online insult thread, but the bloodiest conflict in American history – people on either side still manage to respect one another.
All the people being ‘triggered’ need to pause and realize that the “hateful” statutes that so trouble them were erected in an era where people who lost friends, loved ones and (all too often) actual limbs in the war were still alive.
Got that, snowflake? Those statues that you find hateful were fine with the people who actually fought the damn war. It was a sign of reconciliation – a word that now seems utterly forgotten.
It would be helpful if the ignoramuses (ignorami?) knocking over statues watched this show so they’d at least know something about Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Frederick Douglass, and other Union heroes, as well understanding the point of view of the South, which isn’t as cut and dried as people think.
That’s the other great lesson of North and South: America already paid the blood-price of slavery, and people who pretend that it hasn’t only demonstrate their colossal ignorance and moral blindness. In many states, more than 10 percent of the adult male population died. One in ten, folks. More than 700,000 people were killed in a nation with only 34 million people. Proportionately that would be 7 million dead today.
Through the characters’ journeys North and South shows this – not just big battle scenes (that are actually quite well done), but the horrific reality of primitive surgery and then the starvation and devastation that followed.
Best. Cast. Ever.
Okay, enough about the politics.
There are a number of outstanding performances. The cast is vast, an eclectic mix of up-and-comers, fading Hollywood royalty doing bit parts, and veteran network stars conscripted for service. Yes, that was a thing, and if you know 80s TV, it’s fun to see various ABC sitcom stars shoehorned into dramatic roles (some of whom are actually quite good).
This is where Patrick Swayze became a superstar. He had a minor part in Red Dawn and went from this to Dirty Dancing. His Orry Main is iconic, as his James Read’s exceptional George Hazard.
But there’s so much going on here. Kirstie Alley is amazing in both “seasons,” and her harrowing portrayal of the arch-zealot abolitionist Virgilia Hazard illustrates the core truth that one can be morally correct and still a crappy human being. She also totally prefigures lunatic SJWs – complete with her insistence on ruining every family get-together by raving about politics.
Seriously, there is a cast of dozens here, and many of them do credible jobs of playing historical figures. One thing I like about North and South is how the show isn’t just prime-time soap opera material, but also a civic education. Sure, it’s got awkward moments where characters introduce various historical figures who deliver set-piece speeches, but that’s part of its charm. It’s a bodice-ripper version of Schoolhouse Rock.
Hal Holbrook is great as Lincoln and Lloyd Bridges is so good as Jefferson Davis, you almost forget how brilliant he was in Airplane! (which was admittedly his best role).
And yes, it is very trashy at times, but wonderfully so. Terri Garber’s Ashton Main is one of the greatest vamps ever filmed. You think someone like David Ogden Stiers (of M*A*S*H fame) would be stuffy and respectable, but he’s actually stuffy and a pervert – but also an abolitionist! Again, lots of complexity here where bad people latch onto good causes for personal gain. What more can you say about a show that has everyone from Liz Taylor to Morgan Fairchild and Wayne Newton as a sadistic Confederate prison warden? It also features Jimmy Stewart’s last role, and he’s great as usual.
I particularly enjoy Jonathan Frakes’ portrayal of George Hazard’s beta-male older brother (interestingly Frakes married another cast member, Genie Francis, one of two marriages resulting from the show). Star Trek TNG fans will delight in watching Will Riker struggle to escape from his domineering wife (played by two different actresses, by the way).
Lest you think it’s mostly an Antebellum version of Dynasty, there are some outstanding battle scenes, filled out by thousands of re-enactors. Lots of good stuff about the strategy and life in the two armies. Serious money was spent on production and it looks like it. Even the music is great.
It’s worth remembering that 160 years ago this summer, the nation was wracked by division, civil disorder and a collapsing consensus. You could watch that PBS mini-series, but North and South is a lot more fun.
So pour yourself a julep, settle into a cane-backed chair and watch Patrick Swayze wage a multi-hour war with David Carradine over Lesley-Anne Down.
Now available on Amazon
in high-definition, but I bet you could find standard def copies on Youtube if you looked hard enough