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'Winter's End' rounds out 'Sarah' trilogy

Sunday, November 21, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

With the rush of our everyday lives, we often expect and want TV to match that pace. Just look at "ER" or "The West Wing," or a soap like the late "Melrose Place."

On TV everything happens quickly to keep us hooked. Even if we think about changing the channel, the rapidity of the story often keeps us tuned in.

But every now and then it's nice to sit back and go with a slower flow. That's just one of the welcome attributes of CBS's third, and probably final, installment in "Sarah, Plain & Tall," this time subtitled "Winter's End."

Glenn Close returns to the title role of Sarah, a Maine native who responded to a mail-order bride ad and moved to Kansas to care for a widower and his two children. In the first movie, which aired on CBS in 1991, Sarah fell in love with Jacob Witting (Christopher Walken) and his children, Anna (Lexi Randall) and Caleb (Christopher Bell).

In 1993's "Sarah, Plain and Tall: Skylark," Sarah and the children returned to Maine as a drought ravaged Kansas.

As "Winter's End" begins, foreboding images of death are everywhere. It's 1918 and Anna has married the son of the town doctor, but her new husband is fighting in World War I. Sarah and Jacob have a daughter of their own, Cassie (Emily Osment, younger sister of "Sixth Sense" star Haley Joel Osment).

The thrust of the story comes with the appearance of an old man on the Witting farm. John (Jack Palance) reveals he's related to the Wittings, which sets in motion the themes of forgiveness and the fragility of life.

"Sarah" moves slowly, but rarely bores. The gentle pace is refreshing and fits an era when families sang together for entertainment. These are sensitively drawn characters in a less complex, less morally ambiguous time.

The original "Sarah" cast - even the children - remains intact from the first TV movie and the same Kansas farm was used for filming.

Glenn Jordan, who directed the original, returned to helm this sequel, which was written by Patricia MacLachlan, who created the character based on her step-great-grandmother. These long-time collaborators imbue the film with a true sense of family, making it realistically heart-warming.

Once again Close shines as Sarah, a woman whose entire life was changed by her decision to trek west. In "Winter's End," she realizes just how happy and content she is. Sarah has found her home thousands of miles from where she expected it would be.

It was easy to think the casting of Walken was insane before the first "Sarah" aired. Now it's impossible to imagine anyone else playing the part. He specializes in creepy villains on the big screen, but to a generation of children who grew up reading "Sarah" in school, Walken will forever be known as a grief-stricken man who learns to love again.

Showing how the characters grew and changed was important to Close.

"We were particularly careful to make sure that Chris [Walken] and my relationship had become something different from what it was in the beginning," Close said this summer at a CBS press conference.

From the beginning she liked the idea of a "Sarah" trilogy ("three wonderful movies that can be in a nice [video] case together"), so don't expect to see a fourth installment.

"Chris Walken says he'll only do it if they discover oil and move to Paris," said executive producer William Self, prompting laughter from reporters.

In the current landscape of envelope-pushing, obscenity-filled prime-time TV, "Sarah" stands out as an anomaly. There's a hunger for something as wholesome as "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman," but without history-defying political correctness and false sentimentality.

"It is a true family show," Self said. "It's beloved by the families that see it and know it. It really is so different from contemporary television."

Although "Sarah" probably has run its course as a "Hallmark Hall of Fame" movie series, the characters may return in another form with a different cast.

"We've been approached a lot about doing 'Sarah, Plain and Tall' as a series," Self said. "And while Miss Close would never act in that series, down the road somewhere we might entertain doing that, but only if it's under our supervision."

A "Sarah" series might make for quality family TV, but it's unlikely to equal the sense of devotion one gets watching Close, Walken and the rest of the cast in "Winter's End."

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