TV loves historical fiction, especially in the miniseries genre. Look no further than the breakout success of "Roots" in the 1970s or "The Winds of War" and "North and South" in the '80s.
In the best of these TV epics, fictional characters live through calamitous periods of American history encountering situations similar to what real people in the same era experienced. In some cases these fictional characters bump into historical figures, but those appearances are usually brief cameos.
That's not the case in CBS's "Sally Hemings: An American Scandal," a four-hour miniseries about the affair between Thomas Jefferson and one of his slaves.
"Sally Hemings" departs from traditional TV historical fiction because it's entirely about known characters whose relationship remains a mystery. So "Sally" is light on history, heavy on fiction with a hearty dollop of romance novel dialogue.
"Please don't call me master anymore," Jefferson (Sam Neill) whispers to Hemings (Carmen Ejogo) during a tender moment. And later: "I find I so enjoy looking at you, Sally."
Don't get me started on the scene where the cooing couple trade limericks (I kept waiting for "There once was a man from Nantucket...").
This all comes in the first night, which also includes Thomas Paine (Kevin Conway) suggesting, "If there was ever a reason to push an anti-slavery bill through Congress, she is the best."
Let me get this straight: He wants Jefferson to outlaw slavery because Hemings is an intelligent hottie?
Recent DNA evidence genetically links Jefferson and Hemings, confirming speculation of their liaison first published in a Richmond, Va., newspaper in 1802. But as the president of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation told USA Today last month, it's unlikely anyone will know details about the Jefferson-Hemings union, "whether it was love or lust, rape or romance."
Even the producers of "Sally Hemings" admit they made most of this miniseries up. In press materials, producer Craig Anderson says, "We can't expect to get details of private emotional conflict -- an element crucial to this story and any drama... Through diligent and conscientious research, we have tried to logically connect the dots as to what may have taken place."
But it's a leap from evidence of a relationship to Hemings lecturing Jefferson, "You cannot come into my bed and go to your white Congress and do nothing about the plague upon my people!"
"Sally Hemings" also deviates from traditional TV historical fiction in another significant way. Viewers know the outcome for these characters. It's history. In "North and South," viewers didn't know what would happen to the central characters because they were created in the mind of author John Jakes. It's an important distinction that points to one of "Sally Hemings' " failings as entertainment -- there are few surprises.
Historical accuracy aside, "Sally Hemings" offers some nice performances, particularly Ejogo as Hemings. Maybe she's stronger and more willful than one would imagine given the period, but Ejogo remains sympathetic.
Interestingly, both Neill and Ejogo are foreigners playing Americans. Neill hails from Northern Ireland and resides in New Zealand, and Ejogo is British, but totally loses her native accent to play Hemings.
Mare Winningham stars as Martha, Jefferson's daughter from his marriage to Martha Wayles, who died before his relationship with Hemings.
Most of the time Winningham stands around in bonnets with a disapproving look, but hers is an intriguing character because she's not totally good or evil. She resides in a gray zone, made even more indefinable for lack of historical evidence about her feelings toward Hemings.
Taken purely as entertainment, "Sally Hemings" may be of some interest to those who pine for tales of forbidden romance. But anyone looking for a history lesson better tune elsewhere.