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'Mists of Avalon' good adult entertainment

Sunday, July 15, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

At the risk of sounding like a pervert, TNT's "The Mists of Avalon" doesn't spark to life until the incest scene.

Before that, tonight's first installment of the four-hour miniseries (8 p.m. today and tomorrow) plays like one of Robert Halmi Sr.'s exposition-heavy, European-set fantasies. But after the incest, it's clear "Mists" isn't a family-friendly, special effects-filled tale about leprechauns.

Instead, this feminist retelling of the Arthurian legend is dark, kinky and violent. It's also more entertaining, intriguing and thought-provoking than those godawful NBC miniseries of recent years.

Back to the incest: Neither person involved realizes he or she is related to the other (both wear masks) and it's not filmed in a particularly tawdry way. Serious consequences and complications arise because of the taboo coupling; actually, most of the tragic plot that follows flows from that scene.


"Mists of Avalon"

When: 8 tonight and tomorrow on TNT.

Starring: Anjelica Huston, Julianna Margulies, Joan Allen.


Former "ER" star Julianna Margulies leads the "Mists" cast as Morgaine, sister of King Arthur (Edward Atterton) and niece of Viviane (Anjelica Huston), high priestess of Avalon and Lady of the Lake.

"Mists of Avalon" is a tangled web of familial intrigue, the kind that prompts a network to put a family tree in its press kit. Viewers at home don't have that benefit (the family tree is on the network's Web site, www.tnt.tv), but despite some confusion (names sound alike, two guys have hair styles that make them almost indistinguishable), "Mists" does a pretty good job clarifying who's who.

Three sisters pull the strings in this medieval "Dynasty": The powerful Viviane, the scheming Morgause (Joan Allen) and the innocent Igraine (Caroline Goodall), mother of Morgaine and Arthur.

"Mists" builds slowly - a little too slowly at the start. Tonight's first hour introduces these characters and the political-religious backdrop that motivates many of their actions. Christianity and an old Pagan religion compete for control of England while Saxon hordes threaten invasion.

Viviane presides over the mist-shrouded Avalon, which is invisible to nonbelievers who grow in number as Christianity takes root. The three sisters are all followers of the mother goddess, their devotion distinguished by a smiley face tattoo on their foreheads. (Hmmm, is this what inspired the cookies at Eat'n Park?).

Though there are happy moments in their childhood, Morgaine and Arthur soon find themselves separated. Arthur goes with Merlin (Michael Byrne), and Morgaine gets training from Viviane, who plots Morgaine's destiny in an attempt to save Avalon from extinction.

Along the way, Morgaine meets her cousin, Lancelot (Michael Vartan), and falls in love with him. But Lancelot is more interested in Gwenhwyfarcq (Samantha Mathis), who returns his affections but marries someone else anyway.

This Old World soap opera, filled with backstabbing and conniving, includes a second unconventional sex scene in tomorrow's conclusion, the kind you'd never see in a leprechaun movie (and for that we should be grateful).

Though tastefully done and not too revealing, "Mists" carries a TV-14 rating (for sex and violence) that parents should take seriously. Some viewers may also take offense at religious elements in "Mists," which, in its conclusion tomorrow, is most likely to perturb some Roman Catholics. Just remember: It's fiction, not a documentary.

Based on the novel of the same name by Marion Zimmer Bradley, "Mists of Avalon" reimagines the legend of King Arthur in an engrossing and often twisted way. Though I haven't read it, I'd guess the novel has more depth, especially in regard to character motivations. With limited time, the miniseries resorts to shorthand (a friend who watched with me noted every character falls in love with just one look).

Margulies acquits herself well in her first role since nurse Carol Hathaway on "ER." She has a powerful presence and holds her own against Huston and Allen just fine.

Allen is surprisingly one note as the deceitful Morgause, perhaps because the script by Gavin Scott gives her little room to maneuver beyond a snippy sort of evil.

Aside from a first hour that plods along even as it covers many years in the characters' lives, director Uli Edel (TNT's "Purgatory," "Last Exit to Brooklyn") ultimately gives "Mists" a speedy pace to match its quick-witted characters' schemes.

Edel also effectively mixes real and computer generated backgrounds and foregrounds, lending "Mists" a cinematic sheen. But the effects, lavish costumes and strange hairdos remain secondary to the characters and story, which, at its root, is a good ol' fashioned family feud.

It doesn't take an appreciation of perverse tragedy to realize "Mists" is more juicily satisfying than any recent miniseries on the broadcast networks. But it may help.

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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