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TV Reviews: 2 new soaps well made but different

Monday, October 22, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

This is a tale of two prime-time soap operas.

One will automatically get respect because it airs under the banner of PBS's "Masterpiece Theatre" and features upper-class, well-dressed characters with British accents living through World War II in a close-ended story.

The other, a continuing series about a modern, wealthy Southern California family, airs on Fox, and although it's gotten positive reviews, the ratings have been disappointing at best, disastrous at worst.

 
 
"The Cazalets"

When: 9 tonight on WQED/WQEX.

Starring: Stephen Dillane, Hugh Bonneville, Lesley Manville, Joanna Page

   
 

Both PBS's "The Cazalets" (9 tonight) and Fox's "Pasadena" (9 p.m. Friday) are worthy of consideration from viewers who revel in sprawling sagas of love and loss, birth and death, mystery and mayhem.

Although both are "serialized dramas" (read "soaps"), they're wildly different.

"The Cazalets," premiering tonight with a two-hour installment and continuing with one-hour episodes for the next four weeks, is based on the first two of four novels written by British author Elizabeth Jane Howard.

Most of the action takes place in the Sussex estate of "the Brig" (Frederick Treves) and "the Duchy" (Ursula Howells), aging patriarch and matriarch of the Cazalet clan.

Their grown children include philandering Edward (Stephen Dillane), who cheats on his wife (Lesley Manville) with ease and even gropes his teen-age daughter (Emma Griffiths Malin). Mannered and kind Hugh (Hugh Bonneville) walks the straight and narrow. Widower Rupert (Paul Rhys) has remarried, but his precocious daughter Clary (Florence Hoath) doesn't care for her new stepmother, Zoe (Joanna Page). Unmarried Rachel (Catherine Russell) cares for her parents while harboring a secret crush.

With so many characters, "The Cazalets" had the potential to be unwieldy and confusing, but thanks to the screenplay by Douglas Livingstone, it's easy-to-follow, an enjoyably epic with characters to cheer for and against.

Although a few of the Cazalets begin as caricatures -- Zoe starts out as quite the stepmonster -- it's a credit to novelist Howard that they grow and change, not remaining static, not conforming to the expected stereotypes.

The performances are uniformly excellent, many of them nuanced. As Edward's oblivious wife, Villy, Lesley Manville is especially good, keeping her stiff upper lip while betraying a true lack of interest in having another child. The actors who play the youngest generation of Cazalets are also excellent.

The show's most frustrating flaw comes at the end of the sixth and final episode, when "The Cazalets" just stops. Stories are left dangling, leaving viewers to sputter a confused, "What!?!?! That's it!??!" If PBS and the BBC don't bankroll a sequel, we'll have to read the remaining two novels to see how it all turns out.

"The Cazalets" is a traditional period piece costume drama. Darkness lurks, but the sun dominates, and even when it's not shining, everyone pretends it is anyway.

The characters in "Pasadena" pretend all is well, too, but it paints a more twisted portrait of a family. Gray is the color of "The Cazalets," but a darker shade -- charcoal comes to mind -- epitomizes "Pasadena."

The show premiered last month to tepid ratings and two weeks of pre-emptions probably won't help matters when "Pasadena" returns Friday. Too bad, "Pasadena" is finally getting up to speed, embarking on a loony trip through muted worlds of wealth, manipulation and secrets -- many, many secrets.

 
 
"Pasadena"

When: 9 p.m. Friday on Fox.

Starring: Dana Delany, Martin Donovan, Mark Valley

   
 

Created by Mike White ("Chuck & Buck," "Freaks and Geeks"), "Pasadena" begins each episode with some suburban catastrophe in the McAllister kitchen. In the last episode, a rat was on the loose. This week the family maid gets sick. Next week, the maid finds teen-age son Mason's stash of pornography.

Much scheming follows the decision of patriarch George Greeley (Philip Baker Hall) to cede control of the family newspaper to son-in-law Will McAllister (Martin Donovan) instead of his son Robert (Mark Valley).

Along with the family power struggle, which really heats up in next week's episode, teen-aged Lily McAllister (Alison Lohman) continues to investigate the history of her family, particularly what her mother, Catherine (Dana Delany), knows about the man who committed suicide in the McAllister home in the "Pasadena" pilot.

Lily gets help from a "scholarship student" (re: poor kid) at her school, Henry (Alan Simpson). But Lily better watch out: Catherine has started looking at young Henry rather lustfully.

There are plenty of immoral shenanigans in "The Cazalets," but they're common, believable, and even if sexual, comparatively chaste. "Pasadena" operates in a heightened state, not as over-the-top as "Melrose Place," but distinctly gothic, dark, sexual and, well, soapy.

"Pasadena" also has a distinct knack for bringing out character traits and motivation in little moments.

"We might want to think about upping his Ritalin dosage," a school administrator tells Catherine when discussing son Mason.

"Oh, OK," Catherine gamely replies, eager to move on to what's really on her mind, her daughter's friend Henry.

Delany's Catherine is a particularly intriguing character. A doormat in the pilot, she goes to bat in Friday's episode to seek revenge. It's outrageous, unexpected and great fun.

Catherine's brother, Robert, is also a piece of work. When young horny Mason asks the best way to get a girl in bed, Robert's reply clues the audience in to just how screwed up he is.

"Deep down all women are whores," Robert says. "If you treat a woman like the whore she is, she's gonna appreciate it."

I'm not naive enough to think these two soaps will appeal to the same audience. Many "Cazalet" viewers will be appalled by "Pasadena." Some "Pasadena" fans will be bored by "The Cazalets." Different though they are, both are well-made series in the same ages-old genre.


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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