TV review: Raw new look at Pilgrims in Nat Geo’s ‘Saints & Strangers’

23 Nov 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Mad Man’s’ Vincent Kartheiser sets sail for a whole new world in ‘Saints & Strangers’.

While you’re getting ready for Thanksgiving, consider taking a new look at the first one, when the Pilgrims and their Indian friends sat down together for a harvest bounty — or so we learned in school. “Saints & Strangers,” a two-part historical drama on the National Geographic Channel, suggests that the real scene wasn’t so cozy. National Geographic’s “Saints & Strangers” goes beyond the history books to tell the story you didn’t know about the first Thanksgiving — and the second — and beyond. George Stephanopolous suggested the idea during the interview initially and later pressed him asking “So you’d bring back waterboarding?” “We have — I would bring it back, yes. The two-night, four-hour miniseries presents a sturdy cast and a fascinating story that almost gives equal time to the Native Americans who found their land and way of life threatened. PBS’s “American Experience” debuts a two-hour documentary from filmmaker Ric Burns on the same subject with dramatic re-creations that feature the late actor Roger Rees (“Cheers”) as Bradford.

The four-hour movie will premiere tonight and Monday on National Geographic (9 p.m. on both nights), following a rush to finish in time for the holiday. It’s September 1620, and 102 passengers — “saints,” religious separatists hoping to worship God in peace, and “strangers,” those searching for a second chance in life — are crammed into the hull of the cargo ship The Mayflower and struggle against horrific weather, illness and dwindling supplies. Nat Geo’s two-night event (9 tonight and Monday) gets off to a blah, boring start that establishes the premise — Bradford led the “saints,” the religious separatists, who were joined on the Mayflower by the “strangers,” who were motivated by the potential for financial gain and adventure — but the miniseries keeps so busy introducing characters that it has little time to define them beyond “angry bearded guy” and “slightly more reasonable bearded guy.” While appropriately grimy given the 1620s, rural North America setting (ALthough it was filmed in South Africa), the dour deprivation depicted proves dull over the miniseries’ first two hours. The Mayflower carries both travelers who turned away from the Church of England to follow their rigidly separatist vision of religious freedom, and mercenaries who have good reason to get the heck out of England and pursue their fortune in the New World.

He’s William Bradford, the Mayflower’s spiritual captain, who finds time between prayers to become the five-time governor of the Plymouth Colony, a role that required him to trade in those sleek suits for dingy duds and grow a beard that looks as if it could house a family of prairie dogs. The Mayflower is a cargo ship, not meant for passengers, and the members of the future Plymouth Colony suffer everything from seasickness and scurvy to fevers and death, lots and lots of death. (Conditions are depicted so graphically that “Saints & Sinners” earned a TV-14 rating.) America isn’t much kinder to the group, which freezes and starves and fears slaughter by the “wild savages” who already inhabit the land. William Bradford (Vincent Kartheiser, almost unrecognizable from his “Mad Men” days) counsels his wife Dorothy (Anna Camp, “True Blood”) and his fellow passengers to have faith in God.

Judging from accounts from the time, the elementary-school textbook tales of pilgrims and Native Americans holding hands over a harvest are too simplistic. The journey is grueling, particularly for Dorothy Bradford (Anna Camp), wife of Willliam Bradford (Vincent Kartheiser), one of the leaders of what we’ve come to know as the Pilgrims.

Since the Emmy-winning series, Kartheiser has followed the trajectory of the promising shooting star: marrying a popular actress, “Gilmore Girls” graduate Alexis Bledel; spurring brisk ticket sales to gawkers for the Guthrie Theater’s 2013 production of “Pride and Prejudice”; abandoning plans to move back to the Twin Cities, and building a reputation for playing cat-and-mouse with the media. The first night introduces some of the squabbling Indian tribes near Plymouth along with Squanto (Kalani Queypo, “The New World”), an English-speaking emissary who may be conspiring against some of the tribes. Papermag.com once posted a piece titled “A Brief History of Vincent Kartheiser Acting Weird.” But during a phone interview this month, Kartheiser was the same chatty, self-deprecating, witty dynamo I met while window shopping on Rodeo Drive in 2007, just before “Mad Men” premiered and changed his life.

Equally strong is Kalani Queypo as Squanto, the English speaker who becomes a liason between the immigrants and the tribes, who are often at odds with one another. Myles Standish (Michael Jibson), Edward Winslow (Barry Sloane, “The Whispers”), Stephen Hopkins (Ray Stevenson, “Rome”) and others discover what looks to be an abandoned Indian village and, desperate, steal the corn reserves. Also, by night two enough of the Colonists have died that the miniseries has more time to explore the motivations of the remaining characters who come into sharper focus. In light of what followed in American history, it’s heartbreaking and suspenseful to watch Massasoit (Raoul Trujillo), leader of the Wampanoag tribe, weigh his choices.

If you want to delve deeper into the realities, PBS’ “American Experience” offers “The Pilgrims,” a Ric Burns documentary (including re-enactments) airing at 7 p.m. Squanto (Kalani Queypo), the only survivor of the Patuxet tribe and one who was kidnapped and spent years in Europe, is fluent in English and so a natural to act as a liaison between the two groups. A: The idea that you would die rather than go against the word of God is foreign to my own personal experience, and I didn’t want to bring in my own religious beliefs, which are quite different. Tuesday, WQED-TV) offers a far more detailed account of the pilgrim experience, beginning years before the Mayflower arrived off the coast of North America.

Native tribes had already seen their own killed by diseases brought by newcomers, and after Squanto’s people were decimated, he made an alliance with the Wampanoag, and became a crucial liaison between Massasoit and the settlers. I think you just have to imagine this sense of commitment as a small ball of twine and keep wrapping yourself around it until it gets larger and larger in your psyche. Across both groups, faith in human nature clashes with doubt, and misunderstandings test a treaty of peace. “The English,” as the natives call them, find themselves at times players and at times pawns in the power struggle between neighboring tribes. The settlers, led by William Bradford, held a meeting with other tribal leaders ostensibly to forge peace, but instead the English turned on them during the meal. Ray Stevenson is gruff and imposing as the roguish Stephen Hopkins, whose brushes with the law make the Mayflower voyage a good idea, even if he regards the pious Pilgrims with disdain.

O’Byrne as John Billington, Tatanka Means as the ready-for-war Hobbamock, Barry Sloane as Edward Winslow, and Natascha McElhome as Elizabeth Hopkins, who was apparently a fashion forerunner, with her anachronistic long tresses and wide-brimmed hippie hat. They’re enough to send you scrambling straight to the Web or the library for more information, and that’s another reason to give Nat Geo thanks for this miniseries. And so to look at what’s been remembered, and let that shed light on what’s been forgotten is an important exercise when we’re thinking about something that has been so central to our national imagination.” TV writer Rob Owen: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. A: One thing we learned is that the water was so bad in the United Kingdom in those days that everyone ordered eight glasses of beer a day, even 4-year-olds.

Use reserved pork fat to fry cabbage packets presentation side down to get a good color and place into a deep oven-proof tray and roast in the oven until hot.

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