The way things are going these days at CBS, one does not want to rush to judgment on how bad the fourth-place network's prime-time programs can get.
Just when you think it couldn't get any worse than this week's made-for-TV movie, "Co-Ed Call Girl" with Tori Spelling, along comes "The Thorn Birds: The Missing Years" with Richard Chamberlain and Amanda Donohoe, airing tomorrow and Tuesday night at 9 on WJZ (Channel 13).
At least with "Co-Ed Call Girl," you can pretty much guess you are dealing with an exploitative slice of sleaze. But "The Missing Years" is going to fool a lot of folks who will tune in thinking the miniseries can put them back in touch with the pleasurable experience of the 1983 original.
Not only won't viewers find similar enjoyment, but many are likely to wind up quite agitated by the end of the first hour, when they see how the producers have shredded "The Thorn Birds" in order to squeeze a few more bucks out of the franchise with this sorry "midquel."
Midquel? Yes, midquel is the term Chamberlain coined when describing "The Missing Years," which can legitimately be called neither a sequel nor a prequel to the original. Midquel is about as clever as it gets in terms of anything connected with this production.
We might as well start the catalog of complaints with Chamberlain, who plays Roman Catholic Archbishop Ralph de Bricassart. For a few minutes at the beginning of the film, it almost seems as if having Chamberlain back from the original is going to be enough to make "The Missing Years" work. Almost.
The film opens in 1942 in Rome. World War II is exploding all around. Besides being hunted by Mussolini's troops, the archbishop is under fire from his superiors for using money left to the church from the estate of Mary Carson (Barbara Stanwyck in the original) to feed Jews. The estate is Drogheda, the sprawling Australian sheep ranch now run by Meggie O'Neal (Donohoe).
The opening segment seems to work until you realize it involves virtually no real acting for television. It's mostly action -- bombs exploding, the archbishop running down darkened streets, the Fascists at the door of the church -- photographed from a distance to give a sense of saga-like scope.
But, because of the size of the screen, television is primarily an intimate medium, and its essential image is that of a face in close-up. Eventually, that's where the camera has to go, and when it does, "The Missing Years" starts to fall apart: Chamberlain's face is no longer capable of showing any expression. He appears to have undergone so much plastic surgery that his face now resembles a pane of glass or something made of wax. Not only does it not communicate mental processes or emotions, it's almost eerie to look at -- which makes for a very long and strange four hours.
But even that is not as great a problem as the colossal miscasting of Donohoe as Meggie. Not since CBS in 1993 tried to sell Faye Dunaway as a loving stepmother in a family-hour sitcom, "It Had to Be You," have I seen a goofier casting decision.
Donohoe was very good in the feature film "Foreign Body," an English farce. By the standards of prime-time American television, she was refreshingly edgy as C. J. Lamb, a lesbian attorney on "L.A. Law."
But she is no Rachel Ward, who played Meggie in the original. Donohoe, who is on camera as much as Chamberlain, is asked to communicate depths of feeling that are way beyond her. By the time you get to the sequence that involves the archbishop and Meggie meeting accidentally on a train platform, you will want to strangle Donohoe for standing on that platform like a lump and not suggesting even a hint of what it might be like to see the love of your life after 10 years apart.
Back at Drogheda, the big news is that Meggie's husband, Luke O'Neal (Simon Westaway), has returned and is feeling very fatherly for 10-year-old Dane O'Neal (Zach English), whom he thinks is his son. But Dane is really you-know-who's son, and guess who doesn't know.
Will the archbishop fight for his son? Will he (again) consummate his love for Meggie? Will the very heavens open up to end the drought at Drogheda in celebration or sorrow over their lovemaking?
I have a better question: Why would anyone watch "The Thorn Birds: The Missing Years" tomorrow night when PBS' "Masterpiece Theatre" has Helen Mirren as Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison in a "Prime Suspect" movie titled "Inner Circles"? It's not the best of the "Prime Suspect" lot, but I'd take two hours of Mirren playing someone in a coma over Donohoe's Meggie. I'd almost take Spelling in "Co-Ed Call Girl." Almost.