As “The Long Song” begins Sunday (Jan. 31), we’re clearly in a distant time and place.
This is Jamaica, early in the 1800s. It has blue sky, sprawling vistas … and deep, wrenching pain. Caroline Mortimer (Hayley Atwell, shown here with Tamara Lawrance)– who owns the plantation with her brother – mostly stays in the mansion while her sadistic overseer drives the slaves.
Then come all the events – love, lust, rape, revolt, betrayal – that we might find in a Harlequin novel or in a quality production. By the end of the three-week mini-series (10 p.m. Sundays on PBS), we’re left with the same question raised by Netflix’s recent “Bridgerton”mini-series: Where is the line that somehow separates tawdry soap opera from classy, period-piece drama?
Sometimes, it’s all in the details and even in the reputations: “Long Song” is on PBS’ “Masterpiece”; “Bridgerton” is from Shonda Rhimes, whose shows – “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal,” “How To Get Away With Murder” – tend to be both smart and splashy.
Both of those shows have gifted British actors, gorgeous settings and good intentions. We just have to accept the soap excess that goes with them.
“Long Song” has Hayley Atwell, a skilled actress whose roles – from the “Howard’s End” reboot to lots of time as Peggy Carter in the Marvel universe – are usually in the pretty-girl-next-door range. This time, she has strikingly transformed her look and her attitude.
She plays Caroline, the clueless owner of July (Lawrance) and others. Then, late in the first hour, a newcomer (Jack Lowden) arrives; he’s a handsome chap who brings news and high ideals.
To tell you more would be to ruin the plot twists. Be prepared, however, for quick highs and lows.
“Long Song” is a fragile tale, full of points where logic and common-sense could have changed everything. Then again, “Bridgerton” is even more fragile; a large chunk of the plot is tied to a vow that was only heard by two people, one or them now dead.
These are slender stories, redeemed by the skill of the people involved. As it happens, “Long Song” debuts on the eve of Black History Month, a time of rich drama.
That same night (8 p.m. ET Sunday, Jan. 31), Turner Classic Movies has “Sounder” (1972), a deeply moving portrait of a Black sharecropping family in the 1930s. And the next day, Sundance starts rerunning “Roots,” the triumphant 1977 mini-series.
(That runs in two chunks, from 3-10 p.m. Feb. 1 and 2. The first half also reruns from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Feb. 2.)
There’s much more coming, at the start of Black History Month. “A Raisin in the Sun” (1961) is 10 p.m. Feb. 3 on TCM … Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” (1989) is 9 p.m. Feb. 4 on Showtime … “Harriet” (2019), the Harriet Tubman story, is 10 p.m. Feb. 4 on HBO.
These are big stories, packing huge emotions. Then “The Long Song” continues on Feb. 7 and 14, taking us to that line where soaps and quality dramas somehow co-exist.