Even though the notion of a separation between film and TV actors has long since vanished, there's still an elite group of performers who seldom appear on the small screen for anything other than awards specials and plugging movies on talk shows. Acclaimed actress Kate Winslet may have gotten her start in BBC productions, but she's spent virtually her entire career in quality movies, among them The Reader (Oscar winning performance), Sense and Sensibility, Quills, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Revolutionary Road and of course Titanic. She's also the youngest person to earn six Oscar nominations and has also won Screen Actors Guild, British Academy of Film and Television and Golden Globe awards.
Winslet's presence is the main attraction of HBO's miniseries Mildred Pierce, which debuts Sunday night at 8 p.m. and continues over the next two Sundays (five hours). Though Joan Crawford won an Oscar for her portrayal in 1945, that version avoided most of the ugly situations and events depicted in James M. Cain's novel. That won't be the case this time. Director Todd Haynes is bringing the identical heavy-duty soap-opera flourishes to this new Mildred Pierce he utilized on his Douglas Sirk homage Far From Heaven.
The ugliness and unrelenting poverty of the Depression era won't be softened as viewers follow the exploits of Pierce, who struggles to start a chain of restaurants while trying to keep a family together. She's also in an emotional tug-of-war with daughter Veda (Evan Rachel Wood), whose greed is exceeded only by her nastiness and bad attitude. Pierce also gets ensnared in a relationship with unsavory Monty (Guy Pearce), a con man and polo player.
The lure of seeing a top quality cast in a work that won't be creatively hamstrung by network restrictions makes Mildred Pierce an ideal draw for audiences seeking a break from reruns and/or college basketball. HBO has already proven with past works like Deadwood, Rome and the current Boardwalk Empire that they can make compelling and entertaining period-piece dramas that don't lack either authenticity or contemporary relevance. Winslet, who told TV Guide she only watched five minutes of the original to avoid being influenced, will certainly offer a different version of Cain's classic character. It should definitely be an intriguing and distinctive update.
Irons in the fire on SVU
Speaking of actors who seldom appear on TV, Oscar winner Jeremy Irons has a guest role on Wednesday night's Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (9 p.m. WSMV-4). He joins forces with the SVU squad to find the killer of a young girl whose calling card is a doll. Irons' character is a veteran police psychologist whose specialty is profiling serial killers, particularly those of children. NBC has had such a rough season they currently don't even have a show available for its 8 p.m. Wednesday slot. They've been burning reruns of SVU at that time, then airing a new program at 9 p.m. it remains the highest-rated scripted program on the NBC roster, but has suffered a ratings dip between 10 and 20 percent depending on the week.
The show that's been making life difficult for SVU is the Forest Whitaker Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior spinoff. Despite the usual protests regarding its content (too much graphic violence and too many episodes where women are the victims) the program has already more than doubled CBS's audience for that time. Wednesday's episode features yet another serial kidnapper whose targets are women. But there's a rather grisly twist involved in the abductions. Both this and Criminal Minds are based on actual cases, something that should make all of us wonder not only whether humanity will survive, but whether it should.
On the other hand, if outrageous fantasy is your preference, Starz is becoming the cable network of choice. Their first effort in that vein was the ultra-violent series Spartacus: Blood and Sand, which makes such graphic shows as Dexter seem like Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood in terms of comparative body count.
Now comes Camelot, their take on King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. The program, which is filmed in Ireland, gets underway Friday night at 9, and this time out both sex and violence seem the hook.
"We want you to forget everything you know — or think you know — about the legend of King Arthur," the show's creator Chris Chibnall says. "This is not the pristine fairy-tale fantasy version of the story. People live and die brutally. These are the Dark Ages, and they are very dark indeed. This Camelot is very much a tale of today. It speaks to very simple values: How do we create a good land in which to live? How do we make our rulers be decent and honorable?"
An impressive cast includes Jamie Campbell Bower as Arthur and Joseph Fiennes as Merlin, his mentor and the person trying to keep him alive while sorceress Morgan (Eva Green), constantly schemes to get rid of him. Morgan killed her father King Uther, and is outraged that somehow Arthur ended up on the throne. There's also Guinevere (Tamsin Egerton) who just before her wedding with Leontes (Phililp Winchester) takes time off for a romantic encounter on the beach with Arthur. Making all this even funnier is the notion that Guinevere is somehow a virgin. What she does on her wedding night will no doubt prove an instant YouTube sensation.
The fact that Fiennes also reportedly is basing his Merlin characterization on Donald Rumsfeld is certainly a different approach as well. "This Camelot may piss off quite a lot of people, but we'll also draw a new audience to the story," Bower adds. "We can't worry about being irreverent to the myth. After all, it's been with us for centuries. And it will outlast us all."