Originally broadcast on ABC in September-October 1981, The Manions of America came about as part of the wave of miniseries mania that seemed to grip TV airwaves for a while. Set in Ireland and the U.S. over a 19th century time span that includes the potato famine and the Civil War, Manions aspires to the same historical sweep as Roots, Shogun, The Thorn Birds, and The Winds of War. While it served as the first major role for then-unknown Pierce Brosnan in a torrid romantic pair-up with actress Kate Mulgrew (Star Trek: Voyager), the series has since fallen into obscurity. After watching all four and-a-half hours, I can see why - it's suitably lush and romantic, but the story isn't all that compelling.
Manions' first part (of three) begins in 1845 Ireland as the potato famine is ravaging the country's farming families - including the O'Manion clan of Galway. Brosnan enters the picture as the fiery oldest son, Rory, rushing to find a doctor as his dying mother is attempting to deliver a child. The local doctor is busy attending to the household of the wealthy British family which Rory happens to work for, the Clements. Rory's mother dies giving birth to a son named Sean, which only spurs on the guy's hatred for the upper class (strangely, his G.Q. hair isn't mussed up too much). From there it's a matter of the various O'Manion and Clement offspring having romantic pair-ups while Rory organizes an uprising with his fellow dirt-poor farmers. The headstrong Clement daughter, Rachel (Mulgrew), finds herself drawn to Rory's fighting spirit. Meanwhile, Rachel's brother David (Simon MacCorkindale) serves as a soldier in the British Army and therefore stands as one of Rory's enemies - logically, he ends up falling for Rory's pretty sister Deidre (Linda Purl). The only O'Manion sibling not romantically involved is Rory's bland brother Padric (Nicholas Hammond), who winds up getting killed in an accident. When Rory's activities brand him a fugitive, Rachel smuggles him onto a ship bound for Philadelphia - where she hopes the two will eventually be reunited.
The Manions of America was co-scripted by Agnes Nixon, creator of daytime icon All My Children, and Rosemary Anne Sisson, who penned several episodes of the addictive British production Upstairs, Downstairs. With that background, anyone might come to the conclusion that Manions is a soapy delight full of twists and turns. Mostly, however, the series serves as an ultra-earnest historical drama with nary an outlandish character in sight. It actually reminded me a lot of the plodding first season of Dynasty, with the escalating tensions between the rich and poor families against a booming industrial backdrop serving as the driving theme. What hobbles the series the worst is the ill-advised casting. Normally Kate Mulgrew (who had already appeared in Mrs. Columbo and daytime's Ryan's Hope at this point) can be counted on to bring a steely intelligence to whatever she does, but her Rachel is a cliché-ridden, mawkish drag. Although Brosnan does a decent job being contentious/magnetic as Rory, he has a strange lack of chemistry with Mulgrew. For a project like this that depends of the romantic sparks flying, the effect is deadly.
As historic drama, Manions delivers a lukewarm performance - while the Irish-set part of the tale goes in a predictable direction, the series improves quite a bit with part two's move to 1848 Philadelphia. Rory and Rachel eventually find one another and attempt to make their union succeed as Rory works his way up in the gunpowder factory run by Rachel's uncle (Steve Forrest). Despite their religious differences and the protests of Rachel's family, they marry. A disoriented Deidre also journeys to America on a disease-ridden ship, where younger O'Manion sibling Sean goes missing. While Deidre tries to have a long-distance relationship with David (who is stationed in India), she comes under the wing of the Clement's family friend Caleb (David Soul), who teaches her how to write as he gradually falls in love with her. Part three of the series continues the drama by jumping forward in time to shortly after the Civil War, where Rory (who changed his name to the more Americanized Manion) contributed heroic deeds as a Union officer. Politics, intrigue, affairs, and the sudden reappearance of characters (David, a grown-up Sean - played by Nicholas Hammond from part one) favor heavily in these final two parts - it's a veritable Knots Landing with horse-drawn buggies and hoop skirts.
Despite the lackluster drama that dogs Manions, the miniseries does remain mildly watchable throughout. Perhaps that is due to the terrific production design full of historically accurate settings, furniture and costumes (the entire series was filmed in Dublin, Ireland). Although the acting is generally middling TV-level stuff, fans of actress Linda Purl have a treat in store with her raw, honest portrayal of Diedre. While Brosnan became James Bond and Mulgrew piloted a Federation ship, Purl pretty much stuck with steady supporting roles in the years since Manions - where's the justice in that?
Entertainment One's DVD edition of The Manions of America comes in a two-disc set packaged in a single-width keep case. Parts one and two are on disc 1, while part three and the scant extras take up disc 2.
Like all '80s TV productions, Manions was broadcast in 4x3 format. The DVD edition blows up the picture to fill an anamorphically enhanced 16x9 picture. Most viewers probably wouldn't notice the difference, but several scenes contain chopped-off foreheads and legs. The enlargement also magnifies the flaws and dirt in the source print (which looks good on part one, but noticeably speckled and contrast-filled for parts two and three).
The default audio option on the discs is a processed 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack which sounds tinny and full of echoes. The mix was so bad that I ended up watching most of the series with the other option, a decent sounding 2.0 stereo mix. Convenient subtitles are also available.
The only extras are two interviews on the second disc with series creator Agnes Nixon and director Joseph Sargent, each lasting a few minutes. Although the Nixon chat was generally uninformative, Sargent reveals a few tidbits about the risky casting of Pierce Brosnan.
Lushly produced, dramatically inert relic of TV's epic miniseries craze, The Manions of America will be a slog for those who don't already like Pierce Brosnan or Kate Mulgrew. Both are magnetic actors, but their non-chemistry in this continent-spanning 19th century romance make it more of a curiosity than a must-own. Rent It.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and dilettante-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's seen are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.