Most people will associate the name John Jakes with the novels that formed the basis for the epic 80s-miniseries "North and South," however before Jakes' Civil War epic hit the small screen, the first three of eight "Kent Chronicles" books proved to be notable TV hits. Beginning with "The Bastard" Jakes weaves a tale of historical fiction told through the eyes of a young Frenchman, Philippe Charbonneau, the titular character of this first miniseries. "The Bastard" and "The Rebels" follow Charbonneau on his journey from France, to England and eventually America during the time of the American Revolution and along the way, he finds himself intertwined in events that would find a permanent place in history books for decades and centuries to come. The final small-screen adaptation takes a departure, entering the time period of the War of 1812 and shifts the focus on one of Philippe's descendants, Abraham. While still enjoyable to this day, the series as a whole is definitely a product of its time and those expecting rich historical fiction are best left dialing back expectations on the "historical" side of the spectrum and better prepared for a rich dose of soap-opera melodrama.
In "The Bastard" viewers don't even get a look at America until midway through the program. This is actually for the best, as the time spent focusing on Charbonneau's life allows us to make a strong connection to the character before following him on a natural character development. Andrew Stevens really grows as an actor in the lead role and once Charbonneau finds his way an enemy of England and on a boat to the New World, the actor's earlier inadequacies are all but forgotten. Stevens is at an unfair advantage as the supporting cast is a "who's who" of veteran talent, including Tom Bosley in a series stealing performance as Benjamin Franklin, Harry Morgan as naturally fatherly, wizened ship's captain, and Olivia Hussey as a femme fatale. The first entry establishes a series standard of quality production values and relaxed pace in storytelling that nicely continues in "The Rebels."
Having fully shed his days as Philippe Charbonneau, the newly christened Phillip Kent once again finds himself torn between stoic war hero and faithful companion of his true love, Anne (Kim Catrall). While Kent falls into many of the "shenanigans" that pushed "The Bastard" into soap opera-esque territory, he's no match for his friend and moral polar opposite, Judson Fletcher, played by Don Johnson in a surprisingly competent performance. As invested as the audience is in Kent's saga, Fletcher's character arc puts him in the inner seat of revolutionary politics, working alongside John Adams, played with masterful perfect by William Daniels, reprising the role he made famous in "1776." The history buffs investing their time in "The Kent Family Chronicles" will find these small collection of scenes the most engaging and it does become frustrating that the series strays far too often into the more sensational melodrama than historically grounded intrigue.
Sadly, the whole affair ends on a bit of a sour note with "The Seekers." While technically as competent as its predecessors, the complete shift away from Kent to his son Abraham (Randolph Mantooth) and his love Elizabeth (Delta Burke) is bound to disappoint due to the same reason "The Bastard" and "The Rebels" succeed; we just don't have enough time with this new character. By the time we get fully invested in Abraham and his quickly moving jaunt through history, the program is throwing Abraham's son Jarod at us and expecting us to make an equal level of connection. There's no equivalent of "The Rebels" for us to watch any character continue to grow and to be perfectly honest, this saga just doesn't have the epic feel to it that Kent's sported in "The Bastard." To be entirely honest, I could have done without "The Seekers" entirely and its inclusion while a part of the complete miniseries package, does hurt the overall quality of the trilogy.
The 1.33:1 original aspect ratio transfer is in rough shape; obviously shot on film, there's moderate, consistent print damage, while detail is the sole notable strength, but even then fine facial details are only above average at their peak. Colors are generally natural looking, but suffer from some fading, while contrast is a tad too high, and the conversion to digital resulted in some minor compression artifacts.
The Dolby Digital English 2.0 audio track is rather disappointing, with dialogue generally clear but overall suffering from the same problem the rest of the sound mix is plagued with: lifelessness. The only noticeable, detrimental problems are brief occasions of high-end distortion, but these are far between. Overall the soundtrack isn't the best I've heard from a miniseries of the same time period, but is workable. English SDH subtitles are included.
The only extras are a brief text-based biography of original series writer John Jakes and the series trailer.
Although based in history, "The Kent Family Chronicles" is far more sensationalism and melodrama that a strict history lesson. The inclusion of historical figures in "The Bastard" and "The Rebels" do enhance the atmosphere of the production, but the real draw here is Philip Kent's journey from young adulthood to key figure in the fight of America's freedom from England. "The Seekers" remains an interesting "experiment" but overall, a far lesser experience than its earlier entries in the series, viewed with extremely lower expectations it may provide a modicum of entertainment value. Recommended.