REASON TO WATCH: The Ken Follett novel (also an Oprah Book Club Selection)
WHEN/WHERE: Starts Friday at 10 p.m. on Starz
THE MINISERIES "The Pillars of the Earth"
WHAT IT'S ABOUT This eight-hour miniseries airs over six Friday nights (this week's episode is two hours). It is Starz's ambitious adaptation of Follett's 1989 bestseller. The drama, set in 12th century England, is largely preoccupied with the civil war between Queen Maud (Alison Pill) and King Stephen (Tony Curran) over the rightful heir to the throne, following the death of Henry I. In the midst of succession strife, there rises a cathedral - the most magnificent one ever built, with flying buttresses and other spectacular architectural flourishes that will be remembered, and preserved, long after the world has forgotten about Maud and Stephen.
The cathedral is the wellspring of a lowborn contractor, Tom Builder (Rufus Sewell), and Prior Philip (Matthew Macfadyen). Tom's a pragmatist with grand ideas - but Philip is guided by God and posterity. Their plans, of course, are dramatically affected by the bloody war, and the malignant designs of Bishop Waleran Bigod (Ian McShane), whose allegiances shift with the tides.
MY SAY There is a lot to commend in this "Pillars of the Earth," chiefly the actors - who are uniformly excellent - and its set design. But to co-opt that old Broadway line, when was the last time you left a movie whistling the set design? Starz's "Pillars" feels deeply like a beloved novel consigned to miniseries, which is to say it's more attentive to the author's intentions (and audience's expectations) than to the filmmaker's.
BOTTOM LINE Everything has been stuffed into these eight hours (sorry, I sampled only the first three): every character, development, plot, historical reference, along with a pivotal pig and cow or two. Admirers of the novel probably will be pleased. Average viewers who never read the novel (or any historic fiction) will be either confused or bored - possibly both.