Pillars of the Earth

They really don't make them like this anymore. And we're not talking about 12th-century Gothic cathedrals. The Pillars of the Earth, a sprawling historical melodrama based on Ken Follett's mammoth bestseller, conjures nostalgic memories of the days of yore, way back in the 20th century, when networks devoted entire weeks to "event" miniseries like Shogun, The Winds of War, The Thorn Birds, Lonesome Dove, to name a memorable few—although in this case, North and South is the best comparison.

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Pillars, airing eight hours on Starz over six summer Fridays, represents the best and worst of this long-neglected form of epic storytelling. It's a lavish costume spectacle, racing through the royal and religious intrigues that swirl around the construction of a cathedral in an otherwise unassuming English market town.

It gives juicy roles to a large cast including celebrated veterans (Donald Sutherland, Ian McShane), leading men (Rufus Sewell, Matthew Macfadyen) and up-and-comers (Alison Pill as an exiled queen, gawky Eddie Redmayne as the impulsive young hero). With so much story crammed into its several decades of twists and turns, many of them tragic, there's rarely a dull moment.

There aren't all that many credible moments, either, not that it matters once you get caught up in the sheer thrust of its page-turning cliffhanger-prone narrative.

This is one of those potboilers where the good guys (Madfadyen as a pious friar, Sewell as a master builder) are impossibly noble, suffering in a lawless time through the murderous machinations of the endlessly scheming villains (most notably McShane hamming it up as a cunningly ambitious church official).

Amid the beheadings and hangings, revenge plots and repetitive armed sieges, there's matricide, a witch hunt, murder, rape and other calamities. One prays for relief, but first they've got to finish that blasted church.

Along its bloody, irresistibly hokey path, Pillars builds a case for restoring the mega miniseries to its former glory. Shogun 2, anyone?

The Pillars of the Earth premieres Friday, July 23, and airs through August 27, 10/9, on Starz

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