'NORTH, SOUTH' DOESN'T RISE TO THE OCCASION

Sho nuff! Parts of ABC's bloated 12-hour "North and South" (starting at 9 p.m. Sunday on Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42) are as bad as television gets.

That includes the opening scenes. It's 1842. Orry Main (Patrick Swayze), 18-year-old son of a wealthy South Carolina plantation owner, is leaving home to attend West Point. Riding off, he soon encounters a runaway coach, which crashes, throwing the driver to the ground in a heap.

Orry throws open the coach door and discovers two grateful passengers, the free servant Maum Sally (Olivia Cole)--"Praise de Lawd, somebody heard us!"--and her Louisiana mistress, the adorable Madeline Fabray (Lesley-Anne Down) who, remarkably, is unhurt, unbruised, unsmudged and unrumpled, but certainly not unattractive.

Before Madeline can open her sensual mouth, though, Orry saves her and Maum Sally from--are you ready?--a poisonous snake. Then she opens her mouth.

"You were very brave," Madeline tells Orry. Really on a roll now, she adds: "We can never repay you, suh. I don't even know yoah name."

Orry is immediately in a love boil. He peers dreamily into Madeline's eyes and sees Nielsen ratings.

"It's customary in this part of the country foh a lady to give a gentleman a token if she wishes to thank him properly," Madeline coos.

Uh oh!

All this time, meanwhile, the driver is still crumpled on the ground, unconscious, but no one cares because he's a black slave and isn't going to West Point.

Besides, Madeline has big eyes only for Orry. "Miss Madeline," cautions Maum Sally, "you hardly know 'dis gentleman." Madeline couldn't care less, though, as Orry lifts her onto his horse and they ride off together toward hubba-hubba heaven.

Can you stand it?

All this may be true to the John Jakes novel on which it is based, but, like many other lumbering miniseries, it is not very true to life. The talk in "North and South" may be about cotton, but its bumper crop is pure corn.

This is the saga of two wealthy families, one from the North and the other from the South, during the two decades leading to the Civil War. And much, much more is coming. A sequel, the 12-hour "North and South, Book II," carries the families through the war years. It is scheduled to air in the spring, marking the first time a miniseries and its sequel will have aired in the same season. Whoopee.

All right, haul out the cliches and get on with the scoop.

At West Point, Orry becomes real pals with George Hazard (James Read), son of a Pennsylvania ironworks magnate. And, oh boy, do they have problems with their deranged cadet drill master Elkanah Bent (Phillip Casnoff), who becomes one of the real heavies in this whole piece. Just catch his act in the Mexican War.

While Orry is learning to be a soldier, Madeline is wooed by that slave-crunching plantation owner Justin LaMotte (David Carradine). He gives her a music box. "It's beautiful," she says. "Not half as beautiful as you," he says. Oh, too much!

Anyone who uses a line like that in the real world would be lucky to get a date with a brick. But this is not the real world, so Madeline ends up as Justin's wife.

You've got to love Justin, who has the whole package. He may be cruel, but on the other hand, he's also sadistic. He celebrates his wedding night by flinging his resisting bride onto the bed and piling on top of her. Madeline fights. But he's too strong. She struggles. But he's still too strong. "Oh, no," she cries. Fade out.

"Just what kind of mahn is he anyway?" asks Maum Sally, who by this time is really getting to be a drag.

To make an extreeeeeemely long story short, Orry is heartbroken about Madeline, who is miserable with Justin, who despises Madeline, who loves Orry, who goes off to the Mexican War with George and gets badly wounded and goes to seed and argues about slavery with George, whose sister, Virgilia (Kirstie Alley), becomes an abolitionist biggie, and so on and so on.

That's several hours worth, leading to the climactic last nine hours.

The only thing that really works in "North and South" is Carradine's sneer. He's really got it down pat. Swayze, who has done some good work in theatrical movies, is so-so and Read a little less so. Down is still every bit the gorgeous dish she was in her first big TV smash as Georgina in "Upstairs, Downstairs," which led to a string of mediocre roles in mediocre productions, including this one.

Not all of "North and South" is really bad. It's just that it offers no texture or insights, only cheap melodrama and overdrawn characters injected into a tumultuous era that is easy to overplay and distort.

In the star cameo category, meanwhile, Gene Kelly shows up as drill master Bent's father ("Is that why you came here, to destroy me?"), Elizabeth Taylor is a madam, Robert Mitchum an idealistic doctor, Johnny Cash is John Brown and Morgan Fairchild is Morgan Fairchild.

Will America buy this?

When you're counting TV hits and misses, "North and South" co-executive producer David L. Wolper is not a man to bet against. He gave the world the Opening and Closing ceremonies of the 1984 Summer Olympics and such enormous ratings successes as "The Thorn Birds" and "Roots" and its highly watched sequel.

Now come 12 hours of "North and South." He's 'dis kind of mahn.

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