The CBS two-part miniseries “The Dovekeepers,” which begins Tuesday, is so bad it is virtually impossible to believe it exists in the current landscape of American television.
It is so bad that a person could write books about its badness. It is so bad that it should be seen by anyone involved in television in any way, so as to ensure that this level of badness does not occur ever again.
It is so bad it’s almost good — who knew there was so much adulterous kissing in the days leading up to the mass suicide at Masada? But as “The Dovekeepers” is produced by Roma Downey and Mark Burnett, I think we can rule out intentional camp.
Which leaves bafflement. There is no reason this shouldn’t be a perfectly good “television event.”
The program is based on Alice Hoffman’s book of the same name, a New York Times bestseller and a very good read for those who like feminist retellings of history from multiple perspectives.
For those who don’t, the central story is still fascinating and dramatic. The ancient Roman siege of the fortified city of Masada came to an epically tragic end when more than 900 Jewish defenders chose suicide over surrender.
The cast for the TV program is a fine one: Cote de Pablo (“NCIS”), Rachel Brosnahan (“House of Cards,” “Manhattan”), Kathryn Prescott (“Finding Carter,” “Reign”) and the redoubtable Sam Neill as Flavius Josephus, the scholar who wrote the history of the Masada siege based on the testimony of the two women who, along with five children, survived.
Hoffman’s book is divided into multiple parts, with four women recounting the lives that brought them for one reason or another to Masada. With just four hours to cover same, plus loads of forbidden kissing and many, many, many scenes of the desert, screenwriter Ann Peacock had to streamline, so she made Flavius Josephus a character and structured the miniseries around his interaction with two of the women, Shirah (De Pablo) and Yael (Brosnahan).
A far, far better thing in theory than in execution, as it turns out, because the actual siege of Masada occupies only a few chapters at the end of “The Dovekeepers.” Most of the book is the imagined lives of women in double-digit AD.
So when Neill, grim-faced in his toga and “I, Claudius” haircut, demands an account of an event so horrific that it undid even stone-hearted Roman legionnaires, these two gals (who it must be noted look pretty fetching for having recently withstood a siege, not to mention the deaths of virtually everyone they know) start talking about their childhoods.
Which, due to circumstances beyond his control (i.e. the script), ol’ Flavius Josephus has to pretend to care about, forcing him to seem less Roman Jewish scholar and more Roman Jewish therapist.
And he has issues of his own. Oh, yes. As a Jew who has denounced his faith to survive and, of course, being a man, he is super judge-y at first, throwing the word “prostitute” around quite a bit. He also snidely concurs with the Jerusalem elders’ decision to fling Shirah into the desert after learning that she was pregnant as the result of an adulterous affair.
But slowly he softens. By the time Yael describes her own forbidden love, for a slave, he’s nodding sympathetically. “You had a connection with him,” he says, sounding like no ancient scholar ever.
The women gallop through their personal narratives, describing their love for inappropriate men and, occasionally, the quality of their daily lives. Strangely enough, neither God nor religion comes into the story much at all, except in a political sense — those damn Romans!
As fast as these lives move by, it is not fast enough. De Pablo and especially Brosnahan do their level best, but the camera is far more interested in how great they look beneath their head scarves than anything else. It quickly becomes difficult not to long for the terrible finale and just as difficult not to hate yourself for longing for it.
But then Neill is required to say something like “Another adulterous pregnancy! What is wrong with you people?” and ending it all really does seem the only reasonable thing to do.
When: 9 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)
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