Choice of Armand Assante as Ithaca’s King Odysseus turns out satisfactorily; he looks distinguished and worthy despite being used at every turn, even if his version lacks the dash, the slyness and charisma of the ideal Odysseus.
The script puts the complex epic into chronological order, starting with the birth of Telemachus to Odysseus’ Queen Penelope (a serene Greta Scacchi). Odysseus, who’s not his own master, is called to the Trojan War the day his son is born. Promising faithful Penelope he’ll be back, he doesn’t mention when.
The drama occasionally cuts back to Ithaca and to Telemachus (an attractive, earnest Alan Stenson) and Penelope, who’s being put upon by suitors. She has promised Odysseus that she’ll marry again when Telemachus reaches manhood and when she has accepted Odysseus’ death. Pestered by the worst sort, she refuses marriage because she’s sure Odysseus is alive even as the years roll by.
With the goddess Athena (a glowing Isabella Rossellini, whose sweetness is ameliorated by her straightforward manner) on his side, Odysseus and crew sail off to fight the Trojans on their beach. A Jim Henson Creature Shop pasty animatronic, billed as a sea monster, gulps down a man, but the creature doesn’t look very real. The Trojans initially keep the Greeks out of their city, but they succumb to the Trojan Horse trick. After all these years, it still works.
Odysseus, having offended Poseidon with his human arrogance, faces hard times, in the form of Homer’s threatening wonders. There’s giant Cyclops (sumo wrestler Reid Asato disguised in a convincingly scary headdress, also from the Henson group), who, trapping the crew, feeds on a man or two; and Aeolus (Michael J. Pollard), country cousin to Poseidon and god of the winds, with a surprise gift to help on their trip.
Enchantress Circe (a vamping Bernadette Peters, looking late-20th-century-ish) beckons, while free-floating messenger Hermes (Freddie Douglas) slips Odysseus an antidote that wards off Circe’s ability to change men into animals. It’s potent enough to work for the five years he spends sleeping with her. (That’s delicately covered in the vidpic by having him dream of Penelope.)
In the flame-soaked Kingdom of the Dead, the ghost of Tiresias (Christopher Lee, remaining dignified amidst all that heat) warns Odysseus that he and his shipmates have to sail past the dreaded six-headed Scylla and the deadly Charybdis, which seems to be a vast, vacillating sinkhole. In this version, it’s here that Odysseus, losing his crew, ends up on Calypso’s (Vanessa Williams) stark, white isle, whose housing resembles 1930s Hollywood’s concept of a smart nitery.
Painful cuts from the original work include the Lotus-Eaters, the Phaecia Nausicaa, the Sirens and even Odysseus’ father, Laertes. And there’s a transition problem between the abbreviated Phaecian passage and Odysseus’ arrival back in Ithaca.
There’s lots of eye-filling but tasteful flesh, thanks to Charles Knode’s costumes. And there’s the eventual grim revenge scene in a locked room, when the returned Odysseus dispatches those villains who’d been pursuing and imposing upon his wife during his 20-year (!) absence; the action could knock the home folks off the living-room couch.
Casting is interesting. Geraldine Chaplin’s the determined housekeeper Eurycleia, Paloma Baeza is the faithless maid Melanthe. Topping all is distinguished Irene Papas as Odysseus’ commanding mother, Anticlea; it’s a beaut of a sustained perf.
Eric Roberts earns mileage from his salacious Eurymachus, Penelope’s chief suitor. Youthful Stenson does a first-rate job as the dedicated Telemachus, searching the seas for his father (in this version, he gets only as far as Sparta).
But it’s Assante’s assured presence that makes the production work. Often saddled with material and action bordering on silly — clinging to a cliff and being fed an herb, lolling about in a splashing pool — Assante doesn’t for a moment give way: This is Homer’s epic, and Odysseus is a king.
Production, on a minute-to-minute basis the most expensive TV drama ever made, uses its fresh Mediterranean locales to good effect, thanks to designer Roger Hall, who also created some pretty exotic sets. Edward Artemyev provides a supportive score.
Many will wonder why Homer’s epic poem has lasted for so long. There’s more to “The Odyssey” than flashy adventures. But subtlety and verse don’t translate into ratings; this colorful edition, which has been overwhelmingly promoted, should.