TV Review: ‘Saints & Strangers’

'Saints & Strangers': A Review of

Earnestness is the dominant feature of “Saints & Strangers,” a two-night miniseries from National Geographic Channel that chronicles the initial encounters of Pilgrim settlers and the Native Americans who were already living in what became known as Massachusetts. The third hour culminates in a depiction of the first Thanksgiving in 1621, and all that comes before fairly reflects the fraught dynamics that preceded that famous meal. And yet the serious intent of “Saints” trips it up at times; many characters remain one-dimensional, and some sequences are plodding or repetitive. That said, the mini features nuanced work in a number of the Native Americans portrayals — often the best-developed characters on the screen.

Squanto (Kalani Queypo), who famously helped forge relationships between various Native American tribes and the new arrivals, is a particularly ambiguous figure. He’s not entirely trusted by either side, and Queypo paints an effective portrait of him as a man who has lost his entire tribe and must walk a complicated and lonely path. Also wonderful is Raoul Trujillo as Massasoit, a canny leader who must adapt to the newcomers, who have brought not only diseases and a distinct lack of farming skills, but extremely powerful weapons as well.

For the Pilgrims, their strongest weapon is their faith in God, and it’s a shame that Vincent Kartheiser isn’t given more to do as the group’s leader, William Bradford. Almost every one of Bradford’s lines in the first two hours is about his belief in God’s divine plan, which reinforces the idea that the man has a strong faith but does little to add texture or compelling grace notes to his personality. Ray Stevenson, Ron Livingston, Anna Camp and Natascha McIlhone play similarly circumscribed characters; each gets an occasional moment to shine, but neither they nor their relationships acquire any real depth. The dependably excellent character actor Brian F. O’Byrne, who plays one of the soldiers in the mixed party of adventurers, fighters and people of faith, doesn’t get much to do beyond display his character’s aggression.

Still, families and history buffs might want to give this miniseries a try. The sets and costumes give a realistic idea of what the initial Pilgrim settlement was like, and the depictions of Native American cultures are thoughtful, detailed and considered. True to National Geographic’s roots in explanatory science, “Saints” takes seriously the clash of cultures, beliefs and technologies that went on to influence the founding of the nation. There may be some wooden moments as the Pilgrims attempted to survive in their new environment and as the delicate balance of tribal alliances are disrupted by the invaders. But the fine cast does what it can with the material, and it’s admirable that the drama does not downplay the ways in which the belligerence, cooperation and betrayal of the 1620s went on to embed itself in the tangled DNA of American life.

TV Review: 'Saints & Strangers'

(Miniseries; National Geographic Channel, Sunday Nov. 22-Monday Nov. 23, 9 p.m.)

Production

Filmed in South Africa by Little Engine Prods. and Sony Pictures Television for National Geographic Channel.

Crew

Executive producers, Grant Scharbo, Gina Matthews, Teri Weinberg, Eric Overmyer, Seth Fisher; producers, Jayson De Rosner, Peter McAleese; director, Paul A. Edwards; writers, Chip Johannessen, Walon Green, Overmyer; camera, Balazs Bolygo; production designer, Cristina Casali; costume designer, Kate Carin; editor, Steven Kemper, Steve Polivka; music, Hans Zimmer, Lorne Balfe; casting, Amy Hubbard. 4 HOURS

Cast

Raoul Trujillo, Vincent Kartheiser, Kalani Queypo, Ray Stevenson, Tatanka Means, Anna Camp, Ron Livingston, Natascha McElhone, Brian F. O’Byrne, Barry Sloane, Michael Jibson.

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  1. Anne Stalker says:

    Elder William Brewster (my relative 12 generations ago) was the lay pastor as well as group leader for the Saints. Their pastor was John Robinson who died of the plague in 1625 in Leiden. After 12 years living in Holland, Brewster had to keep a low profile as he returned to England before they set sail for the New World. “He was in trouble with British authorities because his Leiden publishing firm had printed and distributed a work that was harshly critical of King James. English authorites wanted Brewster arrested, and in response Dutch officials were also searching for him.” page 112 in “The Pilgrim Chronicles — An Eyewitness History of the Pilgrims and the Founding of Plymouth Colony” by Rod Gragg.

    Brewster attended Cambridge University as a teenager, although he never graduated from there. He next was an aide to one of Queen Elizabeth’s secretaries of state exposing him to government workings, diplomacy, and travel outside England. He was later the royal bailiff and postmaster in his hometown of Scrooby England. His Separatist church, who were considered criminals by the Church of England, worshipped in his home. This forced the Brewster family to go into hiding before seeking sanctuary in Holland.

    When he first got to Leiden, he worked “as a tutor, teaching English to affluent Dutch and German students at the nearby university. Eventually, however, he found his calling as a book publisher. Under the imprint Puritan Press, he published books on Puritan theology and Bible commentaries — largely written by English aurthors — and exported them for sale in England, where many of them had been banned and were largely unavailable” page 85 “The Pilgrim Chronicles”. Brewster did not translate the Bible into English. It was the volatile material that he chose to publish which got him in trouble with civil and religious authorities.

    He lived at Plymouth for 24 years when he died at age 84 outliving his family except his son Love. He was a hard worker and preacher. Governor William Bradford wrote of him, “When the church had no other minister, he taught twice every Sabbath, and both powerfully and profitably, to the great contentment of his hearers.”

    Educated, worldly, experienced, Wm Brewster had a generous, loving servant’s heart. Too bad Nat Geo left him out.

  2. Claire says:

    William Bradford was not the Pilgrims spiritual leader, he was their political leader. The spiritual leader was Rev. William Brewster, a man wanted in England for translating God’s word into English. So sad his entire family, which survived the expedition, was not even granted a cameo appearance. William, Mary, Love and Wrestling Brewster were never mentioned. If you have read William Bradford’s Plymouth Plantation, you can imagine how he might be rolling over in his grave at this rewrite of history. William Brewster was one of very few people, with Miles Standish, to be able to continuously provide care and leadership to the Saints and Strangers during their hardships and illnesses. Maybe they know how little the American people know their history, and combining the two Williams personas into William Bradford must have made for a more streamlined story. At least we finally have a more accurate description of the purpose and difficulty of the journey. For that, thank you Natl. Geographic.

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