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.