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TELEVISION REVIEW

In Starz’s ‘Pillars,’ cheesy plot is just part of the fun

Tony Curran (left) and Ian McShane in “The Pillars of the Earth.’’ Tony Curran (left) and Ian McShane in “The Pillars of the Earth.’’ (2010 Tandem Productions Gmbh)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / July 23, 2010

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I kind of love Ian McShane in “The Pillars of the Earth,’’ the new Starz miniseries set in 12th-century England. As the wonderfully, absurdly evil Bishop Waleran Bigod, he is wearing a wig that made me think of Norman Bates’s mother. At times, he’s in enough mascara to lead Green Day, and he spits out his lines as if he were starring in “King Lear.’’ He’s creepy — McShane, who was Al Swearengen on “Deadwood,’’ can’t not be creepy — but he’s got camp allure, too. He carries off his churchly drag with aplomb, and thunder literally claps when he speaks.

“The Pillars of the Earth,’’ which premieres with a two-hour episode tonight at 10, doesn’t offer much character nuance — not just from McShane, but everyone in the sprawling cast. The eight-hour adaptation of the 1989 Ken Follett novel is all about epic emotions, and almost every character is either very good or — mua-ha-ha-ha! — very bad. But that doesn’t spoil the enjoyable miniseries, which is as addictive as “Rome,’’ but oh-so-much cheesier. I was quickly entranced by the dastardly villains, the crooked royalty, the bloody battles, and, of course, the lusty love-making.

And the incest, too. “The Pillars of the Earth’’ serves up a second irresistible villain, a social climber named Regan Hamleigh who will do anything to move her family — and, in particular, her nasty son William — up the ladder. Played by Sarah Parish, she is fantastically loathsome and depraved; and the incest material between her and William will give you a full-on case of the willies. The miniseries is swarming with noble characters, but it comes fully alive when either Parish or McShane are hamming it up.

The overall story line, which is filled with subplots about fair lasses and true birthrights, is about the yearslong building of a massive cathedral. While King Stephen (Tony Curran) dukes out the ownership of the throne with King Henry’s daughter, Maud (Alison Pill), a gentle prior named Philip (Matthew Macfadyen) struggles to keep the construction moving forward. His visionary contractor, conveniently named Tom Builder (Rufus Sewell), is a craftsman and designer who has the drive to make it work. Tom is involved with a mysterious healer named Ellen (Natalia Worner), who may be a witch or may just be a woman who’s centuries ahead of her time.

There are a few more plot strands in “Pillars,’’ which is executive produced by Ridley and Tony Scott among others. Ellen is raising an earnest boy named Jack (Eddie Redmayne), who is an extraordinary sculptor, and he gets caught up in a love triangle involving the fair Aliena (Hayley Atwell). But don’t worry about keeping track of it all. The abundance of material plays out naturally, in a nicely arranged script by John Pielmeier that leans heavily on the R-rated soap side of things. You’ll probably get lost in the high melodrama while watching this massive chess game, where the pawns are as prominent as the bishops, the king, and the queen.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog.

THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH

Starring: Ian McShane, Matthew Macfadyen, Eddie Redmayne, Rufus Sewell, Hayley Atwell, Alison Pill, Natalia Worner, Donald Sutherland

On: Starz

Time: Tonight, 10-11:50