The Weekend's TV: The Pillars of the Earth, Desperate Housewives

A histrionic take on the 12th century
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The Independent Culture

Oversexed monks! Death by lampreys! Lovejoy with a tonsure!

Barely a minute of The Pillars of the Earth passed without an exclamation mark. If the all-star transatlantic cast weren't raping and pillaging, they were giving birth or dying, or burning or screaming, or self-flagellating or, you know, urinating on the bishop.

You can't blame Channel 4 for chucking everything, and then a bit more, with added CGI, at its new Saturday-night drama. Scheduling a 12th-century saga opposite the 21st-century emotional epic that is The X Factor, offering up cowls rather than Cowell, is a bold move, by anyone's standards. Consequently, the histrionic factor was high, stopping just short of having X Factor's shouty voiceover man announce the characters as they galloped, with deafening clippy-cloppy hooves, on to the screen. Prior Philippppp! Tom Builderrrrr! King Stephennnn!

The Pillars of the Earth is Channel 4's big ticket for the autumn, a six-part, eight-hour mini-series based on Ken Follett's thousand-page medieval bestseller. Having aired in America over the summer, it arrives here with all the fanfare a £25m budget, the production backing of Ridley and Tony Scott and a host of famous faces (Ian McShane, Rufus Sewell and Donald Sutherland, to name but three) can muster. For all that, it started rather shakily with lyrical animated opening credits pitched somewhere between a David Starkey graphic and A-ha's 1985 video for "Take on Me". There followed a bit of clumsy scene-setting, locating us in The Anarchy, a period of tumult that followed the death of the only heir to the throne in a suspicious shipwreck (cue burning galleon!) in 1120. Around this larger struggle for succession and an almighty battle between crown and church, Follett's epic weaves the stories of a priory of penurious, scheming monks and a master builder on a mission from God to build his own cathedral.

If that all sounds a bit History Channel, it wasn't. More Caligula than Cadfael, this was historical drama in the mould of HBO's Rome. Racy elements – Witchcraft! Incest! Arson! Massive swords! – were thrown in at every possible opportunity. By the end of the relentlessly pacy opening double bill, all of these disparate elements had sort of fallen into place, ready for further bloody ructions and whispered intrigue.

Ian McShane is particularly enjoyable as the linchpin bishop, a black-eyed spider spinning furiously at the centre of a complex web of favours, obligations and secrets. And Sewell – for once not playing a smouldering baddie, or at least not yet – brings a quiet, green-eyed fervour to Tom Builder. They're all good, in fact – Hayley Atwell as a radiant aristocrat in exile, steely Alison Pill as the warrior Queen Maud and Matthew Macfadyen as the pious prior. Not allowing the excellent Eddie Redmayne to speak for two hours, though, was a criminal waste. Hopefully, he'll find his tongue for the remaining five episodes.

It's all rather cheesy and at times downright crude, but, The X Factor permitting, The Pillars of the Earth shows every sign of being as big a hit as Rome or The Tudors, which is surely what the programme-makers intended. I couldn't help wishing that its blockbuster budget and the Brothers Scott had been put to better, less old-fashioned, use. The sex-and-sandals epic is in danger of becoming the new bonnet-and-bustles period drama, a default setting for British television-makers, endlessly churning out historical smut and gore across the globe.

Talking of endlessly churning things out, the seventh season of Desperate Housewives started last night. It's now been around for so long, it appears to be gradually circling back to the beginning. Perhaps, with time, we too will find ourselves back in the days of a pre-surgery Teri Hatcher, when Eva Longoria Parker was plain old Eva Longoria... Anyway, once again we watched as model housewife, and disembodied voice of the series, Mary Alice Young shot herself in the head in her chintzy kitchen. Then we watched, bemused, as her husband, Paul Young, the friendly neighbourhood murderer from way back in season one, made plans to move into his old house on Wisteria Lane.

In a further example of television eating itself, this season's new housewife (there's always one), Lynette's vixenish college friend, Renee, "all botulism from the nose up", turned out to be played by Vanessa Williams, aka Ugly Betty's nightmarish editrix, Wilhelmina Slater. Even Carlos's beard – now absent – got its own explanatory footnote.

As usual, the series opener set up a number of jeopardy-filled storylines – the glamorous interloper, a baby swapped at birth, the threat that Paul would be dead within six months – but the surrealism and mystery of the early days has largely disappeared. It's down to Bree (immaculately porcelain Marcia Cross) to deliver the best lines. In this episode, having stripped wallpaper "like a puma", she dreamed of wild, new design scheme – "maybe a nice, deep beige" – and turned down her decorator's suggestion of a red wall in inimitably snooty style. "I'm going to be serving dinner in this room, not sailors." For her alone, it might be worth sticking it out – just for one more series.