NBC (Sun., Feb. 2, 9 p.m. ET)
After you’ve watched the first hour of Sins and had your fill, you may consider changing the channel in favor of sins on a grander scale: lust, greed and power played out in imperial Russia under Peter the Great. Change away. You’ll be rewarded with scenes of majesty, pageantry, beauty, intrigue and drama. But be warned: After an hour of Queen Joan, your brain will be disengaged, unready for the accelerated history lesson you’ll get here, filled with incomprehensible conspiracies, unfamiliar names and a touch too much tedium. At the start, Peter looks uncomfortably like its mini cousins George Washington and Christopher Columbus, shows so skittish about mucking with history that they leave their stories and settings sterile and their characters anemic. But the real tale of Peter the Great, drawn from the Pulitzer-winning bio by Robert K. Massie, rescues this eight-hour, four-night saga from such a dull fate. This was a man whose sister, wife and son conspired against him and called him the Antichrist, a man who opened Russia to the West, who learned to build ships with his own hands and lopped off the heads of enemies with his own hatchet. This was a fascinating man; no TV show can take that away from him. Vanessa Redgrave will get you through the difficult first hour; as Peter’s villainous sis, she steals the show and makes it look like grand larceny. Other big names—Laurence Olivier, Trevor Howard, Elke Sommer—also make appearances, but ones even briefer than Liz Taylor’s in North and South. Maximilian Schell gives the part of Peter (the adult) true grit and impressive power, but he doesn’t walk on until halfway through the series. No, the true stars of Peter are its less-known names: especially Jan Niklas as Peter the young man and Hanna (A Love in Germany) Schygulla as Peter’s mistress and later Russia’s empress, Catherine; also Helmut (The Damned) Griem as Peter’s best buddy, Renee (The 4th Man) Soutendijk as Peter’s other mistress, and Lilli Palmer as Peter’s mom. Once the story gets revved up, these people will entertain you. So will the magnificent scenery, filmed on location in the U.S.S.R.