May 19, 1997 12:00 PM

CBS (Sun., May 18, and Tues., May 20, 9 p.m. ET)


Excuse us for oversimplifying this saga of 19th-century Texas, but the central theme seems to be: Guys are never around when you need ’em—and who needs ’em anyway? The menfolk are constantly riding off on some mission or other (fighting the Mexicans, fighting the Indians, fighting the Yankees), leaving the womenfolk to perform acts of unsung heroism (repelling common bandits, repelling Comanche marauders, resisting predatory Union occupation forces). Certainly this pattern can be found throughout history, but when it’s repeated too often in one miniseries, the audience is liable to mutter, “Here we go again…” every time the husbands saddle their horses.

Adapted from the novel by Janice Woods Windle, which the author based on her family history, the story focuses on three women: Sarah (Dana Delany), a brave and resourceful mother whose husband, Bartlett (Powers Boothe), is frequently absent on Texas Ranger duty; Sarah’s younger sister Euphemia (played as a child by Tina Majorino and as an adult by Annabeth Gish), who comes to live with her after being orphaned; and Euphemia’s best friend Georgia (Angelina Jolie), a Southern belle who migrates to Texas with her doctor husband, Peter (Jeffrey Nordling). The women are concerned about racism (Georgia has Indian blood she tries to keep secret, while Euphemia disapproves of Georgia’s slaveholding) and gender inequality (men cause the wars, make the laws and write the history books), but any discussion of these matters is inevitably interrupted by the next life-or-death crisis.

Eventually female suffrage supersedes all other issues, giving the main characters a chance to unite in a brief political crusade before one of them is faced yet again with personal disaster. The principal performances are praiseworthy, but the big dramatic moments blur together, “I’m so accustomed to grief, I don’t know how I feel,” Sarah says after one of Part 2’s tragedies. We’re a bit numbed ourselves.

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