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‘Titanic’ miniseries shares writer and theme with ‘Downton Abbey’

A lucky few make it onlifebo“Titanic” four-part miniseries thbegins Saturday ABC.

A lucky few make it onto a lifeboat in “Titanic,” a four-part miniseries that begins Saturday on ABC.

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Updated: May 11, 2012 8:04AM

Even though a full century has passed since the “unsinkable” Titanic landed on the floor of the North Atlantic, the dramatic story of this ill-fated oceanliner never gets old.

That’s a good thing, because television is devoting plenty of programming to honor the centennial of this infamous maritime disaster.

ABC is making the biggest splash with “Titanic,” a four-part miniseries airing Saturday and Sunday. It’s written by Julian Fellowes, the creator of PBS’ addictively charming British drama “Downton Abbey.” (Fans of that show will recall the Titanic’s sinking playing a major role in the initial episode.)

In keeping with the upstairs-downstairs nature of “Downton,” “Titanic” follows the stories of both crew and passengers, from the 1 percent cosseted in their first-class berths down to those slumming it in steerage, headed to America in search of a better life.

The ensemble cast — it’s a big boat, and there are a lot of folks to keep track of — plays a mix of real people and fictional characters. In a clever storytelling device, each episode of the four-hour series follows the same events from different characters’ points of view, culminating in a climactic finale where we get to see who makes it and who isn’t so lucky.

Fellowes parcels out the real action — the ship crashing into the iceberg and the ensuing chaos — among all four episodes instead of squirreling it away for the end. It’s an approach, however, that works best when each episode airs separately as opposed to back to back. ABC will run the first three installments Saturday, and the upshot is they can feel a little repetitive at times. Part four airs Sunday, on the 100th anniversary of the ship’s sinking.

The series suffers a bit from story line overload; an audience can get to know and care about only so many characters in four hours. And some of those story lines feel forced. It’s amazing how many people boarded the boat as strangers but managed to fall in love by the time the lifeboats were lowered. After all, it’s so much sadder to lose a soul mate as opposed to that person you passed in the hallway.

Soapy melodrama aside, “Titanic” does a fine job giving viewers a sense of what it was like to be aboard the doomed vessel. It’s also an interesting glimpse at the bigger social issues of the day, whether it be conflicts between the Irish and English, Catholics and Protestants, old money vs. new money — or money vs. no money. And while “Titanic” may not boast James Cameron-worthy special effects, it reads more like something created for the big screen than the small.

You’d have to be pretty lousy at your job to take a story as inherently dramatic as the Titanic and sap the emotion out of it. Fellowes is not lousy at his job. A few powerful scenes in the finale will have folks reaching for the tissue box, even though we all know how this iconic story ends.

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