The phenomenally popular The Thorn Birds was one of TV's hardest acts to follow, so it's a surprise that The Missing Years turned out as well as it did. Produced 13 years after the original 1983 miniseries, this is not a sequel but an "in-betweener," filling part of the 19-year gap in The Thorn Birds and beginning in war-torn Rome in 1942, where Father Ralph de Bricassart (Richard Chamberlain) is struggling to rescue Italian refugees after the latest wave of bombing. He is sent back to Australia to investigate the potential for refugee relocation there, and is reunited with his former lover Meggie Cleary (now played by Amanda Donohoe, replacing Rachel Ward), whose beloved farm Drogheda is in the grip of a two-year drought. Their still-powerful love must remain unspoken, however, because Meggie has reconciled with her estranged husband Luke (Simon Westaway, assuming Bryan Brown's role), and is about to be engaged in a heated custody battle for her son Dane, whose father is actually (and secretly) Father Ralph. These family secrets, and the turbulent emotions of Meggie's teenaged daughter Justine, create enough familial tension to fill The Missing Years with the kind of ripe, involving melodrama that fueled the original miniseries. Accepted on its own merits, this is a respectable, above-average TV production, bolstered by the fine performances of Chamberlian and especially Donohoe, who intelligently plays Meggie with warmth, inner torment, and plucky tenacity, making the role fully her own. The sweeping wall-to-wall score is excessively manipulative in its attempt to elevate The Missing Years to Gone with the Wind proportions, and some viewers may question the integrity of a plot (bearing no relation to Colleen McCullough's bestselling novel) that forces a noble priest to solve his dilemma with a vengeful fistfight. Still, this is an eminently watchable TV romance that can stand on its own, without the long shadow of its much-beloved predecessor. --Jeff Shannon
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