Poldark (PBS)

I was a little nervous to watch this series, since I had so enjoyed the original adaptation done in the late 1970s.  I needn’t have worried — this series is a worthy successor to, and in some cases better than, the original.

Ross Poldark, son of a (very) minor landowner in Cornwall in the late 18th C, joins the army and ends up on the wrong side of our Revolutionary War.  Worse yet, he is reported dead, and when he finally returns home, he discovers that his house, his tin mine, even his fiancee, have been appropriated by others.  Ross sets about rebuilding his life.  His impetuous decision-making gets him into trouble, but his winning smile (usually) gets him out of it.

The real interest of this story is in its depiction of ordinary life — a sort of rough-and-tumble version of a Jane Austen world.   Ross tries to restart his tin mine by raising money from equity investors; a young banker on the make, engaged in the relatively new practice of commercial lending, has other ideas.  Ross continues to pine after his lost fiancee, now married to someone else; his new wife has other ideas.  Ross’ friend Dwight, a forward-looking doctor, tries to help everyone, but ends up making a muck of things.

The show has its bodice-ripper aspects — Ross even takes off his shirt in one episode.  But unlike the other currently-running 18th C period drama, Outlander, there’s little explicit violence, and no rape.  (The amount of sexual violence in Outlander is actually a sore point with me, which is why I don’t recommend that program.)  Women aren’t equal in Poldark’s world — but they figure out how to get stuff done.

The story lines are straightforward (don’t think too hard), and the acting is generally good.  Robin Ellis, the original Poldark, appears in a couple of episodes as the hangin’ judge, which makes for some amusing Poldark v. Poldark confrontations.  And the scenery (particularly the coastline seen on horseback) is really stunning.

Although Poldark and Indian Summers ran sequentially in the US on PBS, they were head-to-head competitors when they were shown in Britain.  Poldark ate Indian Summers’ lunch, not surprisingly, and will be back again next year.

Indian Summers (PBS)

India, 1932.  As the story begins, the British colonial administrators, along with their families and staff, are beginning their annual trek to the mountain station of Simla to escape the torrid Indian summer.  We are introduced to Ralph, secretary to the Viceroy (a powerful position in an era when the Viceroy was usually an English aristocrat who knew little about the country); Ralph’s sister, Alice, just back from England with a toddler son in tow; and Ralph’s new Indian clerk, Afrin.  Each of them has Secrets.  And, because it’s that kind of program, Alice and Afrin fall in love.  Uh-oh.

It seems as though someone decided to manufacture a successful program by combining the best features of Downton Abbey and The Jewel in the Crown.  Unfortunately, they picked the wrong features.  The setting are beautiful, and the period costumes carefully done.  But without good writing, and sympathetic characters, all you’ve got is a bunch of silly twits who seem to do little but drink, party, and gossip, all the while lording it over their Indian servants who do all the work.  The end of the Raj can’t come soon enough.

This show isn’t bad, exactly.  Some of the minor characters and storylines are actually pretty good, although you never get enough of them.  But the series commits the cardinal sin for programs of this type — most of the time, it’s just boring.

The Last Kingdom (BBC America)

The premise of this series, based on novels by the contemporary British novelist Bernard Cornwell, is simple enough.  In 9th C Britain, Uhtred of Bebbanburg, born a Saxon but raised by Danes, ultimately makes common cause with Alfred the Great, who is trying to counter the Viking invasion.  Uhtred, who finds himself far from home with people who mistrust him, is a brave warrior with little sense of how to influence people.  Alfred, who is willing to fight, prefers to negotiate, a real rarity in this darkest of dark ages.  Uhtred learns (slowly) to appreciate Alfred’s ability to think ahead, while Alfred learns (even more slowly) the value of Uhtred’s ability to seize the moment.

It’s like a scaled-down version of Game of Thrones — one plotline at a time instead of 7 or 8, and 20 characters with impossible-to-remember names instead of 200.  The violence, gore and gratuitous nudity is toned down too.  The series is surprisingly good – although Uhtred is fictional, Alfred is very real, and some of his more prominent Viking adversaries (including the wonderfully-named Ubba the Boneless) were real too.  The writing is generally good, the characters are believable, and there’s even a little humor.

Catch it if you can.

The Man in the High Castle (Amazon)

Four episodes in, I’m willing to call this adaptation of Phillip K. Dick’s novel a winner.  In Dick’s dystopian vision, the Nazis develop the bomb first and win the war.  The US is divided up into Nazi territory (basically everything east of the Continental Divide), a Japanese co-prosperity sphere on the West Coast, and a Rocky Mountain “neutral zone,” where refugee Jews, people of color and random malcontents survive as best they can.

As our story begins, it is 1962, and there is about to be a leadership change in Berlin.  The Japanese are worried that the Nazis, having rolled up the rest of the world, will turn to them next, starting with San Francisco.  Most Americans have figured out how to get on with their lives, although there is a low-energy resistance movement on both coast.  Two would-be revolutionaries, however, are heartened by the discovery of a movie showing an alternate history — one where America won the war.  They go in search of the mysterious Man in the High Castle, somewhere in the mountains.

One of the show’s real strengths lies in the visual depictions of the fictional alternate universe.  Nazi America has ultramodern public transportation and supersonic planes, but no interstate highways (no Eisenhower), and no rocket fins on the cars (no Cold War, no Sputnik, no space race).  Family life in uncomfortably close to Leave it to Beaver, except the Beav wears a Hitler Youth armband, and there are no people of any color.  In Japanese America, they have solid state TV, which shows Japanese sumo wrestling, and rich Japanese buy American cultural artifacts to bring home.  Guns and Bibles are, of course, illegal everywhere.

All of this is fun, but the show’s creators didn’t  forget the important stuff.  The writing is pretty good — they’ve made a few changes to the original, but nothing outrageous.  The acting, with a cast of mostly unknown actors, is pretty good too.

Highly recommended.