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    Sunday, March 03, 2024

    ‘The Buccaneers’: What if Edith Wharton, but ‘Gossip Girl’?

    In the opening pages of “The Buccaneers,” Edith Wharton’s novel about American heiresses of the 1870s looking to marry Englishmen with titles, Mrs. St. George, the mother of the central character, regards her daughter’s chances. “Nan, though certainly not a beauty like (her sister) Virginia, was going to be fascinating, and by the time her hair was put up, the St. George girls need fear no rivalry.”

    Still, she worried. There was the daughter of an acquaintance named Lizzy Elmsworth, whose “dark eyebrows had a bolder curve, and Lizzy’s foot — ah, where in the world did an upstart Elmsworth get that arrogant step?”

    Wharton’s wry sense of humor often defies adaptation, and that’s true of the Apple TV+ version of “The Buccaneers,” which attempts to infuse the series with a modern zestiness along the lines of: What if Edith Wharton, but “Gossip Girl”? It’s pushy at the outset, but gets better as it goes.

    The show’s creator is Katherine Jakeways, a British actor with a slim resume of writing credits, but most involve comedy (including “Tracey Ullman’s Show”). It would have been fun to see some of those talents put to use here. But you can’t deny the show’s stylistic approach conveys just how vulgar or bewitching (take your pick) these rich and uninhibited late 19th-century Americans might have seemed to their buttoned-up hosts in England.

    Some of the book’s plot points and details have been tweaked. And only a portion of the original has been adapted, paving the way for successive seasons. No problem there. The friends’ days are filled with flirtations and assignations and one secret lesbian affair. But marriage itself is no happy ending for anyone, complicated either by chilly in-laws or outright violence. The latter is portrayed with a deft understanding of how psychological manipulation plays out in abusive relationships.

    But first, these daughters of America’s nouveau riche — the buccaneers of the title — wash ashore in London in search of prospective husbands whose declining aristocratic fortunes are in need of a cash infusion. The term of art at the time was “dollar princesses” — new money propping up the old elite. And if the pairing was a happy one, even better.

    Everyone understood the game, each side hunting for the thing it lacked — be it money or social standing — and newspapers covered this phenomenon in a more entertaining and forthright manner than the show itself. A real wedding announcement from 1903 ran with the headline “She has landed her duke” and noted that “the new duchess is slight, dark and attractive. It is an exaggeration to say that she is strikingly handsome, as many have done. Two cynical society men were discussing the point and one of them said: ‘Would you call her face handsome?’ ‘Not exactly — but her fortune is,’ said the other.” Society reporters had zingers!

    Apple’s version of “The Buccaneers” attempts its own sort of playfulness.

    Nan (Kristine Froseth) is the youngest of the debutantes and an independent thinker who’s unimpressed by titles and even less so by marriage. Naturally this draws the attention of a duke (Guy Remmers). They meet cute when they emerge from the sea after a brisk swim, each assuming they had the beach all to themselves. He’s barechested. She’s unflustered.

    Contrast that with Colin Firth in a wet shirt as Mr. Darcy in the 1995 adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” The moment is famous because it’s sexy — he’s both covered but revealed, creating a frisson of excitement that challenged the starchy norms of the era. “The Buccaneers” doesn’t have an instinct for that kind of sensual subtly.

    Even so, the cast is strong, if likely unfamiliar to most viewers in the U.S., the lone exception being “Mad Men’s” Christina Hendricks as Nan’s mother. Amelia Bullmore (so good in “Scott & Bailey”) plays the duke’s mother with an intriguing blend of imperiousness and human-scaled wit. And Froseth’s Nan feels like a three-dimensional person who has been asked to grow up quickly, left to figure out her future absent guidance from anyone free of ulterior motives. Much as I resisted the series initially, the latter episodes take on an emotional resonance that won me over. The novel was last adapted by the BBC in 1995 starring Carla Gugino as Nan. Ultimately Apple’s version has more depth.

    The colorblind casting brushes past anything so gauche as racism, except when a character abruptly raises the issue, only to abandon the topic just as quickly. Like so many period dramas, that evasiveness feels less about creating a cozy storytelling environment (plenty of other ugly things happen) than finding the topic too uncomfortable to grapple with altogether.

    Cheeky anachronisms abound. The costumes are accurate-ish, the dialogue less so. The girls are single and ready to mingle, woo-hooing as they clink their Champagne glasses. But the writing just sort of sits there, like dough that refuses to rise. Are they vivacious or annoying? Maybe both.

    Sofia Coppola deployed a similar approach in 2006′s “Marie Antoinette,” but was more circumspect about how she used pop music to suggest a world legible to modern sensibilities: Of a teenager who wants to party. “The Buccaneers” feels effortful by comparison.

    The series calms down as it goes, growing in storytelling confidence and laying off its inner “Gossip Girl,” and the production design is first-rate, from a garden maze made out of hedges to scenes at a massive country estate during Christmas.

    Wharton wrote fiction, but her novels function as insider accounts of the late 19th- and early 20th-century upper classes — as well as those climbing in, or falling out.

    But like HBO’s “The Gilded Age” and Netflix’s “Bridgerton,” the show never considers how all that wealth was accumulated, and the suffering it required from others. Instead of framing these shows as escapism, maybe it’s worth thinking about what it means to find comfort in stories about the richest of the rich.

    ———

    'THE BUCCANEERS'

    2.5 stars (out of 4)

    Rating: TV-14

    How to watch: Apple TV+

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