In the opening pages of The Buccaneers, Edith Wharton’s 1870s novel about American heiresses seeking to marry titled Englishmen, the main character’s mother, Mrs. St. George seizes his daughter’s chances. “Nan would certainly be charming, if not beautiful, like (her sister) Virginia, and with her hair up, St. George girls need not fear competition.”
Still he was worried. An acquaintance of mine named Lizzy Elmsworth had a daughter; his “dark eyebrows had a more pronounced curve, and Lizzy’s foot—oh, where did the fledgling Elmsworth take that impertinent step?”
Wharton’s wry sense of humor often defies adaptation, and that’s also true of the Apple TV+ version of “The Buccaneers,” which tries to give the series a modern flavor: What if Edith Wharton was also “Gossip Girl?” Although She is challenging at the beginning, it gets better as you progress.
The series is created by British actor Katherine Jakeways, who has a thin writing resume, but most of it includes comedy (including “Tracey Ullman’s Show”). It would be fun to see some of these abilities used here. But you can’t deny that the show’s stylistic approach conveys how rude or charming (take your pick) these wealthy, reserved Americans of the late 19th century might have seemed to their buttoned-up homebodies in England.
Some plot points and details of the book have been changed. And only a portion of the original was adapted, paving the way for successive seasons. No problem there. The friends’ days are filled with dates, missions, and a secret lesbian affair. But marriage itself is not a happy ending for anyone; It is complicated by the mother-in-law’s cold-bloodedness or outright violence. Second, it is portrayed with a masterful understanding of how psychological manipulation occurs in abusive relationships.
But first, these daughters of America’s nouveau riche (pirates of that title) land in London to find prospective husbands whose dwindling aristocratic fortunes need a cash boost. The term of art at the time was “dollar princesses”; new money supporting the old elite. And if the match is happy, even better.
Everyone understood the game, each side was after what they lacked (like money or social status), and the newspapers covered this phenomenon more entertainingly and frankly than the show itself. An actual wedding announcement from 1903 was published with the headline “She got her duke” and noted that “the new duchess was slim, dark and attractive.” It would be an exaggeration to say, as many do, that he is dazzlingly handsome. Two sarcastic society men were discussing this matter and one of them said: ‘Can you call his face handsome?’ ‘Not exactly, but his chances are,’ said the other one.” The society reporters were excited!
Apple’s version of “The Buccaneers” attempts its own brand of levity.
Nan (Kristine Frøseth) is the youngest debutante and an independent thinker unimpressed by titles or even marriage. Naturally, this attracts the attention of a duke (Guy Remmers). They meet in a cute way when they come out of the sea after a quick swim, each thinking that the beach belongs to them. Bare-breasted. Not angry.
Compare this to the wet shirt scene with Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in the 1995 adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” Because he’s famous now sexy – is both covered and revealed, creating a thrill of excitement that defies the rigid norms of the period. “Buccaneers” lacks that kind of subtle sensuality.
Even so, the cast is strong, if unfamiliar to most viewers in the US; the only exception is Christina Hendricks on “Mad Men” as Nan’s mother. Amelia Bullmore (so good in “Scott & Bailey”) plays the duke’s mother with an intriguing mix of authoritarianism and human-scale intelligence. And Frøseth’s Nan feels like a three-dimensional person asked to grow up quickly, left to determine her future without the guidance of anyone with ill-intentioned intentions. Although I initially resisted the series, subsequent episodes had an emotional resonance that convinced me. The novel was last adapted by the BBC in 1995, with Carla Gugino playing the role of Nan. Ultimately, Apple’s version has more depth.
The colorblind cast ignores anything as crude as racism, except when a character suddenly brings it up and abandons it just as quickly. Like many period dramas, this evasiveness feels less like creating a comfortable storytelling environment (lots of other ugly things happen) than about finding the subject matter too troubling to fully address.
Cheeky anachronisms abound. The costumes are realistic, the dialogues less so. The girls are single and ready to mingle, courting each other while clinking champagne glasses. But the writing just sits there like dough that refuses to rise. Lively or annoying? Maybe both.
Sofia Coppola took a similar approach in 2006’s “Marie Antoinette,” but was more cautious about how she used pop music to suggest a world open to modern sensibilities: Party. “The Buccaneers” seems laborious by comparison.
As the series progresses, she calms down, her storytelling confidence grows and she brings out her inner “Gossip Girl,” and the production design is top-notch, from a garden maze made of hedges to scenes in a massive country mansion during Christmas.
Wharton wrote fiction, but her novels function as insider accounts of the upper classes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as those who moved in or fell out.
But like HBO’s “Gilded Age” and Netflix “Bridgerton” the show is never taken into account How All this wealth had been accumulated and the pain it expected from others. Rather than framing these shows as escapism, perhaps it’s worth considering what it means to find solace in stories about the richest of the rich.
“Buccaneers – 2.5 stars (out of 4)
Where to watch: AppleTV+
Nina Metz is a Tribune critic.