Writing recently in the New Yorker about Wolf Hall and the tradition of Masterpiece Theatre, Emily Nussbaum observed that “before The Sopranos broke the monopoly, PBS was America’s primary source for prestige television.” She went on to say, rightly, that such programming has come to seem “stuffy,” a word that immediately calls to mind the air quality in a crowded drawing room, where well-coiffed Brits play genteel card games before requesting that the lady of the house favor them with a bit of piano—exactly the sort of scene any halfway decent Masterpiece Theatre adaptation invariably supplies.
God, how I delight in breathing such stuffy air.
Masterpiece Theatre, or more specifically, period miniseries starring Brits sometimes dealing with inheritance issues and always dealing with love, is my ultimate comfort television. I am speaking of programs like Wives & Daughters, North & South, Brideshead Revisited, The Way We Live Now, Cranford, The Forsyte Saga, Bleak House and on and on and on all the way to the platonic ideal of the form, Pride & Prejudice, yes, of course, the one co-starring Colin Firth. When watching one of these series, I always feel like it is pouring outside and I am cozy indoors, sipping a warm beverage, even if, in fact, I am watching on a phone in a crowded subway on a stinking summer day, or not watching at all: Just thinking about Masterpiece Theatre is enough for me to conjure thunder rumbling in the distance. The company of impeccably mannered gentlefolk who use the word “countenance” and love with fervor but no kissing is my preferred beta-blocker. (When Masterpiece Theatre is not available, feel free to self-prescribe Merchant Ivory.)
So you would think I would be ecstatic about the arrival of Poldark, premiering on PBS this weekend and already a huge hit in England, where 10 million people have gathered to watch Aidan Turner, the actor playing Poldark, take off his shirt at regularly scheduled intervals. (Turner has an eerie resemblance to Joe Millionaire, and the even tan of a Bachelor contestant.) Based on a beloved two season miniseries from the ’70s, itself based on a series of novels by Winston Graham, Poldark is, basically, a hagiography of Ross Poldark, a fiery gentleman with heart, spine, guts, and impeccably defined washboard abs.
As the series begins, Ross, fighting on the wrong side of the American Revolution, is wounded and mistaken for dead. He returns home, triangle cap atop his mop of raven hair, an elegant scar running down the side of his face, looking as if he had cried a rivulet of chocolate milk. He discovers that his father is dead, leaving him a nearly valueless estate, and his true love, Elizabeth (Heida Reed) is poised to marry his cousin Francis (Kyle Soller).
Heartbroken and broke, Poldark sets about changing his fortune, which proves to be too easy. Each episode of the series comes to resemble a procedural in the consistency of its beats: Poldark faces a setback, which he overcomes by throwing in not with his fellow gentleman but with the poor, achieving a near-happy ending. On the fiscal front, he reopens his father’s derelict mine, working the ore alongside the miners, even as his peers sneer at the company he is keeping. On the verge of bankruptcy, they strike copper. On the love front, Poldark takes on a female pauper, Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson), as a maid, even as his peers sneer that he is sleeping with her. He’s not, until he is, at which point, his peers still sneering, they marry and fall in love. Poldark has no patience for dramatic tension. It is always in a rush. It turns what should be a deliciously drawn-out love story into a fait accompli.
Such is my addiction to this particular genre that I obviously snorted the entire thing. But, as a connoisseur of this junk, trust me when I say it gives a reduced high. It is too in love with Poldark, who we see, among other things, sassing a judge who has no sense of justice, breaking into a prison to aid a gangrenous and ill man, and busting a card sharp for cheating. Such is Poldark’s gravitas that his cousin Francis, one of the only supporting characters rendered in any detail, ruins his own marriage out of insecurity that he cannot measure up to Poldark. As scenes of both men scything their lands make clear, he certainly does not measure up to Poldark’s stunning shoulder-to-waist ratio.
Poldark makes an interesting comparison to Downton Abbey, in that both are keenly interested in class. All the Masterpiece Theatre dramas present history as a kind of fantasy—a more elegant, less busy, more romantic time. But Downton, written by Sir Julian Fellowes, has even more of an agenda: The past isn’t just some hazy moment full of grand estates and Mr. Darcys; it is a paragon of bucolic stability, when the lower classes knew their place, and the upper classes provided for them. Poldark, superficially, is less nostalgic for such a clearly delineated time. Ross marries a servant girl and pals around with miners and is happier for both. But Poldark’s only real enemies are the Warleggens, new-money bankers who, though recently poor, care only for profits and easily control the weak, if well-meaning, upperclassmen who do business with them. Only Poldark stands up to them, stronger than his peers and more ethical than the Warleggens. On Poldark, it’s the enlightened gentleman, with the burly chest of a superhero, who is still the best caretaker of all.