I am struggling to process the news about Robin Williams’ suicide. It’s going to take awhile. I didn’t know him in a personal or social context, but my job gave me a chance to talk with him on four occasions over the years. Almost invariably, in those conversations we’d finish talking about whatever project he was promoting, then we would chat for awhile, off the record, about life in general.
I quickly recognized that – putting aside his prodigious genius – we had quite a bit in common. Both of us were Cancers – the screamingly sensitive sign – although Robin was born nearly a year before I was. Both of us were social misfits as we went through our school years, then developed a quick wit as a way to hide that awkwardness and loneliness, keeping most people at arms’ length by staying “on” all the time. In those post-interview chats, I really liked the sweet, vulnerable guy who wasn’t a friend but got me, as I got him.
One of those interviews happened not long after my mother died. In another one of those weird coincidences, Robin had lost his own mother not long before that. Both of us were raised by Southern women (his mom was from Louisiana, mine from Alabama), so we spent quite a bit of time sharing thoughts and, yes, complaints about how Southern mothers know how to push their sons’ buttons more efficiently than any others. “Well, they installed them,” Robin said.
We talked for nearly half an hour about that, not interviewer and subject, not friends, just two grieving sons. At the end of that conversation, he finally sighed and said, “Well, John, maybe you and I just need to think about our mothers having coffee together in heaven and saying, now and then, ‘Elvis! Put down that biscuit!’ “
That’s the Robin Williams I knew, to the extent that I knew him. He wasn’t a personal friend, yet when we talked, he seemed to let down his guard and stop performing. He gave millions of people a lot of joy, and it just breaks my heart that he got to a place where he was in such pain that he saw no other way out.
Rest in peace, Robin. Give my love to both our moms. And Elvis.
When first we meet Neil Truman (Matt Passmore) in Satisfaction, the excellent new USA Network drama series premiering Thursday night, he’s deep in a midlife funk, and he can’t understand why. After all, he has an 80-inch 3D TV in his luxurious home, which he shares with his beautiful wife of 18 years, Grace (Stephanie Szostak), and their 16-year-old daughter, Anika (Michelle DeShon), an aspiring musician.
As he enters his 40s, though, Neil is growing more aware that his all-consuming job as an investment banker isn’t leaving any time for family or fun of any kind, really. Working 70 hours a week in a job he is starting to hate, Neil tries to grab odd moments at his desk to read a book on Zen principles, hoping to restore some order to his life, but when his abrasive boss (Spencer Garrett) orders him with little notice to fly to New York to work over the weekend, Neil has a little breakdown on the airplane that is captured for posterity and posted on YouTube.
After an explosive leave-taking from his boss, Neil arrives home much earlier than expected and discovers Grace having a steamy encounter with Simon (Blair Redford), who, we soon will learn, is a paid escort – and, more to the point, a paid escort who accidentally leaves his cell phone behind. Stunned and shaken by Grace’s infidelity, Neil is in a vulnerable place when that phone rings, a call from one of Simon’s clients confirming their amorous appointment in one hour at a nearby hotel.
I don’t want to reveal much more than that about Satisfaction, which kept surprising and delighting me during its first episode. The promos have made the show look somber and heavy, but while it’s true the characters of Satisfaction are playing for some high emotional stakes, the drama unfolds with flashes of the kind of unexpected, out-of-left-field comedy that is a fact of most lives. And that, in brief, is what I love most about Satisfaction, the way it feels loose, unpredictable and a little messy, just like life.
When we get to the scene in which Neil discovers Grace with her paid playmate, the narrative abruptly jumps back six months, to show us how Grace got to this reckless juncture in a marriage she still values with a man she still loves. While Neil has spent the past several years buried in his work, Grace – a once-promising designer who had been forced to give up a scholarship to study abroad when she got pregnant with Anika – has seen her life limited to mornings at the gym and evenings in a book club where the members are far more interested in swilling wine than talking about literature, or life in any larger sense. Now that Anika is nearly an adult, Grace has tried to find work in the design field, only to be told that – metaphor alert! – she lacks life experience.
By the end of Thursday’s pilot, Satisfaction has admirably sketched in the back story of this couple who sense they are drifting apart yet have no real notion how to stop that drift. Grace has no idea that Neil saw her with Simon, partly because Neil frankly doesn’t know how to broach the subject with her. Neil also isn’t sure where Grace stands in terms of their marriage. Is she preparing to leave him?
Szostak shrewdly uses a light touch in her scenes, skirting soapiness while showing us the escalating tension Grace is feeling just under her calm surface. As good as the actress is, however, Passmore is an absolute revelation. The Aussie-born actor broke out as police detective Jim Longworth in A&E’s The Glades, but his performance here is on a whole new level. Passmore looks like he could be a Hollywood action stud, but he gives Neil a fumbling lack of confidence, a vulnerability, that I haven’t seen from him before. When Neil stumbles on Grace and her lover, his first reaction is to fight back his overwhelming urge to vomit, and he momentarily seems to lose control of his body, as if he can’t quite remember how to get his arms and legs moving in sync. It’s just a great performance, tentative, sweet, a little frightened and often sadly funny. I have a feeling spending time with Neil Truman this summer is going to provide a lot of satisfaction to USA Network viewers.
If only that were true of the main character in Rush, a new medical drama that immediately precedes Satisfaction on Thursday night. British actor Tom Ellis stars as Dr. William Rush, who used to be the top attending surgeon at a leading Los Angeles hospital before his fast-lane lifestyle caused him to crash and burn. That debacle cost Rush his job, his relationship with his father (Harry Hamlin), and his romance with beautiful hospital colleague Sarah Peterson (Odette Annable, House).
That was six years ago. Now Rush makes a comfortable living providing a private doctor service to a rich but shady clientele. Forget the Hippocratic Oath. When Rush runs into a person in medical distress, he negotiates a hefty payment up front, usually in cash, before he’ll render assistance.
Rush is, in other words, what is known in medical jargon as “a giant tool.” As Thursday’s premiere opens, he’s snorting vast quantities of cocaine with a blonde party girl, who overdoses and has a heart attack. After Rush brings her around with a portable defibrillator, he drops her at the hospital where his best friend, Dr. Alex Burke (Larenz Tate), works, pausing only to size up a comely new staff worker before dashing off into the night.
Alex is one of three very decent people we meet in the first episode who, for reasons that escape me, treat Rush with kindness and loyalty. The other two are Eva (Sarah Habel), his resourceful assistant, and his old flame Sarah, who has returned to L.A. after undergoing a double mastectomy.
Ellis is a really splendid actor who can deliver highly technical medical jargon at breakneck speed in a very credible American accent, yet I watched the first episode looking for some reason I should care about Rush. He shows up high on coke at a birthday party for his little godson (Alex’s son), shocks some of the guests by demanding a cocktail at this kiddy function, then adjourns to the bathroom to smoke a joint. Is this someone you would want to have in your life, or even spend an hour with each week via your TV?
By the end of the series premiere, Rush has had a couple of scary encounters that may have opened his eyes to how big a train wreck he is. Or maybe not. Time will tell. I like the cast enough to give Rush a couple more weeks to see if this empty suit of a character starts to grow a soul. Maybe he could borrow Neil Truman’s book on Zen, but he – or, more accurately, the screenwriters – need to take some serious measures, stat, or this show is going to flatline in no time at all.
NBC premieres two new summer comedies tonight. The titles of both start with the letter W, they’re both about families and they’re both “foreign” in a sense. Stylistically, however, they’re very different, although both are single-camera (i.e., no laugh track) sitcoms.
First up, and by far the stronger, is Welcome to Sweden, a fresh, charming romantic comedy created by Greg Poehler, kid brother to NBC’s sitcom sweetheart, Amy (Parks and Recreation), who is the show’s executive producer. Don’t shrug off this show as an exercise in nepotism, though. It’s an original.
Poehler, a lawyer turned stand-up comic and now actor, based Welcome to Sweden largely on his own life experiences, chiefly how he hoisted anchor and moved from the United States several years ago with his then-girlfriend and moved to her native Sweden, where they live nowadays just outside Stockholm with their kids. Poehler’s sitcom counterpart is Bruce Evans, a successful but bored New York accountant who has started daydreaming of another, more fulfilling career when his girlfriend, Emma Wiik (Josephine Bornebusch, also one of the show’s co-writers), accepts a big banking promotion that requires her to move back to Sweden.
Thus, the impetuous Bruce moves without a job to a new country where he can’t even speak the language, which, by the way, is fairly complex to the point that its alphabet includes non-English letters. Emma’s close-knit family includes her laconic father, Birger (Claes Mansson), and therapist mother, Viveka (Lena Olin, Alias), who welcome Bruce yet are frankly baffled that the man hasn’t made much of an effort to learn Swedish. (Viveka also is almost comically stunned that her future son-in-law is so “short,” although Poehler is at least average height by American standards).
What follows is a mostly delightful fish-out-of-water comedy, as Bruce tries to master the cultural differences of his adopted country. Poehler shrewdly conceived Welcome to Sweden to work for both Swedish and American TV audiences, which is why the show has a mostly Swedish cast, yet is performed almost entirely in English, thanks to the plot point that Bruce cannot speak Swedish. (There are a few subtitled moments where Emma’s family switches to Swedish because they’re talking about Bruce and don’t want him to know what they’re really saying). The show also includes cameo appearances by American celebrities, including Amy Poehler and her Parks and Rec castmate Aubrey Plaza, Will Ferrell and KISS frontman Gene Simmons. Patrick Duffy and Illeana guest star in a couple of episodes as Greg’s visiting Midwestern parents.
As Welcome to Sweden unfolds, it gradually becomes more about the ways in which the characters are fundamentally alike than culturally and linguistically different, although it doesn’t hit us over the head with this message. Welcome to Sweden is aimed at adults, and frankly, it more often generates smiles of recognition than conventional belly laughs.
Yet Poehler – who, by the way, looks almost disconcertingly like Greg Kinnear’s baby brother – has his own distinctive comic sensibility and perspective, along with an unpredictably delightful story to tell. I hope NBC viewers will give a warm welcome to Welcome to Sweden. A second season already has been ordered by the show’s Swedish broadcasters, and fingers crossed the show’s success will translate Stateside, too.
Welcome to Sweden is followed immediately by Working the Engels, another, far broader comedy about a “foreign” family. In this case, the show is pretty defiantly Canadian, right down to its theme song by Barenaked Ladies, a predominantly Canadian cast and crew and, for once, a Canadian urban backdrop that is NOT trying to pass as a U.S. city. (Working the Engels aired in Canada earlier this year).
The great Andrea Martin – who technically was born in Maine, but is informally an honorary Canadian, thanks to her unforgettable, Emmy-winning years on the Toronto-based SCTV sketch show – stars as Ceil Engel, a doting helicopter mom forced to rally her three children when Ceil’s attorney husband and family breadwinner dies, leaving them a storefront law firm that is $200,000 in the red.
Thankfully, daughter Jenna (Kasey Rohl) is a qualified attorney, but her two siblings – kooky Sandy (Azura Skye) and dim-bulb Jimmy (Ben Arthur) – haven’t got a lick of legal training or expertise between them. Jimmy, formerly a smalltime crook, is reasonably capable of being the office muscle, but Sandy – who at present is ill-advisedly trying out a career as a life coach and ordained-online minister – is still flailing about for a professional identity.
Jenna, clearly, is the most together of the Engels family, yet Ceil is obsessed with the lack of romance in her life. When Jenna remarks that she enjoys being alone, Ceil freaks out, saying, “You know who also said that? The lady who was so fat, they had to CUT HER out of her house. Jenna, you are 600 pounds and 14 cats away from trouble!”
NBC sent out five episodes for preview. Working the Engels is an old-fangled show in its construction, but it gets better as it goes along. Most episodes feature Jenna in a main storyline about the office, while Ceil and Sandy get a secondary, far zanier plotline. Everything comes together very comically, however, by episode five, in which for complicated reasons Sandy is trying to pass herself off as the author of an erotic legal thriller called “Banging Gavels” (the manuscript is very heavily drawn from Sandy’s actual diary).
Ceil sees the commercial prospects of this “novel,” but offers Sandy her services as an editor.
“For one thing, you spelled ‘intercourse’ with a ‘k,’ “ Ceil points out. “And you might want to change some names.”
“Of who?” Sandy asks.
“Our neighbors’ husbands.”
Martin works very, very hard to sell the weaker material, and Skye – one of those brilliant and beautiful comediennes who never has broken out as she should have – is absolutely adorable, and both Rohl and Arthur are likable enough. Too much of Working the Engels is a hit-or-miss affair, though, despite guest appearances by celebrity Canadians Eugene Levy (SCTV), Scott Thompson (Kids in the Hall) and Gregory (billed here as “Greg”) Smith (Rookie Blue). Jason Priestley (Beverly Hills, 90210) directed most of the episodes NBC sent out for preview.
Working the Engels is a very broad comedy that works fairly well as lightweight summer entertainment, but I’ll be surprised if the Engels keep working past their first season.
Two knights of the British theater, Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi, cut loose as a bickering elderly gay couple in Vicious, a new half-hour Britcom premiering tonight on most PBS affiliates (check local listings).
Created by an American, former Will & Grace executive producer Greg Janetti, the farcical comedy (which originally had the working title Vicious Old Queens) follows fading actor Freddie Thornhill (McKellen) and his partner of 48 years, Stuart Bixby (Jacobi), who share an overstuffed, overdecorated two-level London flat with their 20-year-old dog, Balthazar. The series opens on the day of a funeral for Clive St. Clair, who worshipfully adored Freddie from afar and carried a lifelong torch for him – at least, according to Freddie. Joining Freddie and Stuart for the wake is their best friend of several decades, Violet Crosby (Frances de la Tour, The History Boys), but all three of them immediately become distracted by the arrival of a new neighbor in the apartment building: Ash Weston (Iwan Rheon, Game of Thrones), a very handsome working-class lad of indeterminate amorous inclinations.
When Stuart ponders whether Ash is gay or straight, Freddie immediately promises to solve the mystery.
“After all, I did spend a year playing the detective in The Mousetrap,” he tells Stuart, referencing the venerable Agatha Christie play that has been running continuously in London since 1952.
“Oh, please,” Stuart snaps back. “Our POSTMAN has been in The Mousetrap.”
Although it is set in the present, in general tone and broad performance style Vicious is a throwback to such vintage Britcoms of the ‘70s as Are You Being Served? In fact, one episode features Stuart earning some extra cash by working in the men’s section of a department store, and I half expected Mr. Humphries to pop into the scene with his characteristic “I’m free!”
Yet while Mr. Humphries’ off-camera personal life was a matter of sniggering speculation in that bygone sitcom, the loving yet fractious relationship between Stuart and Freddie is very much at the heart of Vicious. These two cranky old gents may get on each other’s nerves, but they also share a long history that stretches back to a time when things were not at all easy for men like themselves.
“The point of those old-fashioned sitcoms was that to be gay was, in itself, funny and that you laughed at the characters rather than with them,” says McKellen, who, like Jacobi, is gay in real life as well. “This is not true of (Vicious), and I don’t think Derek and I would have wanted to be involved in this script if it were old-fashioned in that sense. We don’t get laughs as Freddie and Stuart because we are gay, but because we are the people we are. … It’s just two real men surviving with all the problems that many, many people have.”
Filmed before a live studio audience, Vicious just wants to make you laugh, and it’s a treat to watch these two stage titans setting aside any traces of dignity to achieve that end. McKellen in particular is absolutely hilarious. Watch for an episode in which Freddie auditions to play a character who has a single line on Downton Abbey. He has just barely received the thrilling news that he got the job when Ash turns up at the door to announce that, despite his complete lack of experience, he has just been hired for a part in an independent film.
Watching McKellen react to that news is a master class in comedy acting, as Freddie, completely numb, at first thinks he must have misheard, then struggles in vain to process this impossible development and finally chokes back the bitter jealousy he is feeling. The actor does all of this wordlessly, too. It’s an absolutely brilliant moment.
Vicious was an runaway smash when it ran in the UK, where it already has been picked up for a second season. Meanwhile, don’t miss this chance for the next few weeks to watch McKellen and Jacobi as you’ve never seen them before.
The Leftovers, an ambitious new HBO series adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s best-selling novel premiering Sunday night, opens with what is arguably its best scene. Three years ago, on Oct. 14, a frazzled young mother has just finished doing her laundry in a grimy laundromat, and now she’s buckling her whining infant into his car seat. That mission accomplished, she gets into the driver’s seat, chatting on her phone with someone at home, but then notices her baby has gone silent. No, wait. He’s just gone.
Panicking, she jumps out of the car and starts frantically calling the child’s name. Simultaneously, a few feet away in the same parking lot, a little boy begins screaming for his suddenly missing father, a grocery cart still in motion from where the dad had been pushing it a split second ago. In the distance, we see a serious car accident as one car, abruptly driverless, plows into another, badly injuring that driver.
Such eerie incidents are happening, not only here in rustic Mapleton, N.Y., but all around the globe, where mathematicians eventually will estimate that two percent of the world’s population has gone missing. Among those who were not spirited away, many of them surmise that the Rapture has occurred and they have been tried by heaven and found undeserving.
But is it? The more people look at who was taken, the less sense this “Sudden Departure” seems to make. Those who vanished on that Oct. 14 seemed to be a mystifyingly random collection. In addition to the righteous and heroic, that group also included known rapists, pedophiles, drug pushers, abusive parents and other heinous types. (In the only truly funny moment that occurs during the four episodes HBO provided for screening, we learn via a newscast in a bar that the Departed also included celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, Gary Busey, Jennifer Lopez and Shaquille O’Neal, among others).
Their loved ones snatched away by a bizarre event that surpasses comprehension, the remaining Mapleton residents struggle to find some meaning in their loss. Some suffer mental breakdowns. Some commit suicide. Others, like wife and mother Laurie (Amy Brenneman, Private Practice), leave their families to join a weird new fellowship that calls itself the Guilty Remnant. Its members, most of them chainsmokers, dress entirely in white and never speak, not even when alone with each other. Inherently non-confrontational, they travel in pairs and stand mutely yet prominently in public places, or quietly stalk local citizens who have caught their eye. They are not very popular.
The Guilty Remnant’s apparent purpose is to make sure no one forgets that the Sudden Departure happened. But to what end? The group doesn’t seem to attach explicitly religious significance to the event, nor can they shed any light on what it means. Four episodes in, I’m still completely stumped.
At the heart of The Leftovers is the Garvey family. The father, Kevin (Justin Theroux), is the town’s stressed-out police chief who realizes he is sitting on a pressure cooker that could blow at any moment. That’s true at home, too. His wife is gone, so three years after the event, Kevin and his headstrong teenage daughter, Jill (Margaret Qualley), are just trying to pretend that the “old normal” still prevails. Meanwhile, Kevin’s son, Tom (Chris Zylka), has drifted into the orbit of a cult leader (Paterson Joseph), who calls himself Holy Wayne and offers to “hug the pain away” for his acolytes, especially if they are underage Asian girls.
I absolutely get that The Leftovers is tackling some very big, very complex questions about the nature of life, the meaning of death, man’s relationship to God and the universe, lots of the biggies. And I applaud co-creators Perrotta and Damon Lindelof (Lost) for their courage and ambition. The huge ensemble — which also includes Ann Dowd (Michael Sheen’s mother in Showtime’s Masters of Sex), Christopher Eccleston (Doctor Who) and a beguiling theater-trained newcomer named Carrie Coon – turns in consistently strong work as well.
All that said, too much of The Leftovers is a real slog. Relentlessly somber even when it’s not aggressively depressing, the series just started to wear me down after awhile, and I’m not a guy who needs something to blow up on a regular basis to keep me entertained. I haven’t read Perrotta’s novel, but what may be fully engaging on the page too often feels inert and listless when we see it acted out. Case in point: the extended “conversations” between members of the Guilty Remnants, which force us to watch as one person scribbles down his “line” and shows it to the other person, who then takes his/her tablet and writes down the response and holds it up, etc., etc. If you think that doesn’t make for compelling television, well, you’d be right.
I watched all four of the episodes pretty much straight through, which is definitely not the way you want to approach such bleak material. On the other hand, it did make me feel immersed in the world of this story – because after four hours, I was ready to scream “Take me! Take me now!”
I can tell you nearly everything you need to know about The Last Ship, a TNT summer series premiering tonight, in four words: executive producer Michael Bay. The mastermind – I’m using the term very loosely here – behind the big-screen Tranformers movie franchise has earned a reputation for making movies in which bombastic action routinely trumps nuance and character development. While other directors focus on exploring the subtle emotional hues of a drama, Bay prefers to use crayons.
While he didn’t co-write or direct The Last Ship, this big, noisy action thriller is very much in keeping with Bay’s preferred style. The story opens about four months ago, as Cmdr. Tom Chandler (Eric Dane, Grey’s Anatomy) and his second-in-command, Mike Slattery (Adam Baldwin, Chuck), embark with their crew of the Navy destroyer U.S.S. Nathan James for what they believe to be a four-month top-secret series of weapons tests in the Arctic. Also aboard the vessel is Dr. Rachel Scott (Rhona Mitra), a paleomicrobiologist (yeah, I didn’t know that was a thing, either), who tells Chandler she’s tagging along to look for bird-borne microbes in the polar ice.
After the four months are up, however, Chandler is surprised when he receives orders for the ship to stay put until further notice. He becomes far more suspicious when Rachel, while collecting ice samples, and her party are attacked by a squadron of Russian military helicopters. Once everyone is back aboard the ship, Rachel reluctantly tells Chandler the whole truth: She’s desperately seeking the “primordial strain” of a mystery virus that has caused a devastating pandemic. While deaths had been limited to cluster groups in Africa and Asia when their ship departed four months ago, in the interim billions have died, and an estimated 80 percent of Earth’s population is infected.
With millions more dying by the day, world order has collapsed. The president of the United States is dead. No one is answering the phones at the Pentagon. Governments have fallen. As one politician tells Chandler by videophone, civilization no longer is made up of allies and enemies, just desperate individuals willing to do anything to survive.
Rachel is mankind’s best hope, if she can devise a vaccine against the mystery plague. But she knows the virus may be mutating, so if she does come up with a serum, will it already be obsolete? There’s no one she can reach in the medical community to give her updates.
As central premises go, this one is a doozy: These people are trying to save the world, yet exactly what kind of world are they saving? If The Last Ship had been willing to explore some of the myriad moral and ethical ambiguities the story invites, especially as considered by characters of some real depth and complexity, this series might have been something very special.
Unfortunately, we’re left with cardboard heroes trying to outfox stock cartoon villains: al-Qaeda terrorists! Those damn Russkies! Velociraptors! (OK, I made up that last one, but then, I’ve only seen the first three episodes).
The Last Ship is what it is, a handsome, deafening, fast-paced video game, where characters we care little or nothing about get thrust into one deadly situation after another, usually while grabbing one another by the shoulders and screaming, “YOU DON’T GET TO PLAY GOD!” or something like that. Taken on those terms, it’s definitely not boring, and John Pyper-Ferguson even manages to interject some critically needed quirkiness into the poker-faced proceedings as a former Guantanamo guard who joins the team in episode two. His name is Tex. As, of course, it would be.
If The Last Ship were a meal, it would be a bloody steak and a tall glass of scotch. If that’s what you’re in the mood for on a hot summer night, it must might hit the spot.
The Musketeers, a new period adventure series premiering Sunday on BBC America, opens as D’Artagnan (Luke Pasqualino, The Borgias) and his father are on the road to Paris from their farm in Gascony when they are set upon by a band of masked highwaymen dressed as Musketeers. One of the group, who introduces himself as Athos, murders the older man in cold blood.
Bent on revenge, D’Artagnan continues on his journey and seeks out the Musketeers, determined to kill Athos. Eventually, however, the truth becomes evident: The attackers were impostors, and D’Artagnan teams up with Aramis (Santiago Cabrera, Heroes) and Porthos (newcomer Howard Charles) to bring the real killer to justice and clear the name of the real Athos (Tom Burke, The Hour).
The trio soon realizes they have been drawn into another crafty plot by the power-hungry Cardinal Richelieu (the great Peter Capaldi, Doctor Who), who hopes to use them as pawns in his scheme. Much wisecracking and swordplay ensue.
Reduced to bare-bones synopsis, the episode may sound like standard-issue swashbuckler fare, but that’s exactly what series creator and head writer Adrian Hodges (My Week With Marilyn) doesn’t want The Musketeers to be.
“Too often, swashbuckling has become a kind of code word for insubstantial characterization, endless swordfights which have little or no consequences, and (an) old-fashioned approach to storytelling which is dull and encrusted with period trappings and lame jokes,” Hodges writes in a lengthy introduction to the series included in the BBC America press materials.
Alexandre Dumas’ classic novel The Three Musketeers has been adapted for both film and television many times, so Hodges started out with a decision not to remake the same story, but to send the well-known characters – which also include the treacherous Milady de Winter (Maimie McCoy) and the delightful Constance Bonacieux (Tami Kari) – on a series of new adventures inspired in some cases by events in the novel, in others by the historical context of the story.
This creative approach is reflected in the costumes for the Musketeers, which jettison most of the frou-frou from earlier Musketeers entries in favor of dark, leathery outfits that have eye appeal while also being action-friendly. And speaking of action, it’s very well choreographed and filmed (and, by the way, not all swordplay – the Musketeers, after all, got their name from the handguns they carry).
Also contributing to what Hodges calls “a swashbuckler with teeth” is a gallery of really excellent performances. Pasqualino is right on the money as the hot-headed D’Artagnan, while Cabrera is all sly seductiveness as the ladykiller Aramis. Burke is a thoroughly charismatic Athos, while Charles, who comes to the series from a theater background, makes an amusing, affable Porthos.
For all the merits of the men in the cast, though, I have to give huge props to Kari, whose charm and spectacular comic timing help Constance steal pretty much every scene in which she appears. This actress is a real keeper.
The wintry Czech Republic, which stands in for 17th-century France, provides one breathtaking natural backdrop after another, and the episodes I’ve previewed all move at a breakneck pace, propelled by some genuinely witty wisecracking between the Musketeers. It’s easy to see why The Musketeers, a co-production of BBC America and BBC Worldwide, already has been given the greenlight for its second season even before the first one starts airing here in the States. It’s that good.