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.