It’s really surprising how much of the latest Masterpiece Theater production I spent wanting to lick this dude’s abs.
Look, True Detective is boring. The first season was great, but it worked because the two leads had insane chemistry and something approaching a sense of humor. I made it maybe five minutes into the Season Two premiere—just long enough for Colin Farrell to announce “I welcome judgment” before bailing. If that trips your switch by all means have a blast, but personally I’d rather just watch Mildred Pierce for the seven millionth time.
Fortunately, there’s a Sunday night alternative, and that’s Poldark, airing on Masterpiece Theater on PBS at the exact same time as True Detective. It’s a remake of a beloved 1970s adaptation of a series of novels written in the ‘40s and ‘50s, and it’s full of abs and long, beautiful shots of the Cornwall countryside. And it plays like Poldark’s adventures are plain and simply in the service of being pleasing to the female gaze. It’s the objectification rodeo. It’s perhaps the most perfect instance of counter-programming in the history of the medium.
Our hero, Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner, erstwhile Tolkien dwarf), returns from the American Revolution to discover that his father’s dead, his inheritance is a pile of poorly tended rocks, and his childhood sweetheart Elizabeth is engaged to his cousin Francis (who quickly emerges as a real shithead). What’s more, Elizabeth—encouraged by her dynastically obsessed mother—actually goes through with the marriage, quickly making it clear that these two won’t be riding off into the sunset together.
Instead, they’re stuck as neighbors and social acquaintances. It’s awkward as hell, and made worse by the fact that Elizabeth isn’t really attracted to Francis, and Ross’s uncle quite clearly sees Ross as more capable than his own son. (Which he is.) Everybody likes Ross and nobody likes Francis. Just a real stew of family dysfunction—which of course makes for entertaining television.
Did I mention that Ross is broke as hell? His house is such a shambles there are chickens roaming free inside. He has to rebuild his entire estate (which wasn’t much to start with) with his bare hands, basically. His tenants pitch in when they can because they actually feel sorry for him. He does a lot of very smoldering horseback riding and rock-stacking as he tries to figure out what he’s gonna do to pull this thing out of the hole on his own two shoulders. (His strong, wide, often bare shoulders.)
He’s also cut from very different cloth than, say, Darcy, and this isn’t Downton Abbey. It’s vastly earthier (which is of course fitting for a show set in the Eighteenth Century). Ross wouldn’t give a handful of beans for polite society. He’s not interested in making a brilliant match with a young woman fresh out of the schoolroom. He cares naught for society. Fortunately he does not spent much time saying this out loud, choosing instead to saunter around Cornwall in a dirty shirt doing manual labor. It’s all very swashbuckling, despite the fact nobody ever gets on a boat or draws a sword.
There’s also a surprisingly number of opportunities for outright ogling, considering it’s Masterpiece—not usually what you’d consider the Beefcake Variety Hour. Has any period drama not set on a pirate ship ever found quite so many opportunities to bare its male lead’s chest? You’ll enjoy if you want something with the hooting-and-hollering opportunities of Outlander, minus the bleak late-season storylines. (So far, anyway!)
Then there’s red-headed Demelza, whom Ross rescues in the first episode when she goes charging into the middle of a dogfight to rescue her pet. She quickly comes to work as his kitchen maid but if you’ve ever seen, oh, any movie, it’s very clear she’s a competing romantic interest. She’s a delightful rando. She spends a lot of time wandering around the fields and singing quietly to herself. She’s great.
PBS sent Jezebel a peek at the first half of the season, and there’s almost something Empire-like number of out-of-nowhere events crammed into a single hour. In the first episode alone, Ross returns, Elizabeth marries, Ross rescues and hires Demelza, Demelza leaves but comes back. In the second episode, last night’s, there’s a ball, a thwarted romance, some shenanigans involving a mine, and a duel. If you don’t like a plotline, sit tight for twenty minutes and you’ll probably get another one. It’s wonderfully soapy. It’s a far cry from “What is it, Sebastian? I’m arranging matches.”
Plus Cornwall is so god-almighty gorgeous that after an episode and a half I was trying to figure out how to make a summer vacation to Cornwall work financially. It’s that stunning. Also, at one point Ross goes swimming in a bright, bright blue sea. Buck-ass naked.
Screw True Detective. Watch Poldark.
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Photos via screencap; Courtesy of Robert Viglasky/Mammoth Screen for MASTERPIECE.