Saturday, February 25, 2012

Missing Downton Abbey? Try The Buccaneers.

"There may be fewer of us, but we can STILL
make really bad relationship decisions!"
Like numerous Yanks, I have become obsessed with the UK import, Downton Abbey. You're either a fan or you're not, so I won't expound its merits. That would take too long. Anyone who's watched knows it's incredibly soapy for a period piece: dead sexual partners in beds, blackmail, secretly gay footmen, miscarriage-inducing ladies maids, cartoonishly evil ex-wives, cross-class affairs resulting in pregnancy, miraculously cured paralysis, and let's not forget...long lost heirs with amnesia and 100% disfiguring facial burns. I'm leaving off, like, 20 other plot lines from that list.

With Downton's second season just ended and the third season not due to return until, gasp!, winter 2013, where is an Anglophile to get her Brit drama fix on a Sunday evening?

May I suggest, turning to Netflix Instant and queuing up The Buccaneers, a 1995 mini-series from the BBC? Oh, but of course I shall.

You guys, nothing is going to be Downton, but this series is its entertaining older cousin. It focuses on four nouveau riche American girls (of Lady Cora's generation!), 'invading' England to make brilliant aristocratic marriages. Included among the young ladies is Nan St. George, an innocent dreamer played by Carla Gugino, and Conchita Closson, a 'wild' girl of 'exotic Brazilian blood' played by Mira Sorvino with a cheese-tastic accent.*

The TV series is roughly based on American author Edith Wharton's unfinished final novel. Edith knew her turn-of-the-century high society bizness; she grew up in the thick of it. Years ago I read a version of The Buccaneers that was finished after Wharton's death, based on her notes. I remembered very little from that reading except that the ending was happy-ish for a Wharton novel. Highly uncharacteristic. See: The House of Mirth, re: definition of ironic titling. that I think about it Wharton may be the perfect forerunner of Downton. Her books collectively feature upper-crust snobbery, suicide by drug overdose, paralysis (not temporary), people running up crippling debt on frivolous things, illicit sexual affairs, and marriages of (in)convenience. If that's not a predecessor of soap opera drama, what is?

I digress.

Lest you worry that a TV series based on a novel of society manners will be too dull, let me assure you that the screenwriter of The Buccaneers took some modern liberties with the original plot. The show is plenty melodramatic and filled with, "Oh, girl" moments.

I won't totally spoil how things develop for the fearless American four-some, but how is this for some Downton-like temptation...

1) Beautiful people in beautiful costumes
2) A socially-savvy governess fulfilling the role of the "downstairs" folk
3) Gossipy, condescending English families
4) An aging mistress scorned for a loveless financial marriage
5) A SYPHILIS plot line, at a time before there was penicillin for that shit
6) Out-of-wedlock fetuses
7) A closeted, gay husband who is also OCD (!)

So what are you waiting for, Downton lovers? Get your fix.

Tip: Don't worry about the abundance of grating American accents at the beginning of the first episode. They make it to England soon enough. ;)

* Double bonus points for any British aristo trivia lover: The character of Conchita is loosely based on American heiress Consuelo Vanderbilt, who married the 9th Duke of Marlborough (cousin of Winston Churchill). Her godmother was half-Cuban. **Triple bonus points: Winston Churchill's mother was also an American buccaneer, which probably fed Winston's friendship with Consuelo, even after she and her Duke scandalously divorced. BETTER THAN FICTION!