In Apple TV+’s Colorful Edith Wharton Adaptation The Buccaneers, Female Friendship Takes Center Stage

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In Apple TV+’s Colorful Edith Wharton Adaptation The Buccaneers, Female Friendship Takes Center Stage

Apple TV+’s library of streaming originals has steadily expanded since its launch in 2019, featuring everything from successful comedies (Ted Lasso, Shrinking) and intriguing dramas (For All Mankind, The Morning Show), to erudite science fiction (Foundation), entertaining spy thrillers (Slow Horses), and however we want to categorize the glorious weirdness of Severance. Yet, despite its growing array of quality programs, the streamer hasn’t really done much in the realm of historical dramas. (And don’t get me wrong, the offbeat Dickinson was truly delightful, but it is most remarkable for all the ways it isn’t a typical period series.) 

That’s about to change with the arrival of The Buccaneers, an adaptation of Edith Wharton’s unfinished final novel of the same name, which has all the lush costumes, fabulous hats, swoony romances, and sweeping British landscapes any fan of PBS’ Masterpiece has come to expect from the genre. But this adaptation foregoes a prestige feel for youthful exuberance, and the end result is something that often feels as loud and messy as the lives of the girls at its center. It’s not perfect, but it’s an entertaining shot of adrenaline into a genre that could use quite a bit more of it. 

This Buccaneers clearly takes many of its visual and narrative cues from shows like Netflix’s Bridgerton rather than the original Masterpiece adaptation of Wharton’s novel, embracing an intersectional sort of female empowerment that features diverse casting, queer subplots, and sisterhood above all. The dresses are colorful, the soundtrack is thoroughly modern (and features more than one Taylor Swift track), and the scenery is absolutely stunning. And while the series features multiple romances, its focus remains squarely on the complex, often messy relationships between the young women at its center, who are allowed to be brash, cruel, strident, warm, selfish, and exuberant by turns. 

It is a period drama that is unabashedly for and about female viewers, one that recognizes that, even within a traditional story about finding a handsome man with a sizable estate to marry, there must be space for other kinds of female experiences and relationships. The Buccaneers may not give all the permutations of the girls’ friendships equal screentime, but their bond is the emotional linchpin that holds the show together, and in a genre that is often laser-focused on romantic love beyond all else, it’s joyous to behold. 

Granted, the show is not often very subtle about the larger points it’s trying to make. In this world, Americans are loud and boisterous, uninterested in doing things the way they have always been done. The English aristocracy is endlessly stuck up, often openly rude to those who stray from the path of what’s expected. Almost every major female character gets some line that feels like it’s from a basic college women’s studies course, a Feminism 101 mantra about how young women are human beings who deserve to be treated as such and who should be allowed to some degree of self-determination in their own lives. But for all its frequent clunkiness, it’s still a message that resonates, if only because it’s something that this genre has only recently begun to embrace. And here, the loud brashness that the Americans are so famous for often serves as the catalyst for necessary change, and the strength of their occasionally awkward platitudes about female empowerment is reflected in the very real agency they display in their own lives. These girls often make genuinely terrible choices. But The Buccaneers celebrates their right to make them on their own terms. 

The eight-part series (all of which was available to stream for critics) follows the stories of five best friends—Nan (Kristine Frøseth) and Jinny (Imogen Waterhouse) St. George, Conchita Closson (Alisha Boe), and Mabel (Josie Totah) and Lizzy (Aubri Ibrag) Elmsworth—whose loyalty above all is to one another. The daughters of the industrial nouveau riche, their families are sneered at by the old money New York elite, no matter how hard Mrs. St. George (Christina Hendricks) and Mrs. Elsworth (Viss Elliot Safavi) try to get them to come to their parties. 

But when Conchita marries the English lord Richard Marable (Josh Dylan), they all receive invitations to visit his family’s estate in England in the hopes that they too might be able to find societal respectability by way of marrying into the land-poor aristocracy. (This is a thing that happened quite frequently during the Gilded Age, and if it sounds familiar, it’s because it’s also Lady Cora’s backstory on Downton Abbey.) As youngest daughters Jinny and Lizzy make their debuts at the height of the London Season, the rest of the girls are drawn into a swirl of parties and weekend getaways in attractive ancestral houses where they flirt and drink to excess with a variety of handsome young men, including Richard’s brother, Lord James Seadown (Barney Fishwick); Theo (Guy Remmers), the mysterious Duke of Tintagel; and Guy Thwarte (Matthew Broome), whom Nan is surprised to see again after the pair shared a brief meet-cute at Conchita’s wedding. 

As the buccaneers party their way through the English countryside, they’re also struggling to figure out what they want and what sort of women they want to become. Jinny and Lizzy find themselves competing for the attention of the same man, while Mabel wrestles with her sexuality and how best to be true to herself. Nan is torn between Theo and Guy, and Conchita tries to find a way to live under the same roof as her in-laws who don’t like her very much. Along the way, the series grapples with issues ranging from illegitimacy and emotional manipulation to sexual assault and physical abuse. And though the girls clearly love one another, they also keep secrets, betray and lie to one another, and their friendships go through as many ups and downs as their romantic relationships. 

Frøseth plays Nan as something of a nineteenth century cool girl—outspoken and headstrong, she’s always willing to speak her mind, she’s not particularly interested in catching a husband, and she’s got a bizarre habit of wandering around with no shoes on. Her “I’m Not Like Other Girls” vibes can occasionally be a bit much, but her increasingly complicated and difficult relationships with both her mother and sister help keep the character from feeling too much like a caricature. And, unlike in Wharton’s original novel, Nan is allowed to have genuine, complicated feelings for both Guy and Theo, and the resulting love triangle is one in which all sides are surprisingly likable and easy to root for. As Nan’s younger sister, Waterhouse is given the often thankless task of playing the buccaneer who drifts furthest from her friends at various points in the story, but she still manages to ground Jinny’s repeat betrayals in a desperate need for approval—and for someone to like her best. And Totah’s indomitable Mabel is perhaps this adaptation’s most interesting swerve, grounded in a performance that makes it clear that much of her outward bravado is about trying to find a way to fit in in a world that doesn’t want her to be honest about who she is, or who she loves.

It’s true, this isn’t your mother’s Buccaneers. And as adaptations go, it doesn’t bear much resemblance to the 1996 miniseries of the same name or, for that matter, the specifics of Wharton’s novel. But, much like the girls at its center, it’s awfully hard not to find yourself swept up in their loud, unapologetic good time. 

The Buccaneers premieres Wednesday, November 8th on Apple TV+.

Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV

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