For viewers of a certain kind (read: me), there has been a palpable excitement over the advent of Sanditon to PBS Masterpiece. The eight-part miniseries already aired in the UK in 2019, but to know that we would finally be seeing Andrew Davies’ take on the material in the new year here was thrilling (he of 1995’s Pride and Prejudice, and a host of other major adapted classics). Sanditon was Jane Austen’s last novel, of which she penned only 11 chapters before her death. That work is the basis for this new series, although only the first half of the first episode is pulled from Austen’s material. Unfortunately, it very much shows.
Here’s the thing—no one, not even Andrew Davies, is going to be able to replicate Austen’s particular blend of clever style and sharp social commentary born from Regency-era experiences. There’s a reason that her work continues to resonate hundreds of years after it was written. But when it comes to Sanditon in particular, the sooner you divorce the series from Austen altogether, the better.
Even still, Sanditon is just not good. It can be at times—to use an Austenian word—diverting. But the scripts from Davies and his writing team are incredibly uneven, managing to eschew any kind of character development (save for one) over the course of eight unnecessary episodes. There is plenty to explore in the world of Sanditon, and the show dabbles in some of it. But other parts are sensationalized far beyond the scope of what Austen would ever have thought to include (handjobs! Sex on a snake tiled floor!), while other interesting threads are dropped altogether. And, in the end none of it really feels worthwhile.
But for those who will nevertheless march forth into the series, the basic premise is this: Charlotte Heywood (Rose Williams) has a chance encounter with the entrepreneurial Tom Parker (Kris Marshall) and his understanding wife Mary (Kate Asford). This leads to Charlotte being invited to leave her village and stay at their home in the seaside town of Sanditon, which Tom is hoping to turn into a tourist destination like Brighton. To do so, he needs to secure funding, which he is hoping to do with the help of his handsome but cold brother Sidney (Theo James). Charlotte and Sidney butt heads early on, of course, though there is affection budding there. She also catches the eye of a handsome craftsman with ambitions to be an architect, James Stringer (Leo Suter). Elsewhere, Charlotte befriends Sidney’s ward, Georgiana Lambe (Crystal Clarke), a young black woman whose mother was a slave, but who inherited a fortune from her father. There are also two scheming step-siblings and a cousin who are after an elderly aunt’s fortune, which also creates a corrosive triangle of sexual manipulation among them.
The joking about murdering an aunt for her fortune feels very Agatha Christie, while the plight of the young worker not getting paid and having to care for his injured father smacks of Dickens. More than anything, though, the relationship between Charlotte and Sidney is ported almost exactly from Pride & Prejudice, except for a final twist that seems to set up a Season 2 that we’ve been told will never come . (Williams is also particularly childlike as Charlotte, which is at one point commented on by another character, making her relationship with the very much 30s-something Sidney feel a little hinky).
Aside from its saucy and surprisingly sexual nature, Sanditon feels not only like a pale imitation of other Austen works, but of other recent (great) costume dramas like Poldark and Victoria. There’s no subtly to the writing, no character development, it has an uneven tone and ultimately (ironically) is unfinished. The half-baked plots are full of missed opportunities, and too much of the story is easily guessable or cribbed from better works in obvious ways. Though the juiciest plot belongs to the scheming trifecta of Edward (Jack Fox), Esther (Charlotte Spencer), and Clara (Lily Sacofsky), it feels totally out of place here. Still, these three actors do a tremendous job of giving some depth to their soapy situations in spite of pretty dismal dialogue and plot choices (Esther almost gets an actual arc, but she’s too unevenly written for it to land as well as it should). Georgiana’s story is another interesting one that the show doesn’t know what to do with at the start and ultimately abandons, despite being one of the only elements that’s refreshingly different (that is, the story of a woman of color in Regency England).
There’s no getting around the fact that Sanditon is an incredible disappointment, especially coming from Davies. It was never going to be exactly Austen, but instead of being in the vein of similarly novel-sourced series that expanded on their subject matter like Cranford, Poldark, or even Davies own splendid, moving adaptation of Little Dorrit, it leaned into pulp and became a careless attempt to finish what might have been a great work. The more salacious bits might well have their place, but tying it to Austen is an extraordinary miscalculation.
Sanditon premieres Sunday, January 12th on PBS Masterpiece.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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