One of TV’s brightest gems has one of the strangest names, which means that its quiet four season run on PBS may have passed you by. There’s still time! The Durrells in Corfu is just about to enter its fourth and final season in the U.S., where we will say goodbye to this English family living in Greece in the 1930s. It sounds very posh, but in fact Louisa Durrell (the exceptionally charming Keeley Hawes) moved her four children from England after the death of her husband because they were struggling financially. Life is (or was, at this time) cheap in Corfu, where the family takes up residence in a wonderfully ramshackle and remote house right on the water—which also lacks electricity or other modern conveniences. The series is loosely based on the real story of the Durrells in a trilogy written by Louisa’s youngest son Gerry (portrayed in the series by Milo Parker).
As Louisa mentions at the start of this final season, they don’t own this drafty house but rent it, often needing “to pawn something or other” to keep it going. Still, there is a dreamy idealism to the simplicity of the Durrells’ life on this Greek isle during an often forgotten period of time between the World Wars. In Season Four we start to get a whiff of the fascism that is sweeping across Europe and infecting Greece, but despite that encroaching darkness, things are still sunny, strange, and wonderfully full of humor here for the most part.
We’ve established that this isn’t a series about posh people, but it could still look (to some) like a stodgy historical drama. It is truly anything but. The Durrells is incredibly funny, thanks largely to Hawes’ “grin and bear it” portrayal of Louisa, who is unflappable in the face of everything her children get involved in (and that she sometimes gets involved in as well). Her eldest son Larry (Josh O’Connor) is something of a confidant but also a consternation as he grumpily writes his novels and giddily (and constantly) brings a revolving door of girlfriends to the house. Leslie (Callum Woodhouse) is an exasperating dolt who loves shooting his guns and puffing himself up beyond his abilities, but he’s also increasingly likable (he’s also hilariously worshipped by their elderly and often infirm housekeeper Lugaretzia, played by Anna Savva). Margot (Daisy Waterstone) is interested in everything but not particularly good at anything, though her desire to find her vocation is one that echoes the show’s overall themes (Waterstone’s portrayal of Margot as an earnest ditz is truly fantastic). Finally, Gerry (Parker), is a young naturalist who keeps an array of animals to study throughout the house (inside and out), adding to the already carnival-esque atmosphere within their abode.
Like all good TV families, they love each other, constantly yell at each other, and also mildly insult one other. “Did … Margot do that to your hair?” a family member asks a boarder when he comes downstairs sporting an uneven fringe. “She did!” he replies. “Let this be a lesson to us all,” Louisa says knowingly to everyone. The show is filled with those small moments, like when the family is stranded at an unfamiliar tavern and told that the owner’s friend can entertain them (with spoons on an out of tune stringed instrument): “Would you like my friend to play? 10 drachma. No? 10 drachma not to play then.” (The payment is eventually handed over).
There is some culture clash humor, but neither the English nor the Greeks are lauded as having better ideas about anything. Often, everything is just a funny, forgivable mess. The stakes are fairly low in the series, and yet, there is a surprising amount of action (people escape from windows, boats blow up, children are nearly shot, cars crash—all in the most oddly serene ways possible). The show is also incredibly emotional for one that is also so glib, especially when it comes to home truths being revealed. But it’s also keenly perceptive, and all hail writer Simon Nye’s deftly composed scripts, with a cast who knows how to deliver these exceptionally drole lines:
The Captain: “I have some animals back there if you want to take them. If you don’t buy them I’ll probably eat them, I’ve given the little shits fair warning.”
Gerry: “What are they?”
The Captain: “Oh I don’t know, badgers? You’ll have to ask them yourselves.”
And yes, that language is slightly saucy for a series airing on PBS, and it can be surprisingly liberal and edgy (it also addresses sexuality and sexual fluidity in very natural ways at a time when that was a definite taboo). But that’s also part of The Durrells’ delightful, quirky patter. The calm atmosphere of acceptance (generally, although not totally) also heightens the fantasy feeling of being in this strange little corner of the world between two massive, horrendous world events. It’s the story of a family and of a small town, but also of a world about to enter an entirely new era.
For the Durrells specifically, Season Four brings more unexpected professions (Margot starting a salon, Gerry wanting to build a zoo), as well as residual heartbreak for Leslie and a new course being set for Larry. Louisa is also still upset over the reality that she cannot be with the man she recently realized she truly loves (Louisa’s love life is a driving factor in the series and often has surprising outcomes), but melancholy does not linger long in Corfu—and often leads to moments like Louisa sputtering to the family’s close (and very dashing) friend Spiros (Alexis Georgoulis), “I will have as many men in the house as I need to pay the rent!” (Talking about her lodgers, of course).
But the less known about the gentle twists the final season takes the better. Suffice it to say that the family continue to have their adventures, but the feeling of things winding down is acute in these last episodes. For those returning to the series, you will be greeted with all of the easy-going, low-key, and whimsical touchstones that have made the show so good over the years. And if you are just now considering catching up, you are in for a treat. (Durrells has a total of 26 episodes, which is not an insurmountable number even in Peak TV!) And you will be the one urging people to get past the strange names of the title (which will no longer be strange to you) and give this wonderful show a chance. It is a soothing, deeply engaging alternative to the sound of fury of so many current dramas. There’s nothing supernatural or world-ending, there’s no excessive violence or gruesome horror. It’s just a quirky little family in an unfamiliar place who bring with them a heaping amount of laughter and joy. And in doing so, Durrells has made itself an essential watch.
The fourth and final season of The Durrells in Corfu premieres Sunday, September 29th 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