Give HBO credit for figuring out a way to counter-program against itself. This week, the network premiered the period piece drama Gentleman Jack, hoping to retain the type of viewers who might not be invested in all the Game of Thrones hoopla. Not that there couldn’t be crossover between these audiences, of course (hey, I watched both), but I doubt this one will grow to be another monster hit.
Combining a bit of Jane Austen with a little Moll Flanders, and probably a host of other literary inspirations I’m not educated enough to catch, the series is allegedly based on the diaries of a real-life historical figure named Anne Lister, a landowner and businesswoman whose unapologetic lesbianism created a stir in the social circles of 1830s Halifax.
The series opens with Anne (Suranne Jones) returning home to family estate Shibden Hall after years abroad. A world traveler who rarely stays in any one location for long, Anne’s visit is prompted by heartbreak. Though she tries her best not to show it and doesn’t want to talk about the details, her relationship with “companion” Miss Vere Hobart has apparently fallen asunder. To take her mind off this loss, she pours her attentions into righting all the affairs of her family, who have allowed their property to fall into disrepair during her absence. Her father is too elderly to take care of the place anymore or collect rent from their tenants, and her resentful sister Marian (Gemma Whelan) has too much of a stick up her butt about a woman’s proper place in society to do much of anything but idle and gossip.
With her mannish style of dressing, forthright demeanor, keen business mind, lack of concern for propriety or gender norms, and refusal to ever budge an inch for anyone over anything, Anne storms through town, constantly on the move, tromping from one location to the next and bossing everybody around. This rubs many the wrong way (especially Marian), but her methods certainly get results. In little time, she not only shores up the family’s finances, but sets them on a course to cash in on the wealth of coal buried on the property.
All the while, Anne insists that her stay is only temporary and she intends to leave again shortly. However, her kindly aunt also named Anne Lister (Gemma Jones, who played the mother in Sense and Sensibility) slyly arranges an introduction with Miss Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle), an heiress from a neighboring house whom the aunt suspects might share Anne’s… shall we say, affinities. Sure enough, Anne is quite captivated with the girl and vows by episode’s end to woo her and take her as a wife, anyone’s objections to that plan be damned.
Episode Verdict / Grade: B-
Gentleman Jack checks off a lot of the boxes it was explicitly designed to tally. It’s a handsomely mounted series with nice photography, costumes, and period production design. The dialogue is clever and sometimes witty, and the heroine is a strong feminist role model who proudly stands up to the sexism of her time in a way modern audiences demand from any story set during this era. It’s also, I suspect, a lot of bullshit – based on a real person or no.
The tone of the piece just rings false for me. It has far too much of a modern feminist sensibility with little acknowledgement that the attitudes and behaviors depicted from this character would simply not be tenable in society during this period. Perhaps that will be addressed later, but the pilot episode plays Anne as an unstoppable force of nature, easily bending the entire town to her will and winning over everyone she encounters. There’s more pure fantasy in the first 60 minutes of this series than the last eight seasons of Game of Thrones.
Some fourth wall-breaking moments where the character speaks directly to the camera also strike me as too calculatedly whimsical.
The show isn’t awful, but I think I got just about all I need out of the first episode and don’t feel a pressing need to watch further.