Toward the middle of the two-hour “Poldark” season premiere on PBS’s Masterpiece Classic, Elizabeth (Heida Reed) castigates her Tarot-loving aunt for only prognosticating doom and gloom: “Not once have I known you to forecast an outcome that was remotely cheering!”
A fair point on any other show — but on “Poldark,” nine times out of 10 the worst is bound to happen. That’s exactly why we keep tuning in.
As in any well-made drama, the misery springs, naturally and unequivocally, from the very character traits that make us love them in the first place: Ross Poldark (Aidan Turner), the show’s eponymous hero, has the best of intentions — but is forever done in by his own pride and sense of fair play, and so on. Irony reigns, playing out in familiar characters and situations: Salt of the earth villagers, beautiful-yet-sad noblewomen, witchy Tarot readers and other denizens of the moors.
The first seven of Winston Graham’s 12 “Poldark” novels — concerning a British soldier returning home to Cornwall from the American Revolutionary War to find things not quite as he’d left them — were published 1945-1953 and take place in the 18th century. (Five later volumes focused on the characters’ descendants.) The BBC previously adapted the story in the late 1970s, and premiered this new version’s acclaimed first series in 2015.
What makes “Poldark” so clever, and such a viable commodity, is the way it simultaneously embraces and overcomes all these Cornish tropes. In the same way that a Bronte adaptation can’t be too wry and ironic, nor too hysterical or intense, the job with “Poldark” is to translate Graham’s work — with all the topical style and hyper-emotional trends — into something we can digest, experiencing it authentically rather than ironically. It’s the soap opera argument made real, and so expertly that it’s easy to forget that silly fight altogether.
Believing Ross dead, his beloved Elizabeth has taken up with another man, and much of the drama revolves around everyone feeling weird about that. His eventual wife Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson) starts the story as a subservient peasant girl, surprised by the affection Ross provides, but grows into his equal in house and home. Elizabeth, the show’s Betty Draper, is lovely and sad — smarter than others might think, capable of immense bravery, and unexpectedly kind to her romantic rival.
It’s that last bit that sells the show, for a lot of us: Not only do the women have agency within the story, and interior lives of their own, but they are not afraid of reaching out to each other in times of need, grief or kindness. In a world defined by the Bechdel Test, we can often forget what the Bechdel Test intends, which is to remind us first and foremost of women’s subjectivity in a conversation dominated by men and men’s experiences. While these domestic crises and affairs of the heart aren’t exactly groundbreaking situations, they’re filmed in a way that meets the spirit, if not the letter.
Having said that, the series is after all a romance: Anchored by Turner’s charismatic, multifaceted portrayal of a man seemingly out of his time: Too smart, too brash, too clever to be living in this small town in the 18th century. Aesthetically, too — even in the tricorn hats and waistcoats he favors, Turner’s shaggy hair and skinny-jeans frame appear thoroughly modern. And yet.
Ross Poldark fought for a country that may or may not still have his loyalty, in an unsuccessful war across the sea, only to return to find his sweetheart moved on and his family in ruins. His actions, and reactions, are absolutely believable in a time and place so thoroughly gripped by war and death — and when psychiatric help on offer would have been psuedoscience at best.
It is in the contrast of psychologically grounded characters with heightened, near-comical melodrama that the show is most truly itself. By the end of Season 1, the nonstop litany of tragedies began to feel like a live-action adaptation of “The Gashlycrumb Tinies.”
It’s crucial, then, that all the plot twists are played absolutely straight — you’ll find no servants recoiling in terror at electric appliances here, just the unending upset of life. And the show’s respect for its source material extends to all facets of production: The direction, cinematography, costuming and writing all conspire to offer an absolutely sincere (and frequently gorgeous) production — the show takes place in a world as saturated and unexpected — in tone and visuals and torrents — as the emotions beneath the stories it offers up.
Amid such tragedy, the entree of new girl in town Caroline (Gabriella Wilde) is a much needed respite for Season 2: Her Emma Woodhouse-esque good spirits arrive just in time, with a sweet flirtation scene offering the hope that she might be the one to escape this show unscathed — the Final Girl, if you will, of the 18th century. Maybe, once free from prison, Ross can retire with Demelza to a life of domestic normalcy. Maybe, once free of her abusive husband, Elizabeth can find happiness in independence. Maybe …
But still Aunt Agatha remains in the shadows, prophecies always filled with foreboding and that dowager’s brittle wink. Faced with Elizabeth’s challenge of her fortunetelling, Agatha responds with a rare smile … and the reveal that she’s just playing Snap. For now.
“Poldark on Masterpiece” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on PBS.