One of the happy developments of the information age is that the internet provides a means to share what moves people across the globe.
By now, we’re all aware of how prevalent it is for videos from all across the globe have the potential to go viral, and what’s true of four minute clips is increasingly true of longer media, including television.
In other words: what’s good will travel. Orphan Black migrated down from Canada. Downton Abbey and Black Mirror crossed the pond from Britain. But every once in a while a sensation will slip our notice, and the chance for spectacle presents itself.
Such is the case with Poldark, a British series that aired in the last year which is set to make its US debut on PBS this Sunday at 9pm, in hopes perhaps that Poldark will revive the excitement that Downton Abbey once brought to that timeslot.
Making the total eclipse of Poldark even more unlikely is the show’s long history in Britain. As with Dr. Who (reborn in 2005 after its original series ended in 1989), Poldark is in fact a reboot of an older British series.
When Poldark’s original episodes aired in the mid-70’s, it was an international hit, broadcast in over 40 countries, including the United States.
In Cornwall, the county that provides Poldark’s cliffside setting, church services had to be rescheduled because no one would leave the house while the show was airing.
To this day, the video sales on the original series of Poldark have only been topped by the Colin Firth Pride And Prejudice.
Poldark follows the dashing Ross Poldark, a redcoat fresh off the defeat of the 18th-century American Revolutionary War who returns home to his aristocratic family in Cornwall only to find his father dead, his fiancé engaged to his nebbish cousin, and his fortune depleted.
Poldark (in a rather American fashion) immediately sets out to rebuild his home with his bare hands, starting first with the family copper mines.
Watching today, while the original series lacks the pictorial photography featured in the reboot, the clever dialogue and acting compensate for the image handsomely, and even forty years later it makes for a lively viewing.
The first attempt to reboot the beloved series in the 1990’s was met by protests from a group called The Poldark Appreciation Society, dedicated to the preservation of Poldark’s good name, and it was quickly abandoned.
But aside from an errant criticism of the show’s depiction of scything, the latest iteration of Poldark has received no protests. In fact, the reaction has been quite the opposite.
7 million people tuned in to see the Poldark when it premiered in Britain, which to put it in perspective means that Poldark’s humble beginnings pulled about three times more viewers than the British broadcast of the Game Of Thrones finale did this Sunday.
By the time Poldark’s first season had bowed, its ratings had climbed to a 25 share, meaning one in four people who had their TV on in Britain had it tuned in to Poldark.
In other words, Poldark—goofy name and all—is a sensation. The BBC approved a second season of the series before the first had finished airing, and the cast and crew have returned to the cliffs of Cornwall to commence filming.
The only question that remains is whether or not Poldark and his tastefully manicured 5’o clock shadow can translate the success to the states.
Perhaps the key to its broad appeal is Poldark’s amiable combination of speed and simplicity.
A single hour-long episode might contain a birth, a death, a marriage, a mine explosion, and a disownment—all happening to the same family.
In one particularly manic episode, Poldark’s cousin Verity falls in love with a man named Captain Blamey (these names!) only to be shutdown by her family and given a means of meeting Blamey by Poldark.
She’s discovered with Blamey by her brother and witnesses a pistol duel between her brother and Blamey that ultimately results in Verity dumping the man she’s in love with—all in about twenty minutes.
The whole show moves at this kind of demented speed, and the constant gallop goes a long way in maintaining entertainment value.
Neither Poldark the man nor Poldark the show worry too much about the impediments that money and class generally present in both the period drama genre and in life.
Poldark is filmed with the attractive cinematic style of modern day prestige TV, but its moral simplicity presents an unpretentious alternative to the increasingly murky realm of television storytelling.
Characters say what they mean, the good guys are good and they look good, the bad guys are bad and they look bad, nice rich people fall in love with nice poor people, and no problem is too great to escape solving from noble Poldark.
Another of Poldark’s odd attractions is that while it’s not exactly prude-ish, the show tends to tease drama much more scandalous than what is actually onscreen.
In what is probably the most hilarious example from the first few episodes, Poldark takes a naked ocean swim, but we watch from the distance of about a football field.
Whether by design or by accident, the effect is that Poldark always feels like it has a trick up its sleeve, and it’s moving at such a quick clip that you don’t ever have time to feel cheated.
If we’re being honest, Poldark’s success probably has less to do with the story and more to do with the appeal of its smoldering Disney prince of a star, Aiden Turner as the titular Ross Poldark, and the no less gratuitously beautiful, but significantly less gratuitously shirtless Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza, Poldark’s spunky maid and love interest.
Much as the show markets itself on Aidan Turner’s movie star good looks, it’s Tomlinson who grounds the series, bestowing it with a recognizable humanity that Turner is too busy furrowing his impeccably shaped brows to possibly provide.
In an amusing reversal of the Fred-and-Ginger principle, Turner brings the sex, and Tomlinson brings everything else.
And if Poldark lacks the wit that made early seasons of Downton a hit, well…at least Poldark has abs.