“I’m always all right,” says the typically cool-headed 19th century feather-ruffler Anne Lister (Suranne Jones) in HBO’s (and the BBC’s) new series Gentleman Jack (premiering April 22). It’s a sharp little line, but also a bit of a dangerous one for a series that is, well, always just all right.
To be fair, I’ve only seen the first five episodes; things could heat up in the back end of the season. But so far, Gentleman Jack treads a meandering line—sometimes satisfying but often frustrating, a character study whose central figure remains opaque despite her grand illustration.
Gentleman Jack is not the latest incarnation of some adapted-to-death British classic. It’s instead based on the Regency-era diaries of the real-life Anne Lister, an English lady who styled herself in traditionally male fashion (at least from the waist up) and who was not entirely secretive about her romantic relationships with women.
(Word is, she was called Gentleman Jack by some, but I can’t remember an instance of the nickname being used on the show.) She’s a fascinating figure, and the notion of a television series about her is made all the more enticing by the presence of creator Sally Wainwright, whose grim little crime series Happy Valley is one of the finest TV shows to air this decade.
That’s no fault of Jones’s. A soap star turned lauded television actress, Jones is clearly having a good time stretching her legs—at a mighty strut—in a jaunty period piece like this.
She plays her scenes with gusto, navigating both the intrigues of the coal business and behind-closed-doors seduction with peppery verve. It’s a funny irony, though, that so much of the admirable work Jones does is necessitated by the weakness of the material.
Anne must be so tricky to maneuver! Her whole mien changes from scene to scene, shifting between brittle, hectoring, loving, grieving, conniving. One might say that’s a fair measure of a person’s entirety, but in Gentleman Jack, all that pivoting instead feels like convenience, like pandering—as if each scene is engineered not so we’ll better understand Anne, but to ensure that we’ll like her.
The show concerns Anne’s return to her family estate, outside the city of Halifax, and her efforts—based on real life—to restore the manor house and brighten its financial futures. Her ambitions require more capital than she has, so she sets her eyes on Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle, from Bodyguard), a lonely and psychologically frail young spinster who’s the sole inheritor of a sizable fortune.
But are Anne’s interests in Ann (yes, it gets confusing) only cynical, opportunistic?
Not really, the show wishy-washily argues. Gentleman Jack has fun, in the beginning, posing Anne as a cold calculator, speaking directly into the camera (a device the show forgets to use as it goes) as she lays out her courting scheme.
But then it seems the powers that be decide we should be rooting for this transgressive couple for purer reasons, and thus a true romance blooms.
The push and pull between Anne and Ann also allows for too much repetition, as Ann hems and haws about their illicit affair and Anne soothingly—or is it frustratedly?—coaxes her back into it. Ann’s timidity is understandable—three men were just hanged for buggery in Yorkshire, as she reminds Anne—but Wainwright doesn’t do enough to nuance each re-occurence of that fear.
It all plays the same, over and over, while Jones and Rundle struggle to shape something new.
There’s a murder (but a just one, it could be argued); there’s a French maid (Albane Courtois) who’s pregnant and a cute fella (Thomas Howes, from Downton Abbey) who wants to marry her; and there’s some nefarious business with two local brothers who control the money in Halifax, and with whom Anne pleasingly contends. I love that last part—it’s really satisfying watching Anne put those smug jerks in their place.
Those procedural scenes—along with one or two where Anne debates her sad-sack sister (a marvelous Gemma Whelan, far from the Iron Islands now)—also reveal Anne to be a bit of a snob, about her high station in life and the lower one of those who work on her property.
That’s a nice, specific bit of shading for a character who is otherwise so conditionally drawn, adapted to the climate of each scene, rather than changing it with her own particular individuality. I don’t mind disagreeing with Anne.
So it unnecessarily scrambles and realigns the character to win us back.
The most vexing and irritating aspect of the series is its intrusive score, at once discordant and too on the nose. The greatest aural offense is a jaunty main theme that follows Anne nearly everywhere she goes, a saucy refrain that is completely wrong for the material but is nevertheless played again and again until it has seared itself into the brain.
Those garish notes serve as a crucial reminder of just how much music can affect a series, even one that is more reliant on talk than aesthetics—and they serve as a symbol for what is off about the series at large. This show should be great, what with its sterling pedigree and beguiling protagonist, but hits too many things from the wrong angle, as though the prestige TV machine that made it went on the fritz partway through.
I like a lot of its performances, and am certainly going to finish out the series when the rest of the episodes are available. But I fear I’ll likely spend even more time than I already have wishing for a better, more confident Gentleman Jack, one whose interesting heroine is allowed to be who she really may have been—and isn’t drowned out by some cloying, overager tune.