‘The Buccaneers’ Review: Apple TV+’s Edith Wharton Adaptation Eventually Finds Its Spark

Apple TV+’s The Buccaneers opens with a wedding that almost doesn’t happen. As Conchita (Alisha Boe) frets in her family’s New York mansion, Lord Richard (Josh Dylan) pulls up late with a breakup letter in hand, worried his free-spirited fiancée won’t “fit” with his uptight English family. It’s only when Nan (Kristine Frøseth), Conchita’s maid of honor, reminds Richard that nothing matters but their love that he rips up the note and goes ahead with what looks to be the most lavish nuptials of the century.

But what might on another show play as a testament to the power of love will ultimately prove on this one to be a warning of its limitations. With its poppy soundtrack, headstrong heroines and endless galas, the comparisons to Bridgerton are inevitable, well warranted and, in early episodes, not entirely flattering to The Buccaneers. But if the Netflix drama was a blushing bride dreaming of happily ever after, The Buccaneers might be her worldlier cousin — more skeptical and more pragmatic, but with an intriguing sharpness that feels all her own.

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Or perhaps a more apt comparison would be in terms of their respective personalities. If Bridgerton gets its heat from British repression, The Buccaneers finds its spark in American liberation — and the clash between the two, as Conchita’s bridesmaids follow her to London in hopes of snagging their own titled husbands. But Conchita’s been chafing under life with Richard’s family, who disdain her brash ways even as they welcome the cash infusion that her “new money” family brings to the union. Her friends, likewise, discover that however snooty American old money might be (as seen concurrently on the second season of HBO’s The Gilded Age), the pretensions and perils of the British upper class are on another level entirely.

Initially, creator Katherine Jakeways (adapting an unfinished novel by Edith Wharton) paints the cultural differences with a broad brush that does neither side any favors. The Brits undeniably come off worse: Their iciness is exemplified by Richard’s mother complaining of her daughter-in-law’s labor pains that “English women have been getting on with the job for generations with no need for any silly fuss.” By contrast, Nan, her sister Jinny (Imogen Waterhouse) and their pals Lizzy (Aubri Ibrag) and Mabel (Josie Totah) are a veritable whirlwind of giggling, dancing, Champagne-swigging energy. But what should seem charming grows tiresome when it takes the series a few episodes to reveal who these individuals actually are, beyond stereotypes of bold American women.

Its blend of girl-power feminism and historical romance can feel off-kilter to start: Is there any line dripping with more main character energy than Nan announcing in voiceover that “I was never supposed to be the main character” because she doesn’t care about boys or marriage? The tone eventually settles into a more even keel (or maybe I just got used to it after a while), but the series never totally overcomes its tendency toward heavy-handedness. To the end, it’s a series where sad people spend great amounts of time gazing moodily at the sea or wandering around a hedge maze filled with literal dead ends. The soundtrack, meanwhile, dispenses with metaphor entirely: Of course there’s boygenius crooning “I can’t love you how you want me to” as a lady angsts over her betrothal to a man she doesn’t entirely love.

Even so, anyone with a taste for historical romance is likely to be at least a little charmed from the start. Frøseth’s guileless warmth renders Nan’s not-like-other-girls attitude more endearing than annoying, and the pilot, directed by Susanna White, rewards her with not one but two meet-cutes: one with Guy (Matthew Broome), who first sees her scaling the side of a building, and another with Theo (Guy Remmers), a wealthy duke she mistakes for a poor artist. Theirs and several other courtships play out over eight hours of extravagant parties during which young women in silk gowns and young men in sharp suits exchange heated glances, dance with forbidden crushes and sneak off to private libraries to declare their feelings or give into them.

But The Buccaneers really comes into its own as it sets about to puncture the very fantasy its characters had been chasing. Nan’s disinterest in titles might make her an ideal match for a duke tired of being surrounded by people who care more about who his parents are than who he is — but the practical realities of her and Theo’s situation threaten to steer them toward the very same loveless fates they’d hoped to avoid by prioritizing true connection. Richard and Conchita’s passion for each other is never in doubt, but the ability of that passion to overcome a lifetime built on repression and obligation is. In the season’s darkest storyline, an eligible bachelor of impeccable manner and unimpeachable breeding reveals himself, behind closed doors, to be a brute who delights in manipulating and humiliating women.

Against such harsh realities, the Americans frequently discover that the instruction they’ve received all their lives to secure respectable matches not only fails to protect them, but leaves them vulnerable to dishonor. What had started out looking like a series about desire reveals itself to be one about shame — and specifically about the shame that corners women into unhappy relationships, that forces them to sacrifice their own needs for others, that pressures them to conceal their true selves. In its most poignant moments, The Buccaneers makes it possible to see how youthful hope can sour into adult dissatisfaction — as with Nan and Jinny’s mother Patty (Christina Hendricks), who’s beginning to realize how much of her pride and passion she’s given up for the sake of a husband (Adam James) who’s never treated her with the same regard.

And in the big and small acts of care its women offer one another, The Buccaneers shows how the bonds of sisterhood can offer them, if not always a way out, at least a bit of solace. The Buccaneers‘ first season concludes with another wedding that consciously echoes Conchita and Richard’s from the premiere, down to the harried bridesmaid carrying around an enormous box of flowers. This time, though, we know better than to see it as a fairy-tale ending. What lingers as the season’s most heartfelt embrace is not the one between two newlyweds, but between the five girls just before they enter the chapel — aware that whatever comes next, their truest commitment will always be to one another.

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