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‘The Buccaneers’ Is Edith Wharton on TikTok

‘The Buccaneers’ Is Edith Wharton on TikTok

Edith Wharton’s unfinished 1938 novel, The Buccaneers, occupies much of its second half with the unhappy marriage of Annabel, an innocent American aesthete, and the Duke of Tintagel, a small, easily slighted man whose life’s passion is repairing clocks. As analogies, they read to me as pure Charles and Diana—the too-young woman who finds herself, on her wedding day, suddenly encased in a world with unknowable rules, and the man who chooses a wife based on the extent to which he thinks he can control her.

Wharton’s ruthless eye—my favorite of all her qualities—is at full bore as she describes the couple. When the duke cries that he’s sick of being tracked “like a wild animal” by marriageable ladies, Wharton observes that he does so while looking “excessively tame.” Again and again, she mocks the clocks. (The literary critic Edmund Wilson once noted how decorative items in Wharton’s novels tend to become “agents of tragedy,” although the clocks here are more like avatars of Tintagel’s rote, plodding soul.) The Buccaneers isn’t an exceptional novel. But Annabel—or Nan, as she’s introduced—is spirited, strange, and untroubled by what people think of her. With her, Wharton does something new: She tries to imagine a fate for an extraordinary individual in conventional 1870s society that isn’t ultimately tragic.

As consumers of culture, we don’t really seem animated by stories of restraint these days, which is maybe why the Wharton boom of the 1990s and early 2000s—Martin Scorsese’s operatic The Age of Innocence, John Madden’s chilly Ethan Frome, a BBC Buccaneers, Terence Davies’s hyper-stylized The House of Mirth—hasn’t yet been equalled. The news that Sofia Coppola was adapting Wharton’s 1913 portrait of a social climber, The Custom of the Country, for Apple TV+ was thrilling, until the project was abandoned. (Apple execs reportedly found Undine Spragg—“a kind of Gilded Age Kardashian,” as one writer put it—too “unlikable.”) HBO’s The Gilded Age—essentially Wharton fan fiction from the creator of Downton Abbey—has settled into a fun mode of absurdist robber-baron extenuation.

But Apple’s new adaptation of The Buccaneers is odder still, a show that has the mood of a flower-crowned, boygenius-soundtracked bachelorette party. “Ladiessssssss!” a character crows in the first episode, with the triumphant tone of someone who’s just secured a tray of jello shots in a packed dive bar. A new wife twerks. (Twerking in bustles seems redundant to me, but I don’t know.) Wharton’s emotional architecture—the unspoken, subtextual longing and frustration and ambition—is made dully explicit, in writing so leaden and staged that it feels ripped right out of Selling Sunset. “The moment we got off that boat, all you ever wanted was to find a man,” one character reproaches another. “And the moment you did, you became a completely new person.”

Only if you think in terms of an algorithmic TV pitchbot does the show make sense. (“It’s striver culture meets Bridgerton meets Harry and Meghan meets Spotify meets Taylor’s Version.”) In an interview with Vulture, an actor for the show revealed that it was sold to her as Girls but set in the 1800s, which even she acknowledged is not what The Buccaneers ended up being. The novel—completed to some controversy in 1993 by Marion Mainwaring—spans a little over 400 pages across four sections, starting with discontented social climbers in upstate New York and ending at London’s grimy Charing Cross station, where Nan hails a cab like “a female warrior raising a sword to lead the remnants of an army to battle.” The show adapts barely a quarter of this story, which it stretches out across eight episodes by adding subplots about domestic abuse, queer exploration, and drunk-telegramming a crush. Nan’s governess, Laura Testvalley—who as a woman coming into her sexuality at 40 is one of Wharton’s most subversive characters—is recast as a somewhat sinister predator. The soundtrack, to its credit, is golden, but it eventually starts to fray under the pressure of communicating the show’s emotional intentions by itself.

To be fair, The Buccaneers makes its irreverent approach to the source material clear from the start. Skipping Wharton’s preamble in Saratoga, where Nan’s mother frets over how to best position her daughters for marriage, the show begins on the wedding day of Conchita Closson (played by Alisha Boe), Nan’s good friend, to an English lord, Richard Marable (Josh Dylan). Conchita is radiant, anxious (Richard hasn’t shown up), and pregnant. When she loses an earring out the window, Nan (Kristine Froseth) climbs down to retrieve it, has a meet-cute with the handsome but charisma-free Guy Thwarte (Matthew Broome), and finds Richard just in time to persuade him not to jilt Conchita after all. The visuals are pure Singer Sargent—crimson wallpaper, vases full of dahlias, beautifully unpainted faces. But the tone is cheeky: The first time we see Conchita in her wedding dress, she’s sitting on the toilet, and a French poodle on her bed has been dyed neon pink. “I was never supposed to be the main character,” Nan says in voice-over. “Girls are taught to believe that if a story isn’t a love story, it’s a tragedy. And I have no interest at all in being involved with either of those.”

She might prefer to be excluded from this kind of narrative, but the show fixates over the next eight hours on the love triangle of Nan, Guy, and the Duke of Tintagel (Guy Remmers), a stone-jawed aristocratic hunk who swims, paints, loves Nan beyond reason, and appears to have never picked up a clock of any kind. In other words, it’s not really a conundrum. And yet, The Buccaneers keeps shipping Nan and Guy past the point of patience, ignoring a palpable dearth of chemistry and seemingly unwilling to ground their supposed attraction in dialogue or connection. (“I was just eating a walnut,” Guy says to Nan at one point when she encounters him alone in a hallway, which pales a little in comparison with Wharton’s description of the pair standing “side by side without speaking, each seeing the other in every line of the landscape.”)

If the treatment is entirely different, the essential structure of Wharton’s plot—five spirited American friends head to England to trade their new money for old houses and cold husbands—remains. Nan’s sister, Virginia (Imogen Waterhouse), attaches herself to a lord with coercive predilections. Their friends Mabel (Josie Totah) and Lizzy (Aubri Ibrag) wrestle in different ways with the limiting roles allotted to women in the 1870s. Conchita struggles within an elitist institution that expects her to be subservient, dignified, and silent. (The show alludes to Harry and Meghan so energetically with this last storyline that Conchita, who is biracial in the adaptation, worries about her baby being treated as disdainfully by her husband’s family as she is.) The Americans are as carefree, fun-loving, and uninhibited as sophomores spending a summer abroad—“Look, an English tree!!” one shrieks while hanging half out of a carriage. Their British counterparts, meanwhile, are repressed right down to their bones, joyless and insipid. “I used to think that they needed to be taught how to behave,” Richard’s sister, Honoria (Mia Threapleton), says. “I wonder if it’s us who need to learn how to live.”

This statement is a cute idea, if your vibe of choice is “vague empowering affirmation,” and if you’re perversely inclined to ignore Wharton’s many novels about American women being ruined by immutable societal expectation. But vibes are really all The Buccaneers seems to want to convey. It’s actually a fascinating experiment: What happens if a series has the trappings of prestige television—literary heritage, a gorgeous period backdrop, a budget so unlimited that it allows for the renting of multiple castles and the licensing of a couple of Taylor Swift songs—but neither the ability nor the intention to write like it? Why would Apple rather have a painfully bland, TikTok-superficial rendering of Wharton (“Please don’t do a cutesy wood-chopping scene,” I wrote in my notes, to no avail) than enable a singular auteur to adapt a character any actor would adore playing?

Maybe the question answers itself. Maybe aspiring to create a drama that parses the tension between individual will and rigid convention, between love and money, between Old Masters and new technology, is far too risky right now. Easier to just make something that’s enough like Bridgerton that people will probably watch.

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