This review of The Buccaneers contains mild spoilers.
Before I discovered any models of queerness, I discovered Edith Wharton.
As a creative spirit dulled by the rules of suburbia, I latched onto her tragic characters — especially Lily Bart in The House of Mirth. Wharton’s work was filled with people my angsty teen self could relate to; people whose lives were ruined by the expectations of society. But, off the page, Wharton had chosen happiness. She had affairs. She got divorced. She moved to Europe. This made bitter, relatable characters like Bart so much sweeter. If Wharton could escape their fate, maybe I could too.
Despite my literary standom, I never read Wharton’s final, unfinished novel, The Buccaneers. Most available copies are not only her text, but rather the controversial “completed” version co-written by Wharton scholar Marion Mainwaring.
Adaptation can capture the spirit of an unfinished novel in a way even the most skilled scholar never could. That’s why I was so excited when Apple TV+ announced they were releasing a television series based on and inspired by The Buccaneers. Unfortunately, an ingenious idea is not always matched by ingenious execution. Throughout its eight-episode first season, the show fails to capture Wharton’s voice and, more disastrously, fails to find a voice of its own.
The Buccaneers is about five American girls from new money families who travel to Europe to find husbands. Old New York treats them as inferior but Old Europe is too desperate for resources to turn down fruitful marriages. The girls are desired by the men and by the families, while also being dismissed as frivolous and crass. Will the girls be able to find true love despite expectations and cultural differences? Does true love even matter?
Kristine Froseth stars as Nan St. George, the free-spirited lead who does not care about men but nevertheless ends up in the show’s most important love triangle. Imogen Waterhouse plays her sister Jinny, a girl whose eagerness for marriage leads her toward a frightening match. Alisha Boe is their friend Conchita, who begins the series marrying a nobleman for love, and is the first to experience the constrictions of European society. Finally, there are sisters Lizzy and Mabel, played by Aubri Ibrag and Josie Totah. Lizzy is the first to experience the wrath of Jinny’s fiancé. Mabel is our token gay.
I am not a purist when it comes to adaptations or portrayals of history. Every period piece, no matter how classically done, is as much a portrait of the time it is made as the time it takes place. My issue with this show is not the pop music, or the multiracial casting, or the inclusion of queerness. My issue is the complete lack of perspective brought to any of these decisions.
This is not a new debate. It has become standard to alter the history of period pieces in favor of a broader sense of inclusion. Some view this as an opportunity for people of color to be granted the same range of stories as white people. Others view it as an erasure of history that ignores the realities of, say, 1870s high society. No matter where you land in this discussion, I feel especially critical of a show like The Buccaneers whose writing and directing team is almost entirely white cis women, and who frame their show as politically important.
Nan St. George and her compatriots are constantly proselytizing about the subjugation of women. In an early episode, Nan is appalled by the way women are paraded like cattle in front of suitors. Wharton’s complex portrayals of womanhood and society are reduced to easy feminist talking points, but, even worse, these talking points fail to land because the writers ignore race. It’s painful to watch someone who looks like Kristine Froseth rant against the social power of men in the 1870s as the camera cuts to images of men of color with darker skin than any of the lead actors.
The show also doesn’t seem to know if it wants to ignore race altogether or create an alternate world where the racism that exists in the 1870s is the same as the racism that exists today. At one point, Conchita tells her mother-in-law she knows she is judged because she looks different. In another scene, she worries that her in-laws will treat her baby poorly because the baby will look more like her. These two brief moments seem to hint that Conchita is not meant to be white, but otherwise the show ignores race altogether.
Well, it sort of ignores race. Our two female leads, Nan and Jinny, are, of course, white. Even if race is not discussed, the characters played by white actors are prioritized. During the first three episodes, Alisha Boe appears to be the second lead. But as the season continues, she yields more and more screen time, until she’s merely a supporting character in the lives of Nan and Jinny.
The same treatment is given to The Buccaneers‘ queer storyline. Casting a trans actress to play a queer cis woman is one of the few inspired choices the show makes. It’s an example of bridging the past with the present, drawing connections between queer people ostracized a century and a half ago and queer people still ostracized today. Unfortunately, this choice is diminished by how little attention is paid to Mabel’s storyline.
Mabel and noblewoman Honoria, played by Mia Threapleton, have all the beats of a lesbian subplot with none of the time to make it work. Neither character is well-developed and the arc of Mabel’s queerness is grounded in a present-day queer politic. Given the way the show approaches coming out and the possibilities of queer life, they might as well have let Mabel be a trans girl. It would’ve made just as little sense in 1870 as Mabel’s relationship to her queer sexuality.
This approach to period pieces does not only erase historical racism and homophobia. It also erases our joy. Accurate historical representation and less trauma in stories about marginalized people are not opposing goals. People of all identities have always existed and found pockets of joy in certain locations. The now canceled A League of Their Own series was a rare exception in understanding this truth. It took the realities of its characters seriously while still prioritizing fun and joy. With enough skill, creativity, and research, that balance is possible. To settle for plopping “diverse” actors into white and cis stories is to ignore the complexity of our histories.
All of these issues would feel less acute if The Buccaneers was just well-costumed fluff. Instead, its feminist aspirations lead to storylines about multiple types of physical and sexual abuse. This is in addition to the true-to-Wharton internal torture of forced marriages and empty lives. Is this a show where pretty people prance around castles? Or is this a show meant to examine the pain caused by upper class society in the 1870s and today? It tries to be both. It fails at both.
The entire plot hinges on misheard information, characters having secrets, characters trying to share their secrets and getting cut off, and other easy contrivances. My political issues with the show’s approach pale in comparison to its failings on a mere craft level. The writing is bad in terms of plotting and in terms of dialogue. The actors — who have almost all given lovely performances elsewhere — appear totally lost with words that are not past and not present, and in plots that are at once too simple and too convoluted.
Maligned upon its release, Sofia Coppola’s brilliant 2006 film Marie Antoinette has emerged as the most influential period piece of the 21st century. In recent years, shows like Dickinson and The Great, and movies like The Favourite, have copied aspects of Coppola’s approach with varied results. At the same time, the success of the musical Hamilton has led many to copy and worsen that play’s already questionable politics. These two projects have converged to their worst conclusions in The Buccaneers.
A trans girl lesbian in an Edith Wharton adaptation is like something out of my wildest dreams. Too bad The Buccaneers is such a mediocre nightmare.
The first three episodes of The Buccaneers are now streaming on Apple TV+.