For centuries, shame has been used to keep women in subservient roles. The threat of embarrassment and ostracization has kept women from all cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds silent and complacent. Of course, even within their roles navigating “polite society” or as laborers and caregivers in the working class, women have always found ways to rebel against the rules that have suffocated them and compressed their humanity.
Based on the unfinished novel by Edith Wharton and adapted for television by Katherine Jakeways, Apple TV+’s “The Buccaneers” is set in the 1870s, and follows a close-knit group of American socialites who sail across the Atlantic Ocean with their naivety and money for a chance at finding a match in London’s marriage market. The series, which features the inclusive casting and anachronistic tunes that “Bridgerton” (and Apple TV+ series “Dickinson” too) have been known for, is a frenzied and delightful examination of the culture clash between American and British aristocracy. It also showcases how women have always sought to save themselves and each other while lacking societal powers or autonomy.
“The Buccaneers” begins with a wedding, as 17-year-old Nan St. George (Kristine Frøseth) is rushing around her family’s newly built New York mansion in preparation for her best friend, Conchita Closson’s (Alisha Boe) nuptials to Lord Richard Marable (Josh Dylan). After a thrilling summer romance, the pair are set to tie the knot before moving to the U.K. to live under the glare of the nobleman’s closeminded, traditional brood. Despite the couple’s obvious love and affection for one another, Richard is already apprehensive about how his bride’s new money, exuberance and skin color will be received.
To ease Conchita into her new reality, Richard invites Nan, her older sister Jinny (Imogen Waterhouse), their mother Mrs. Patricia St. George (a marvelous Christina Hendricks), as well the Elmsworth sisters, Lizzy (Aubri Ibrag) and Mabel (Josie Totah) overseas to make their own marital matches, and to keep Conchita company in an environment heavily resistant to every aspect of her personality.
Several months later, upon arrival in London, Nan is greeted by a despondent and heavily pregnant Conchita suffering under the judgment of the unbearably cold and cruel Marables. Nan is hardly interested in the Queen’s meat market of young ladies, but she finds herself at odds with Jinny, who is determined to find a husband, even at the expense of her friendships and a long-held family secret. Though Nan doesn’t possess Conchita’s sparkle or Jinny and Lizzy’s striking beauty, her smarts and boldness win the attention of Theo, Duke of Tintagel (Guy Remmers), and the affection of Guy Thwarte (Matthew Broome), the duke’s oldest friend, with whom she had a brief encounter in New York. As Nan becomes unwittingly torn between two men, the other ladies, including Nan’s mother, Patricia, are forced to face the consequences of the lives that they are bound to.
“The Buccaneers” moves swiftly, leaping through weeks and months in just eight drama-length episodes. The series may have benefited from two additional chapters, allowing the viewers to linger a bit longer inside the lives of the ladies circling Nan. It’s baffling, for example, that Conchita’s extended family isn’t seen nor is barely mentioned. The women deal with abuse, sexual identity revelations, humiliation and crushing isolation. An extended season may have provided a more intimate understanding of this stiff European world through the eyes of the vibrant American women moving within it. Additionally, while Nan’s relationships with Theo and Guy are initially intriguing, abrupt shifts focusing on different storylines never let the viewer feel immersed in their passions, making for a relatively dry love triangle.
Interestingly, it’s not until the finale, “Wedding of the Season,” that the emotional jumble among Nan, Theo and Guy gets genuinely enthralling. As fast-paced as “The Buccaneers” is, it often felt stilted when focused on the will they/won’t they of the central three. Throughout the show, the supporting characters, namely Conchita, Patricia, Lizzy and Mabel, have much more captivating storylines, which would have made for an intricately complex narrative should the trio have been sidelined, allowing these ladies to take up additional space.
Still, despite its frenzied pacing, “The Buccaneers” is endearing. The ladies’ colorful skin-forward costumes, pink poodles and loud giggles contrast against the deafening silence of British polite society. The scenic landscapes and a female-centric soundtrack featuring artists like Olivia Rodrigo and Taylor Swift bring depth and adventure to a time and place historically depicted with great rigidity. Additionally, the young women beautifully display the universal euphoria and anguish of stepping into a new phase in life while trying to learn as you.
If “Bridgerton” and “The Gilded Age” melded together, their grittier, splashier baby would be “The Buccaneers.” However, this isn’t a romance series. Instead, it is a feminist love story about female friendships, shocking betrayals and the sacrifices women have made across time to release themselves and others from the shackles of shame.
The first three episodes of “The Buccaneers” premiere Nov. 8 on Apple TV+ with new episodes dropping weekly on Wednesdays.