Poldark Proves Traditional TV Can Still Be Good TV

Poldark has its two-hour second season premiere on PBS this Sunday — and the show is as good as ever.

In a sea of TV and TV-like content that is trying to reinvent the wheel — and often spinning right off the track in the effort (sorrynotsorry, Mr. Robot) — period drama Poldark is choosing a more conservative route. The British drama is doing something we’ve seen a hundred times before… but it’s doing it really, really well.

This is a method that is, perhaps, undervalued in this era of #peakTV. Which is a shame. With a talented cast, stunning scenery, and a sweeping score, Poldarkis one of the most delightful, cathartic series on TV right now, proving that well-told traditional TV storytelling still has value in a media landscape boasting more content than ever. 

For those who have yet to binge-watch the drama on Amazon, it stars charismatic Irish actor Aidan Turner (The Hobbit, Being Human) as Ross Poldark, a gentleman rebel just returned from the Revolutionary War. In his absence, his father has died and his great lady love has become engaged to his cousin. In the show’s very first episode, he returns to the Cornish coast to a neglected house, a derelict family mine, and a complicated welcome back.

Over the course of the first season, we see Ross fight to resurrect his mine, keep the people of the village fairly employed, and attempt to regain control of the mines from local upstart George Warleggan (Jack Farthing). And that’s without even mentioning his personal life, which includes some simmering, unresolved sexual tension with his former beloved Elizabeth (Heida Reed); an angsty love-hate relationship with his cousin Francis (Kyle Soller); and a new beau in the form of fiesty scullery maid Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson).

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Poldarkis based on a series of books written by Winston Graham in the 1940s and 50s. The novels were previously adapted for television in the 1970s for the BBC (they aired on PBS Masterpiece in the U.S.) and became a massive hit. This latest incarnation comes from English theater and television writer Debbie Horsfield and it seems worth pointing out that, in a business with its share of intitutional sexism, Poldarkhas a woman running the show.

Whether because of the behind-the-scenes representation or the subject matter itself, Poldarkhas drawn in a sizeable female audience. (And, no, it’s not just about the shirtless scything scenes.) Poldarkhas a pull beyond the attractiveness of its main cast. It has well-developed female characters who are agents in their own rights. Beyond that, fragile masculinity is basically a supporting character — especially in season two and especially with Soller’s tortured Francis.

The men are constantly messing things up and refusing to sacrifice their beloved pride, stoicism, and all-around manliness to fix the problem. Instead, the female characters run around behind the scenes, trying to solve the problems through good old-fashioned communication, emotional intelligence, and cunning, while also being expected to soothe the insecure angsts of their male companions at the end of the day. Demelza is a particular highlight. Walking the complicated line between miner’s daughter and lady, she wants to be accepted in this new world, but not at the cost of her compassion or ferocity. 

It’s refreshing to find a high-production show that takes romance seriously as a genre — something that is all too rare on TV (save for the occasional, wonderful exception, like Starz’ Outlander). And, like Downton Abbeybefore it, Poldarkuses its period setting as a chance to cathartically explore the topical theme of uncertain, changing times. Speaking about the draw of the story’s subject matter, Horsfield told BBC:

They are multi-stranded narratives with characters which are so beautifully drawn you feel they could actually walk into the room. The stories themselves are both epic in their sweep and exquisitely detailed in the creation of their world. They are set against a backdrop of great historic, social, economic turbulence — and they deal with compelling themes such as ambition, rivalry, betrayal, family and of course love. When I first read them I was reminded of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind which is similarly a portrait of a society at a time of great change, with an epic love story at its heart and a series of unforgettable characters.

Poldark looks great, something that perhaps gives it a leg up on all of the successful period dramas that came before the current age of TV. Today, it costs much less to make something look great. Filmed on location in Cornwall, the show features an infinite number of shots of the Cornish coastline and, though they should get redundant, they really, really don’t. Add in some scenic close-ups of wildflowers and you’ve got yourself a visually-stunning viewing experience that is particularly refreshing after having watched the umpteenth show show in the same Vancouver plazas and forests.

And I’m not even going to waste my time trying to sell you on Poldark‘s sweeping, evocative original score, but rather encourage you to listen to it as you finish up this article and continue on with your day…

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Poldarkmight not have the invention of the latest genre-mashing anthology series, but — like the heroes of its story — it is of good, hardy (not to mention hearty) stock. It works for its successes. And it seeks solace in the finer things in life: music, family, and the beauty of nature. A story doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel to be special. Poldarkis proof of that.

Poldarkseason 2 premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. ET on PBS.