By SARENE LEEDS
From left: Aidan Turner as Ross Poldark and Heida Reed as Elizabeth in “Poldark” (C) Robert Viglasky/Mammoth Screen for MASTERPIECE
Thank you, PBS and “Masterpiece.”
One week after Jon Snow suffered multiple stabbings at the hands of his fellow Night’s Watchmen, we have been able to put aside our mourning for the “Game of Thrones” character and his ambiguous future. Because arriving on the TV landscape tonight is another handsome, brooding hero blessed with luscious long locks to keep us company on these lonely summer Sunday evenings.
After a successful run in the U.K. earlier this year, the BBC drama “Poldark,” based on the series of novels by Winston Graham, has premiered on PBS’s “Masterpiece.” And its timing could not be more impeccable: With sweeping epics like “Game of Thrones,” “Outlander” and “Downton Abbey” all currently on hiatus, “Poldark” nicely fills the prestige-television void, especially given the promise of lots of shirtless scenes featuring star Aidan Turner.
Irish actor Turner, known primarily for his role as Kili in “The Hobbit” films, is protagonist Ross Poldark, an 18th-century Redcoat soldier newly returned to his home in southwestern England after fighting on the losing side of the Revolutionary War. For those already familiar with the “Poldark” books and the 1970s TV series of the same name that aired on the original “Masterpiece Theatre,” tonight’s premiere episode may have been a bit of a drag as it focused on setting the scene and introducing us to the main characters. As a result, “Part 1″ was heavy on the exposition and light on the plot development, but for those of us who have not read the novels or seen the Seventies “Poldark” (like this recapper), the episode got us fully prepped for what’s ahead over the next six episodes.
The series opens with a prologue in 1781 Virginia, where landed gentry member Ross Poldark and his Redcoat army are ambushed by a battalion of colonial patriots. Two years later, Ross comes home to Cornwall, a deep scar now marking the side of his face and giving the camera a very good reason to fulfill a close-up-on-Aidan Turner quota for every episode. To his dismay, Ross learns that he’s been presumed dead since the Virginia attack, so his welcome-home party consists of: 1. The news that his father has died, and, to quote “Titanic” gold digger Ruth Dewitt Bukater, “left behind nothing but a legacy of bad debts hidden by a good name” (although in Ross’s case, the debts aren’t so hidden). And, 2. His beloved not-quite-fiancée Elizabeth (Heida Reed), believing Ross was dead, has moved on and is about to marry his milquetoast cousin, Francis (Kyle Soller).
What’s an impoverished gentleman to do? Despite everyone pleading with him to get lost – especially his Uncle Charles (Warren Clarke), who really doesn’t want Ross messing up his son Francis’s marriage to Elizabeth – Ross is determined to rebuild his father’s dilapidated estate and reopen his family’s copper mine. Is it because he wants to win back Elizabeth (who marries Francis in the premiere episode more out of a sense of duty than love)? Possibly. There’s a lot of “will they or won’t they” in “Part 1,” with a frustrated Ross ultimately spurning the newlywed Elizabeth, telling her “We can never be friends!” But once Turner’s co-star Eleanor Tomlinson appears on the scene midway through the episode, the much more important “Poldark” love triangle is set.
Tomlinson portrays Demelza Carne, a local girl whose miner father’s favorite pastime is beating on his only daughter. To get away from her brutish dad, Demelza enjoys dressing in her brother’s tattered shirt and breeches and running off to town with her best pal, her dog, Garrick. A meet cute between Ross and Demelza occurs during the town’s Market Day when he rescues Garrick – and the girl – from a cruel dogfight, and soon enough, Ross is offering Demelza a position in his house as a kitchen maid. Given the fact that Tomlinson’s name immediately follows Turner in the credits, it is not a spoiler to say that Demelza’s drudge status doesn’t last long.
At this early stage of the series, I’m not sure I’m sold yet on the story lines, but as I said earlier, the plot needed to give way to exposition for the premiere episode. What I am loving so far is the sheer abundance of eye candy that “Poldark” provides – and I’m not just talking about Aidan Turner and the seemingly endless shots of his gorgeously glowering visage (he also cuts a fine figure in 18th-century fashions, including those three-cornered hats): The series serves as a free travelogue for the breathtaking Cornwall coastline – this writer is severely berating herself for only going so far as Devon on a trip to southwestern England many years ago – which is just as important a character to the narrative as Ross, Demelza and Elizabeth. If you’re still debating checking out “Poldark,” there’s no shame in coming for the scenery (whether it’s Cornwall or Turner), because chances are you will stay for the story.
“Poldark” airs Sunday nights on “Masterpiece” on PBS at 9 p.m. Follow our recaps all season long here. Follow Sarene Leeds on Twitter.
FOR THE ENTIRE REVIEW READ HERE: http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2015/06/21/poldark-series-premiere-recap-part-1/