The Musketeers is the latest in a long, long line of adaptations of Alexandre Dumas’ 19th century stories about d’Artagnan and his three swashbuckling friends. Like most BBC drama these days, the show is a co-production with an America network (BBC America in this case) and is aimed in large part at US audiences, hence the HBO-esque production.
Episode one followed principled hero d’Artagnan as he sought vengeance for his father’s murder. He eventually crossed paths with the three musketeers and joined forces with his new friends. Together, they fought a plot by the villainous Cardinal Richelieu to discredit the musketeer’s organisation
The show certainly looks the part. The costumes are fantastic and grabbed attention right from the opening scene; the rain battering down on the wide-brimmed hats of some nefarious guardsmen. The sets are all fully realised, in-depth and interesting to look at.
Usually though, when the BBC tries to emulate American drama, it’s not the production that lets them down but the writing. This time around, it’s not that bad. The main problem was with some predictable and clichéd plotting and characters.
The first misstep came with the introduction of the musketeers. You’re supposed to become partial towards a character in their introductory scene, but Porthos and Athos came across as arrogant pricks in their first appearance. During the fight between Porthos and a guardsman I was rooting for the latter, the guy who hadn’t cheated at cards and wasn’t a condescending tit.
The plotting in the episode was at times pretty poor. The central mystery, the supposed criminal musketeers, was very transparent and I imagine everyone watching worked it out long before the show’s characters. It’s very frustrating when you are that far ahead of the characters in a piece of fiction. It’s also annoying that at no point did anyone in the show point out that the musketeer impostor was covering his face during all his crimes. Nor did anyone seek a proper identification. Seeing as the entire episode spun around this point it would have been good if they could have made it a litter tighter and more credible.
Some of the characters in the episode were clichéd and derivative: the weak and naive king, for instance, or the outraged woman complaining about brainless men fighting with each other. The set-up between Cardinal Richelieu and his girlfriend has been seen a thousand times before and it was obvious the latter was going to suffer some brutal death from her first appearance on screen. Add to this some tired tropes such as the protagonist shouting ‘Father!’ while cradling his dying parent, or kissing a random stranger as part of an escape, and it paints a picture of some uninspired writing.
It wasn’t really that bad though. The episode moved with an admirable swiftness, jumping quickly, for instance, from an interrogation of a soldier by the musketeers to their attack on the soldier’s base, without unnecessary scenes inbetween. The musketeers grew on me as the hour passed, with the permanent shit-eating grins plastered on their faces becoming less annoying and more justified by all the nicely choreographed swordplay. The ‘witty’ dialogue is going to have to improve though if it is to carry the self-satisfaction of the main characters without them appearing smug.
The show reminds me quite a bit of Pirates of the Caribbean. The – pretty cool – opening title music was similar to that film’s theme tune, and the characters and the show’s humour also had echoes of the Pirates films. d’Artagnan is reminiscent of Orlando Bloom’s character in those movies, and Lady Constance – the woman improbably drafted in to help with the musketeers’ attack – waving an unconscious man’s hand at a passing guard, was like something Jack Sparrow would do.
This similarity isn’t necessarily a bad thing though. I liked that first movie, and it provides a decent enough blueprint for a show like this to follow.
Judging from the preview trailer for the next episode, the show will take a case-of-the-week format, with an over-arching story on top. That’s a little annoying. I think this show would work better under the traditional, British format: a short, one-off drama. The money is in America though, and the BBC executives seem obsessed with getting a chunk of it. That means serialisation, and multiple seasons. I’m not against that structure, but I worry that it might result, in this case, in the show becoming increasingly goofy and preposterous with each passing episode. Based on this first one though, The Musketeers could be enjoyable enough escapism even if it is a little flawed.
- Presumably the musketeers, being so smart and all, worked out that the nakedly deceitful Richelieu was – obviously – behind the attempts to discredit them, and told the king of his plot. Next episode will of course start with Richelieu being executed for treason.
- There was a nice little scene when d’Artagnan jumped out the window and actually suffered the consequences; the exciting music stopping as he took some time to recover from the fall.
- The acting was okay. Peter Capaldi was a bit hammy as Richelieu, but he can only work with the script he’s given. Tom Burke gave Athos a confident authority as the musketeers’ leader but was less successful with the emotional backstory. Howard Charles was a little too smug in his portrayal of Porthos, while Luke Pasqualino managed to give some life to a character that could have been completely wooden. Tamla Kari I’ve liked in other things and she was good as Constance, though, like Capaldi, given some rote material in places.
- ‘I’m d’Artagnan. Please think kindly of my name, if you think of it at all.’
- Athos’ flashback was really horrible. It was a bad decision to film it first-person, with a little flower held up at the side. It was like a PG13 version of Doom.
- The scene at the end in the church, with Athos’ ex-girlfriend strangling a priest, was the type of ridiculous, bombastic melodrama that could ruin this show if it happens too often.
- I liked d’Artagnan’s Leeroy Jenkins moment, charging headfirst into battle.
- The swordfights were okay. They didn’t blow me away. The first, between d’Artagnan and the musketeers, was a lot better than the climaxing battle, because the first contained lots of character work – d’Artagnan wailing away in anger, the musketeers more cool and bemused – while the second was just empty fighting without much behind it; nicely choreographed, sure, but I found my mind wandering.