For centuries, shame has been a powerful tool used to enforce women’s subservient roles. The threat of humiliation and exclusion has kept women from diverse cultural and economic backgrounds silenced and compliant. Yet, even while navigating the constraints of “polite society” or toiling as laborers and caregivers in the working class, women have always found ways to defy the oppressive norms that have constrained their humanity.
Adapted for television by Katherine Jakeways from Edith Wharton’s unfinished novel, Apple TV+’s “The Buccaneers” unfolds in the 1870s and follows a tight-knit group of American socialites embarking on a transatlantic voyage in pursuit of suitable matches in London’s marriage market, armed with their naivety and wealth. This series, which shares the inclusive casting and anachronistic music reminiscent of “Bridgerton” (and Apple TV+’s “Dickinson”), offers a frenzied and delightful exploration of the cultural clash between American and British aristocracy. It also underscores the enduring resilience of women who have sought to save themselves and their peers in a society where they lack power and autonomy.
“The Buccaneers” kicks off with a wedding, as 17-year-old Nan St. George (Kristine Frøseth) prepares for her best friend Conchita Closson’s (Alisha Boe) marriage to Lord Richard Marable (Josh Dylan) in their newly built New York mansion. After a passionate summer romance, the couple plans to tie the knot and move to the UK, where they will face the scrutiny of Richard’s conservative and traditional family. Despite their evident love, Richard is apprehensive about how Conchita’s newfound wealth, exuberance, and ethnicity will be received.
In an effort to ease Conchita’s transition into her new life, Richard invites Nan, her older sister Jinny (Imogen Waterhouse), their mother Mrs. Patricia St. George (superbly portrayed by Christina Hendricks), as well as the Elmsworth sisters, Lizzy (Aubri Ibrag) and Mabel (Josie Totah), to join them overseas in their quest for marital matches. These women embark on a journey to offer companionship to Conchita in a setting that is unwelcoming to her true self.
Upon their arrival in London several months later, Nan finds herself caught in a love triangle. While she may lack Conchita’s sparkle or the striking beauty of Jinny and Lizzy, her intelligence and boldness capture the attention of Theo, Duke of Tintagel (Guy Remmers), and the affection of Guy Thwarte (Matthew Broome), the duke’s oldest friend. As Nan becomes unwittingly entangled in a romantic dilemma, the other ladies, including her mother Patricia, grapple with the consequences of their predetermined lives.
“The Buccaneers” unfolds at a rapid pace, condensing weeks and months into just eight hour-long episodes. The series could have benefited from two additional episodes, allowing viewers to delve deeper into the lives of the women surrounding Nan. It’s puzzling that Conchita’s extended family is scarcely mentioned or seen. The women in the story face abuse, revelations about sexual identity, humiliation, and profound isolation. A more extended season would have offered a more intimate exploration of their experiences within the rigid European society they navigate. Additionally, while Nan’s relationships with Theo and Guy initially pique interest, abrupt shifts to other storylines prevent viewers from becoming fully immersed in the love triangle, resulting in a somewhat dry portrayal of romantic tensions.
Surprisingly, it is in the finale, titled “Wedding of the Season,” that the emotional complexity of the Nan, Theo, and Guy triangle truly captivates the audience. Despite the breakneck pace of “The Buccaneers,” the central love triangle often feels stilted. Throughout the series, the supporting characters, particularly Conchita, Patricia, Lizzy, and Mabel, possess more captivating storylines. Allowing these women to take up additional narrative space could have created a more intricate and engaging storyline.
Nonetheless, despite its frenetic tempo, “The Buccaneers” remains endearing. The vivid, skin-forward costumes, pink poodles, and infectious laughter of the women stand in stark contrast to the stifling silence of British high society. The picturesque landscapes and a soundtrack dominated by female artists such as Olivia Rodrigo and Taylor Swift add depth and adventure to a historical era often portrayed with rigid formality. The young women authentically convey the universal mixture of excitement and trepidation that comes with entering a new phase of life.
If “Bridgerton” and “The Gilded Age” were to merge, their spirited, more audacious offspring would be “The Buccaneers.” However, it’s not a conventional romance series; instead, it serves as a feminist narrative centered on female friendships, shocking betrayals, and the sacrifices women have historically made to free themselves and others from the chains of shame.