GENTLEMAN JACK -- Grade B
Created by a woman and based on the real-life diaries of an 19th-century British lesbian, this HBO dramedy starts off promisingly enough.
It's kind of funny that there's now a sub-genre of British period costume comedy-dramas about lesbians, but there you have it! Gentleman Jack fits in quite nicely with recent #FemmeCritic fave #TheFavourite, as well as the outlier #KillingEve, and even to a lesser extent, #Outlander, which features a strong female character straining against the constraints of the historical time period. There's also a whiff of #DowntonAbbey, with a large and well-drawn supporting cast of characters as well.
Written and directed by award-winning English TV writer Sally Wainwright, Gentleman Jack is based on the 1830s-era diaries of the real-life Anne Lister, a lesbian well ahead of her time, who dressed in masculine clothing and went about her business as a well-heeled landowner without much of a care as to her gender. The first chapter takes a while to introduce us to its main character, a dedicated traveler who first shows up back to her home of Shibden Hall in Halifax driving a stagecoach way too fast for her passengers' comfort.
Actress Suranne Jones digs into the role with relish, and I was happy to go along for the ride, though British pastoral dramas aren't usually my thing. The stakes aren't particularly high here -- no one seems likely to get the best of the self-assured Lister, though she does seem vulnerable when it comes to romance. And she's certainly a fascinating true-life character.
My main issue -- and it's a big one -- is that the show breaks the fourth wall by having Lister address the camera. The reason this technique rarely works, especially in a show like this, is that it takes you out of the flow of the narrative. You're engaged in a story, and all of a sudden, here's a character speaking directly to you, reminding you that you're watching a filmed piece of entertainment. It's jarring, and the technique is really mishandled here. The first instance shows up halfway into the first episode, and at first, I thought that Jones just might've accidentally looked into the camera, as strange as that would be. And then, the direct-address is just dropped. No bueno.
Jones is fine in the role, though I wish the show starred a more recognizable actress. For better or worse, that would've immediately established a more emotional connection for me -- and given someone a chance to stretch their acting wings. Also, it's hard not to think of the brilliant trio who starred in The Favourite.
Aside from that, considering the fact that Lister reportedly wrote more than four million words -- many of them in code -- there's plenty of material to delve into for the series, which starts out on HBO with eight episodes.