The BBC seems to have an ongoing commitment to producing Saturday evening family dramas, shows that appeal to young and old by covering the full spectrum from fart jokes to existential crises, sometimes elegantly integrating the two (Doctor Who) and sometimes just swerving wildly between them (Merlin). I’m quite a fan of this type of show, at worst it makes for a mindless 45 minutes or so while eating dinner and as a bonus sometimes you get something a bit more substantial on top. So when the BBC announced they were doing a version of The Three Musketeers I was *almost* excited. I’ve loved the story of the musketeers since I was introduced to it via Dogtanian and the 70s comedy films starring Michael York and Oliver Reed. The story seemed a really good fit for Saturday evenings on BBC – swashbuckling action, palace intrigue, handsome young men with just about credible reasons to take their shirts off and friendly banter and camaraderie by the bucket load.
So I was rather surprised when rather than being a Saturday at 7pm show to fill in the gap left by the departure of Merlin, Musketeers appeared on Sunday at 9pm show. That immediately confused me, Sunday at 9pm is a very different timeslot, no kiddies to appease with running and swashing of buckles and instead an expectation of something a bit more thoughtful (The Crimson Field is now in the slot since Musketeers finished its run).
I’m not sure Musketeers ever got over that confusion. While the absence of bodily function jokes was a blessing, the darker story lines never felt like they were really being committed to. Elements of the show were still a little camp (yes Peter Capaldi, I’m looking at you and your beard) and somewhat silly when compared to the tone of some of the actual plots about the politics and acceptable actions of the period.
The repetitiveness of the stories really didn’t help either. It felt like pretty much every week one of the Musketeers found the love of his life, who was then placed in jeopardy and eventually had to be given up because being a Musketeer is too important and/or too dangerous to allow long term relationships to work out. The first couple of times it was interesting, but it got old pretty quick once it had looped past each of the four Musketeers at least once.
Of course The Musketeers lives and dies with the four main characters, and it took some time for the actors and audience to settle in with the characters. They’re iconic roles and the relatively unknown and inexperienced actors didn’t immediately bring them to life. It took me several episodes to get the hang of who was who and for them to ground each Musketeer into their familiar traits. But by the end of the season everything was coming together a lot more and I was starting to see the potential of each of the characters getting some more long term development than the isolated films have ever managed.
The female characters actually didn’t suffer from that problem as much. I wasn’t sure why they’d changed Constance’s role from being the Queen’s maid to being… actually, I can’t even remember how she got involved with the whole thing, but other than that minor problem, each of the three women (Constance, Milady and the Queen) was an interesting mix of strength and emotion.
One other thing the show did get right from the start at least was the production design. It looks both beautiful and right. Everything from the lavish French palaces to the leatherwork on the armour feels appropriately intricate. I also rather liked the style of the opening credits and the music that was used. Although again, it all fit a Saturday evening adventure series a little better than the 9pm drama slot.
If the show had been in the 7pm slot on Saturdays, I would have come down a lot more favourably. I acknowledge that’s pretty daft, particularly as I rarely watched the show live, but I had different expectations for a Sunday at 9pm show. If you approach the show as moderately disposable entertainment, then I think you’ll be satisfied. But if you’re looking for more, I think you’ll be disappointed with the first season. I will look forward to next season with revised expectations, although losing Peter Capaldi to Doctor Who (ironically of course to the Saturday at 7pm time slot) will be a blow to the series, so we’ll have to see how they cope with that.