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One would think, in terms of adapting things for the small screen, we’d have exhausted the literary canon by now. Every Jane Austen novel has been done to death, and the Brontë sisters are relatively close behind. It’s likely that every major author prior to 1900 has seen their work brought to the silver screen (either on film or television) at some point, and I can count on one hand the amount of books I read for my degree that I haven’t seen on TV. But so long as we can still find kernels of truth in stories from two hundred years ago, it’s likely they’ll continue — which is precisely where Masterpiece’s adaptation of Tom Jones comes in.
The story of its title character (Solly McLeod) as he goes from bastard child to honorable hero, all the while winning the heart of Sophia Western (Sophie Wilde), Tom Jones is the latest in a long line of book-to-screen adaptations from the PBS imprint, following the third season of Sanditon, and predating the return of their beloved All Creatures Great and Small series. It marks the fourth adaptation of the lengthy novel overall, and the second on television, bringing a romantic story of chaos, confusion, and promiscuity into the twenty-first century.
I’ve not read the original Tom Jones, but it seems an impressive feat, the fact that Masterpiece managed to condense an approximately 700-page monster into four simple episodes — something a lot of studios ought to mimic in the age of the eight-episode season, and the constant need to stretch things out for the drama of it all. It cuts a book every English major fears (well, that and Middlemarch) down into a snappy and easily digestible period drama, something Masterpiece has gotten quite good at in recent years, and removes a key layer that many feel bars the common audience from digesting classic literature. The series becomes fun, a word I never would have ascribed to Tom Jones based on how I’d heard it spoken about in the past.
Matters are helped undoubtedly by the series’ cast, stacked to the gills with so many British greats that it’s hard to keep track of them all. Shirley Henderson, Pearl Mackie, and Alun Armstrong (calling back to his days as Monsieur Thénardier) all shine bright lights on less-than-desirable roles, supporting roles that become far more flamboyant and enjoyable when played for laughs by such a talented cast. Even period drama staple Tamzin Merchant makes an appearance as the high-strung aunt of Sophia Western, and the show very quickly proves itself as a comedy of errors held aloft by those well-versed in them.
But no one steals the spotlight quite like Hannah Waddingham, putting her theater background to immense use as the wicked Lady Bellaston. She wheedles scenes away from their leads with the ease of an expert pickpocket, proving that she’s one of the best actors Hollywood has right now, even under the pounds of makeup the grand dame wears to make herself look important. Gone is any trace of the Rebecca Welton people might recognize from Ted Lasso, as Waddingham calls more on her days playing the Witch in Into the Woods than her time on a football pitch, creating a stunning and clever villain for a story filled otherwise with halfwits. Unsurprisingly — much like Lasso — she’s the highlight of the series, and it makes me wonder what she could do if you put her in the lead, allowing her to run off with a charming series of her own without worrying about undermining the leads.
It’s a damn shame she only appears in the latter half of the series, once Tom leaves the home he grew up in, but perhaps it’s with good reason. While Tom Jones is entertaining, where it begins to bow under pressure is with its leads, who become more and more difficult to enjoy the longer their star-crossed love story drags on. By the time Lady Bellaston makes herself known in episode three, I’d already tired of the twisting love story set up for me, despite the fact that I know it’ll have a happy ending.
I hesitate to say anything untoward about Sophie Wilde — I’ve heard wonderful things about her performance in the upcoming horror flick Talk to Me — primarily because she was given little to do to make Sophia anything more than the goal Tom is to reach. So much of the series is focused on the raunch-com of it all, all the beds Tom falls into on his way back to her, that she’s like a beach ball tossed between chaperones, a pawn in a chess game that feels like it goes on for a century by the time someone finally captures the king. She’s mostly interesting when bantering with her maid Honour (Mackie), mostly because, minus context, the scenes could very well be deleted chunks out of the tenth season of Doctor Who.
Maybe it’s my bias toward Jane Austen that makes me say that, but without a compelling romantic hero, it’s hard to feel otherwise. Solly McLeod is an entirely shapeless lead, someone things happen to rather than a scoundrel who gets himself into repeated bouts of trouble. His performance feels more like a conduit for the sharp comedy happening around him rather than an essential part of it, and all he really does is make me think of Connor MacLeod from Highlander, another epic where I’m far more interested in the villain than the hero. He lacks the outward roguishness assigned to him by the narrative and those around him, and mostly comes off as rather… uninteresting, even as you’re supposed to be rooting for him to end up with Sophia in the end.
But ultimately, Tom Jones fits solidly within the canon Masterpiece has established for itself, bringing books once banished to the bookshelves of college professors back to the forefront, with a style and tact that makes them accessible even for the most unread of us. While McLeod’s Tom proves less than worthy of both Sophia and his ability to lead, the rest of the series is a hoot, bouncing from one British great to the next in a comedy of errors different from those usually seen in period dramas. It’s a great showcase for talent many already love, and really, if you’re disappointed in the direction Ted Lasso’s headed this season, it’s a great distraction for those who want more from Hannah Waddingham.
Tom Jones airs new episodes weekly on PBS Masterpiece starting April 30.