When it comes down to it, there are two facts that will tell you whether or not The Buccaneers is for you: Katherine Jakeways' Apple TV+ drama is based on Edith Wharton's final, unfinished novel from 1937, and its theme song is Emily Kokal and Miya Folick's cover of LCD Soundsystem's "North American Scum." If you're into those two seemingly disparate elements — that playful juxtaposition of the traditional and the modern — then this show is for you.
But while that might be all you need to know, where's the fun in that? (And if you're into The Buccaneers, you're into fun; there's no way around it.) There are several other things I can tell you about this series that will signal if it really is your kind of show. If you're into things like high society scandal or people describing their feelings as being "hopelessly, irretrievably, overpoweringly in love," or men standing on cliffs while screaming toward the sea, you will be into this. If you're into shows full of lavish parties and swoony monologues and young women basically telling aristocrats to get bent, you will be into this. And if you're into love triangles and complicated female friendships, especially ones set to music from Phoebe Bridgers, Brandi Carlile, and Taylor Swift — oh wow, you will definitely be into this. The Buccaneers, set in the late 1800s, follows five young New York women who come from new money, and while that doesn't get them much respect in the States, once they head to London, the men with titles and little else find their vivacious spirit and well-funded bank accounts irresistible… or necessary… or sometimes both. It's very much a period piece, but think less PBS Masterpiece and more Bridgerton.
While The Buccaneers will surely draw comparisons to the latter, what with its anachronisms and diverse cast, to do so is unfair to both series, which each have their own appeal. Jakeways' series feels a little more punk rock than the Netflix romance (although surprisingly more chaste, but perhaps that's all relative). The Buccaneers is rougher around the edges in the best way. It's also not exclusively about "the marriage mart" or family dynamics. No, The Buccaneers is clear from the jump: Its focus is the relationship between these five women as they, yes, navigate love and/or marriage, but, more importantly, as they make some stuffy old Brits uncomfortable when they speak their minds and force them to think about what really living entails. While the show itself mixes the traditional and modern, within the series is a similar confrontation — the silence of the English lords and ladies versus the in-your-face loudness of the Americans, and the battle between suffocation and freedom.
The overarching themes of the series are pretty clear from the beginning, but not everything else is. The first few episodes — which see one of the five "Buccaneers," as it were, Conchita Closson (Alisha Boe), get married to Lord Richard Marable (Josh Dylan), setting the rest of the gang off on their adventure abroad — are pretty uneven. The tone is all over the place as the show attempts to find a balance between soap, heart, irreverence, and raucousness, and there are a few fantasy-type elements that appear in Episode 1 but are never to be seen again. The series finds its footing as it goes along, however, and eventually that tonal dissonance blends together nicely and helps set The Buccaneers apart from some of its peers. The performances, too, can be uneven throughout. Some of the actors have a much harder time with the tightrope walk that is a stylized period piece, and not everyone feels authentic. But, like the tone, that mostly works itself out in the end, or, at the very least, each of the five main characters gets at least one moment to really shine.
That's never an issue for Kristine Frøseth, who, as protagonist Nan St. George, not only steals the show but is the one who makes the whole thing work. She deftly swerves from the giggly girls-just-wanna-have-fun aspects of the story into the angsty romance, and easily dives into the intense heartbreak of it all. There are a few conversations between Nan and her mother, Patty (a great Christina Hendricks), after a secret between them is revealed that will really tug at those heartstrings. Frøseth nails every shade of Nan.
She's not the only element that really makes the show click. The series is a soap first and foremost, and the writing team, led by Jakeways, knows exactly how to maneuver that without veering into cheesiness. The Buccaneers deploys twists and reveals at the exact right moments — this show only grows more and more addictive as it goes on — and makes smart choices as far as soap opera villains go, never letting them become one-note. But perhaps the smartest writing choice is to present a wide swath of dynamic female characters and allow them all to be flawed in their own specific ways. Some of them are more infuriating than others (I'm looking at you, Virginia St. George [Imogen Waterhouse]), but no one, not even Nan, is presented as an ideal who can do no wrong — even the tertiary characters are given some thoughtful development. It's pretty wonderful to see. Even the women who may not be taken seriously by their peers are clearly taken seriously by the writers.
With all the soapy twists and romantic entanglements (there is an abundance of great pairings here!), some storylines drag on for a little too long, getting repetitive as they tread water before wrapping up in the finale. But the finale is very much worth the wait, perfectly teeing up a (fingers crossed) Season 2 with some compelling cliffhangers without feeling too unresolved. Like the women at its center, The Buccaneers has its flaws, but those flaws become easier to forgive the more you spend time with it and realize it knows exactly what it is and isn't afraid to show it.
Premieres: Three episodes premiere Wednesday, Nov. 8 on Apple TV+, followed by new episodes weekly
Who's in it: Kristine Frøseth, Alisha Boe, Josie Totah, Aubri Ibrag, Imogen Waterhouse, Christina Hendricks
Who's behind it: Katherine Jakeways (writer), Susanna White (director)
For fans of: Bridgerton, anachronisms, love triangles, female friendships
How many episodes we watched: 8 of 8