Anyone setting out to adapt something as well known as Alexandre Dumas’ iconic cadre of Musketeers is operating under an awfully long shadow. Their gallant, hyper-macho derring-do has become so thoroughly disseminated through pop culture in the 150 years since the trio’s birth that their legacy still lingers in every buddy-cop procedural and James Bond action flick, their names whispered in the background of every Fast And Furious chase scene. Bringing them back to TV in their original period guise requires a determined approach: namely, finding their essence in a genre that’s spawned so many tropes, homages, and imitations in the interim.
Luckily for The Musketeers, show creator Adrian Hodges is well aware of what he’s up against, and has opted to go for broke. This positively gleeful adaptation of the inseparable trio and brash newcomer D’Artagnan lives in the sweet spot between the original figures and what, over time, their legacy has become. This is achieved through period-piece detail, historical nods, and rapier battles balanced against the wink-nudge camp of a Law And Order: Baroque Victims Unit crime of the week—right down to gruff Captain Treville, who regularly calls them into his office and can’t understand why his best detectives can’t play by the book. (In the episodes provided for U.S. review, he hadn’t yet demanded their épées and their cloaks, but there’s certainly an air of expectation.)
Self-referential framing aside, there are few other surprises here. The plots of the week are standard. This is a show in which people setting off explosions will walk away from them in slow motion, where viewers can guess what will happen every time someone advises, “Wait for my signal.” The Musketeers also wisely makes the most of the assumed audience familiarity, and trades on it to good effect in just plain not wanting to waste anyone’s time—D’Artagnan’s on his quest by the 10-minute mark (now driven by updated dark backstory as today’s hero practically demands), and the dynamics of the three official Musketeers skip straight to the lived-in rhythms we know so well: Athos the unofficial leader, slightly aloof; Porthos and Aramis a pair of old marrieds.
And therein lies the key to this series’ success. Plotting—and to some degree, even tone—are tertiary concerns; any Musketeers adaptation is going to sink or swim on its cast. Thankfully, the ensemble is pretty much note-perfect, right down to the revolving door of guest stars drawn from the best British TV has to offer. The central foursome is particularly good—especially Tom Burke as an Athos who’s almost laughably haunted without entirely losing his dry humor, and Howard Charles as suspicious, gregarious Porthos. Tamla Kari brings both comic timing and sincerity to Constance, who promises to become one of the team.
But the most stealthily effective couple that will emerge from the many permutations the show’s already offered is a one-two punch that both sets the series’ campiest highs and offers its greatest wrinkle. Peter Capaldi, consummate thespian, can barely contain his joy at being able to swirl Cardinal Richelieu’s cape and crisply gnaw his way through lines like, “Did it give you pleasure?” And though he’s used sparingly, Ryan Gage as King Louis is delightfully oblivious. He’s just human enough to justify preserving while making it terribly clear that Richelieu’s desire for power isn’t just megalomania: Someone has to run the country, and King Louis is demonstrably not the best man for the job. Having Richelieu’s goals occasionally align with the Musketeers is a welcome gray area, and leaves more room for mustache-twirling villains of the week while giving Capaldi the chance for occasional subtlety.
The show also benefits from the polish of savvy production design. It’s not all successful—the streets are sufficiently dirty, and the men in their leathers cut appropriately dashing figures and offer an abundance of detail, but the women make do with the half-heartedly “historical” gowns The Tudors so often employed, an uncanny valley so large they might as well have gone full Reign with it. But the series’ smaller moments—and even some of its bigger ones—benefit from cinematography that alternately suggests diffused Watteau pastorals and Vermeer interiors, and makes the most of its actors’ evident training in stage combat. (It also has a knack for framing: There’s a particularly canny shot in the second episode where Porthos and Aramis wait to meet someone, standing in only two-thirds of the real estate of the large window behind them—perfectly imbalanced.)
The initial British airing of the series earlier this year built enough buzz to suggest that the early hints of deeper conflict will eventually help ground the slow-burn arcs. That undercuts any tedium when facing down the seemingly inevitable case of the week, and though there’s a certain magic to the current swashbuckling shenanigans, a little more dramatic tension wouldn’t go astray. But in fairness, sometimes a show doesn’t need to be more than it is. For The Musketeers to aspire to self-seriousness would be to upset the careful balance of summer popcorn cheese and earnest character-centric adventure. A well-acted romp that carries just enough weight to justify tuning in, The Musketeers is a campy delight; no one ever hands over a blade when tossing one with a flourish will do, and this time, that’s just as it should be.