National Geographic expands their small library of scripted content with the premiere of Barkskins on Monday, May 25th. Based on the New York Times best-selling novel of the same name by Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Proulx, this eight-episode season extends the book’s first one-hundred pages with added characters and plot. The overarching theme of the novel is about the demise of the world’s forests told through multiple generations of the same families, but the series barely touches on those themes, at least in this season.
Set in the late 1600’s in New France (modern day Quebec), audiences are introduced to a lot of characters up front that are seemingly disconnected. Added to the slow pace, Barkskins’ biggest hurdle is getting past the premiere episode. National Geographic will be airing two episodes back-to-back every Monday and interested viewers should commit to getting through the first hour to allow the characters to fully develop.
The title refers to a nickname given to indentured servants in New France brought to the new world to clear the land. We’re introduced to two of them from the first frame of the series, René Sel (Christian Cooke) and Charles Duquet (James Bloor). They serve as the connecting tissue to all of the characters eventually, although the show starts seting up characters before they really become relevant to these two men.
Having not read the novel, descriptions focus almost entirely on Sel and Duguet, whose descendants carry through three centuries of time bringing readers to the present. But if you asked me to name the main characters of this television adaptation, it would be Monsieur Claude Trepagny (David Thewlis, Avatar 2), Mathilde (Marcia Gay Harden, Flubber), and Hamish Goames (Aneurin Barnard). As you may have noticed, two of those are played by fairly recognizable names who each get top billing for the series.
David Thewlis plays the master of Sel and Duquet, a landowner of great size who has begun the process of clearing trees for development. Each of his indentured servants is on a three-year contract in exchange for land in the new world when their time is up. He is also aided by a native woman named Mari (Kaniehtiio Horn, Letterkenny), who is unable to return to her tribe as she is seen as betraying her people.
Marcia Gay Harden has the most delicious role in the series as the owner of the local Inn with her husband. Being at the center of the community has made her privy to a lot of secrets and she’s not afraid to use them to her advantage. But she’s by no means a ruthless character, with a story arch that shows more tenderness than is usual in this gritty series.
The series suffers from a painfully slow plot and those expecting a direct retelling of the book may be disappointed. Much of it becomes compelling if you stick with it, but that’s a big ask for a series that yields very slow rewards. Also expect it to be gritty and at times very violent, best described as a colonial western. It ironically plants the seeds for a story about deforestation, but you’ll find little of that in these eight episodes. Getting the rest of the story will rely on a greenlight of further seasons… or you could read the book.
I give Barkskins 3 out of 5 imported tiger claws.
Alex has been blogging about Disney films since 2009 after a lifetime of fandom. He joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and covers films across all of Disney’s brands, including Star Wars, Marvel, and Fox, in addition to books, music, toys, consumer products, and food. You can hear his voice as a member of the Laughing Place Podcast and his face can be seen on Laughing Place’s YouTube channel where he unboxes stuff.