Television review: Little Women

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Friday, May 18th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.

Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women is the coming-of-age story of four sisters set during the Civil War. The perennial favorite is now a three-part miniseries airing on PBS’s Masterpiece Theater.

Megan Basham is here now with a review.

MEGAN BASHAM, ENTERTAINMENT EDITOR: It’s hard to complain too much about PBS Masterpiece’s gorgeously-staged version of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved coming-of-age tale, Little Women. In these days of emoji communication, watching the March sisters giggle over paper chains and share dreams while curling each other’s hair is like visual comfort food.  

AUDIO: Do I get kiss as well as warm slippers Amy? Oh you are all such a treat to come home to.

In fact, this faithfully rendered production is so picturesque, it prompted The Atlantic to deem it “A Little Women for the Instagram generation” and Variety to joke it “feels less like a drama than a giveaway calendar.”

AUDIO: It always looks so idyllic. When I look down and see you in the parlor window in the evenings, it’s like the window is a frame and you’re all part of a perfect picture.

When we’re not being swept away by the eye-candy, however, the BBC’s main problem is how much built-up expectation comes with this miniseries. After years of making juicy, addictive historical entertainment out of Austen, Dickens, and Winston Graham, not to mention originals like Downton Abbey and Victoria, you can’t help feeling disappointed that the quintessential American girl story turns out to be such tepid sauce.

Compared to, say, the Bennett sisters, and certainly next to Mary and Edith Crawley, the Marches’ interactions often feel flat.

AUDIO: Meg, if I do anything wrong will you wink at me? I will do no such thing. I shall raise my eyebrows. That’s much more ladylike.

It’s one thing for a scene to lack energy when it’s showing characters discussing the appropriateness of one kind of glove over another. But when even the highest dramatic points don’t inspire much reaction, as when Amy commits her capital crime against Jo’s manuscript, well, Concord, we have a problem.

AUDIO: Amy did you burn my book? I said I’d make you pay for being so hateful and I have.

On the one hand, when so many directors and screenwriters feel free to inject their revisionist views into classics, it’s refreshing that Heidi Thomas, who also created Call the Midwife, lets Alcott be Alcott. There are no “gritty,” modern interpretations here.

But, personally, after so many movies, miniseries, and plays of this novel, this is one instance where I could have done with at least a few surprises. Particularly if they resulted in a different ending to the Jo-Laurie-Amy triangle. (I’m still waiting for someone to have the gumption to give readers the ending we all really wanted.)

Still, if the story doesn’t exactly break new ground, some of the actors manage to find unexpected depths to characters we know so well. Emily Watson brings the familiar air of warmth and worry to Marmee. But she also adds a base note of insecurity that makes the character seem more like her own person and not merely a supporting figure in her daughters’ lives.

And when it comes to one-liners, Angela Lansbury’s haughty Aunt March could easily give Maggie Smith’s dowager countess a run for her money.

AUDIO: He doesn’t care for that maid of mine. Or her ministrations. He’s like me—he can smell a papist from 10 yards. Four small children is a recipe for heartache, headache, and indigestion. And it always was.

Best of all though is Maya Hawke. At times she’ll distract you with wondering where you’ve seen her before (hint—aside from the freckles and auburn hair, she’s the spitting image of her mother, Uma Thurman, with the same voice and mannerisms to boot). She brings the perfect combination of feistiness, wistfulness, and ambition to Jo that at least makes it easier to understand why she spurns Laurie’s love, even if it doesn’t make it any easier to accept.

And maybe that’s for the best. In the end, Alcott’s story isn’t one of wish fulfillment. It’s the story of growing up. And no matter how pretty the scenery, growing up rarely comes with a picture-perfect ending.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Megan Basham.

(MASTERPIECE on PBS, BBC and Playground via AP) This image released by PBS shows, from left, Kathryn Newton, Willa Fitzgerald, Maya Hawke and Annes Elwy in “Little Women,” airing on PBS Sundays, May 13 and May 20. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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