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Marchlands, “Episode One” (1.01)

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Three families, living in the same house at three different time periods, are connected in this new ITV drama. A review of the pilot after the jump…

This pilot is based on the story of The Oaks, a pilot ordered by FOX a few years ago but not commissioned to series. At the time, I was deeply intrigued by the concept, and was shocked when it didn’t receive a pickup. So, I was very pleased when I uncovered Marchlands. The fact that it stars Alex Kingston, one of the best things about the new season of Doctor Who, is merely icing on the cake.

So, how’s the pilot?

It’s gorgeous, creepy, and wonderfully directed. The transitions between the three times could be confusing, but they never are; there’s always enough visual data to register the shift even before the cast of each time period shows up. Each cast has their own personal dramas going on, each connected to the mysterious death of Alice decades before.  The concept is fresh and intriguing, and the execution is just compelling enough to pull you in, even when the individual dramas might seem to work on a much more intimate scale than most television.

It’s wonderfully cast. Each family is compelling and has a dynamic set up almost immediately, and their respective portrayers are very much up to the task of bringing them to life. In each family, the story centres on the point-of-view and experience of each female partner, played by Jodie Whittaker, Alex Kingston and Shelley Con. Each of the three does well – Whittaker with Ruth’s fragile strength, Kingston with Helen’s stubborn approach to corralling her family, and Con with Nisha’s insatiable energy and verve, each a product of their respective ages and times. The other standout is Sydney Wade as the 1987 family’s youngest, Amy, who very carefully walks the line between creepy and charismatic without ever coming off false, and Jamie Thomas King, as the grieving father even more damaged than his wife.

And the key mystery and mythology is very intriguing, all focused on the mysterious Alice. Ruth’s daughter who ‘wandered off and drowned’, despite being found without her coat or necklace. In 1968, the mystery plays out straight, with Ruth struggling directly with the mystery of her death. In 1987, Helen struggles to erase the growing mystery of her daughter’s phantom playmate as mysterious, supernaturally-tinged crises surround them. And in 2010, Nisha begins exploring the history of the house that has been literally wallpapered over, while her husband tries to leave behind his experience with Helens’ family in the 1980’s. So the questions don’t just relate to Alice, but to Helen and her daughter Amy, who seems destined for a tragic fate.

And we have generational crossover, which is always intriguing, all occurring in 2010. Olive, a young deaf girl who knows Ruth, shows up over forty years later to have a sign conversation with Nisha’s husband, while Helen’s son shows up briefly as a shop clerk hesitant to talk about his history with the Marchlands estate. Also interesting is the fact that the supernatural-seeming occurrences in 1987 are gone by 2010, or so it seems.

As an American drama, there would have been the question of, what is this show in season three? Season five? And though I see those concerns, with a British series that’s less of a worry. Their series tend to run shorter, both in a series and season scope, and end when the story’s done. So perhaps the roadblock that killed the show in the US could bemitigated by its transfer and adaptation into the British industry.

All in all, a solid pilot. I’ll be watching more, if just to see where it goes…

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