BBC, known wide and far for their enchantment-laced triumphs in the genres of fantasy and magic, may just have added another victory to their repertoire of whimsical fan-favorite shows. Something wicked this way comes, and it comes in the form of seven-part miniseries Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which aired its debut episode Saturday night on BBC One in America.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, an intricate pseudo-history of a nineteenth century England where magic once existed as a real and tangible force in the world and has returned in the form of the show’s protagonists, is based off of Susanna Clarke’s 2004 novel of the same name. The story reads like a thick tome of British history spiced up with wizards, resurrected zombies, and spirits galore, coinciding with real-world events and history at the outset of the 1800s. It’s dense, it’s ambitious, and it already seems to have viewers under its spell.
The enchanting Harry-Potter-esque stage is the perfect backdrop for main characters, Strange and Norrell, to experiment with magic, which had presumably died out in England centuries before they “rediscovered” it and honed it to their own respective – and often conflicting – advantages. Norrell is a study in intelligence, practice, and selfishness. He has spent years collecting magic books, studying them ravenously, and keeping his knowledge primarily to himself. Strange becomes his good-natured pupil, who learns as much as he can from his often-stingy mentor.
The compelling teacher-pupil relationship between the two tends to take center-stage, and their incredible character development is where the real magic of the miniseries lies. In a heavy, detail-laden show, keeping the focus on strong characters is crucial to keeping viewers’ attention. The seasoned BBC writer and director assigned to the Strange project, Toby Haynes and Peter Harness (best known for their work on BBC’s famous brainchild, Doctor Who) know this, and use character-driven plotlines to their advantage. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell pulls it off beautifully. The eponymous characters are just damaged, zany, and – well – strange enough to make it work.
Strange‘s single drawback: it’s a detailed plot, adapted from a novel that tops nearly a thousand pages. It’s heavy to say the least, and the nuances of a bold plot backed by intricate background details is a lot to shove into a seven-hour miniseries frame. Even with the help of magic. If you blink, you’ll miss it. And if its first episode is any indication of the next six of the series, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is something you really don’t want to miss.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell airs on BBC One in America Saturdays at 10 p.m./9 p.m. central, starting June 13.