Sexy and serious costume drama that caters to the female gaze is so hot right now. Poldark. Outlander. These shows are fantastic at what they do, mixing sex, intrigue, real drama with stakes, and a swashbuckling element to win over audiences, clichés or no clichés.
Amazon is attempting to step into this current with its Casanova pilot, released today; whether the show goes to series depends on audience reaction to the first episode. Its premise: the famous Venetian libertine, first name Giacomo (Diego Luna), has escaped imprisonment and fled to Paris. What we have, then, is an Italian seducer running amok in the court of Versailles and the markets of Paris, where the bodices are low and the morals are even lower. He spies, he flirts, he smolders as he flits between operas and courtiers and brothels.
The pilot is visually stunning, particularly in its early scenes of Venice, but also in its shots of Versailles gardens and Parisian streets. Furthermore, there is potential in Casanova‘s elements, combined under the skilled direction of Amelie‘s Jean-Pierre Jeunet. We meet conniving ministers, scheming Freemason Cabalists, and a poor virginal whore who gets accidentally traded away to a deviant, cruel nobleman. Best of all is Casanova’s antagonist, Madame de Pompadour, the king’s mistress, a real historical figure who is today remembered for the stunning portraits she commissioned. Whose side is Casanova on? Who is on Casanova’s side? Enough questions linger to tempt viewers into asking Amazon for more.
Unfortunately, the pilot also puts the bore in its bordellos, full of tempting flesh and powdered wigs though they may be. The whole point of a kind of show like this is its energy. Both Outlander (whose second season may also head to Versailles) and Poldark race and ride around with a great deal of verve. Casanova, well, meanders. And although all these shows are guilty of using modern slang (I blame Downton Abbey for starting this trend), phrases like “I’m a joke” and “You don’t know me,” bandied about with regularity, feel too much like sitcom lines for my tastes.
A historically correct but tonally jarring aspect of the pilot involves Damiens’ attempted regicide — first, his attempt on the king’s life and then his torture and execution via drawing and quartering. Anyone who has read Michael Foucault’s book Discipline and Punish cannot forget that the very brutal execution of Damiens is the opening anecdote. As a result, I spent a lot of the Casanova episode distracted not just by Foucault’s theories of the prison (ever-relevant today) and the carceral, but also in recalling the extremely gruesome description of this death that opens his book. Giacamo Casanova actually witnessed the execution and wrote about his disgust in his memoirs, a fact which interested me far more in the historical figure than the show did.
A second hurdle for me came in the form of Heath Ledger. Perhaps you remember Lasse Hallström‘s very silly 2005 adventure comedy, Casanova, which starred Ledger and Sienna Miller. It has a glowing “44% fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but I swear, it’s a charming film, one that at its best recalls Errol Flynn, which is exactly what this whole genre is going for. Diego Luna may be more appropriately caddish, sultry, and Italian-seeming than Ledger, but the material he’s working with is, for the time being, less juicy.
Most viewers of this Casanova are not going to be distracted by philosophers’ tracts on punishment or old romantic comedies, to be fair. The question, given that this is a mere a pilot of uncertain fate, is: does this hour have enough promise to merit a full-season commitment? It’s hard to wager. If Amazon, like most of the women of Europe, decides to go all the way with Casanova (see what I did there?), the series will probably improve and find its own niche, and it might even turn out to be excellent. But that doesn’t change the fact that the pilot can’t quite pull off a seduction.