Why Gentleman Jack is a completely different kind of period drama


HBO’s new eight-part series Gentleman Jack launches this April, but it’s not the kind of period drama you’re used to.

When we think about period dramas, we tend to envision a certain kind of story. It generally involves sweeping vistas, gorgeous dresses, a swoony romance – likely featuring a plucky heroine and a well off, but surprisingly forward thinking man — and very stereotypical happily ever after.

Think Downton Abbey, North and South, and Pride and Prejudice. Even present-day hit Poldark ticks a lot of these familiar boxes.

However, that trend is changing somewhat, as the genre figures out how to tell more modern sorts of stories through the lens of the past. These days, many period dramas are focused on powerful female characters and feature diverse casts. Shows like Netflix’s The Crown, PBS’ Victoria, Starz’s The Spanish Princess and HBO’s Catherine the Great aim to tell stories about what it’s like for women to wield power in a world that generally allows them little to no agency of their own.

Amazon re-imagined the classic Vanity Fair as a youth-fueled cautionary tale about the perils of social media and conspicuous consumption. And more modern series such as Call the Midwife and Derry Girls explore specifically female-focused topics, running the gamut from pregnancy and childbirth to teen bullying and after school jobs.

In short, like so many other genres these days: The future of period drama is resoundingly female. Which is why HBO’s Gentleman Jack is such an intriguing prospect. The series, which is written by British showrunning powerhouse Sally Wainwright — of Happy Valley, Last Tango in Halifax and Scott & Bailey fame — and largely led by women in front of and behind the camera, basically sounds like nothing we’ve really ever seen before.

Gentleman Jack aims to dramatize the true life story of Anne Lister, a 19th century British landowner and industrialist who was deeply uninterested in living by the proscribed rules of society. Fiercely intelligent and capable, she spent many years running her family’s Yorkshire estate, Shibden Hall — a position that was very definitively a “man’s job” during the Victorian era.

Anne also had a penchant for dressing in men’s clothes, and openly took part in same-sex relationships, something which would have been virtually unheard of at the time. In fact, Lister was actually part of England’s first same-sex marriage ceremony in 1834. (A plot point that will doubtlessly be covered in the show, though here’s hoping HBO will choose to focus on the many truly groundbreaking aspects of her life beyond her sexuality.)

Happily, the series’ trailer is leaning very hard into the idea of Anne as a trailblazer, a confident figure who refuses to live life on anything but her own terms. It’s a reading that makes her instantly appealing as a character, particularly during virtually every scene in which she stands up to the men around her and refuses to live by their rules. And it feels like a completely refreshing change of pace for a genre that’s too often seen as stuffy and dull by those who aren’t fans.

Watch for yourselves below:

Lister kept extensive, coded diaries about her personal and professional life, which form the basis for the story told in Gentleman Jack. These thousands of pages were first decoded in the late 1800s but weren’t actually published until 1988. (You can read them yourselves right now, if you’re so inclined.)

Actress Suranne Jones stars as Anne, and if you watch any British TV at all, you’ve probably seen her in something before — from her leading roles on Scott & Bailey and Doctor Foster, to her iconic guest turn as the human incarnation of the Doctor’s TARDIS on Doctor Who. As a performer, she’s excellent at playing strong characters with complicated layers, so she feels like a perfect choice to play such a complicated, and largely unknown, historical figure.

The story of Anne Lister is precisely the kind of story period dramas were made to tell — a historically focused tale that nevertheless still has a great deal of resonance for modern audiences today. Thankfully, it appears as though HBO will do right by Lister, while also offering the period drama genre yet another progressive series.

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Gentleman Jack premieres on HBO beginning Monday, April 22.