Two sets of newcomers alight upon the New France settlement of Wobik at the start of Nat Geo's colonial-era drama Barkskins. "Here, you can be whoever you want," promises Rene Sel (Christian Cooke), a youngish man who has signed up for three years of indentured servitude and what he hopes will be a wide-open future thereafter. Sel's optimism falls on deaf ears. His slightly younger, much more sullen compatriot, Charles Duquet (James Bloor), shrinks at the very thought of arduous work.
Disembarking around the same time are two young women with a similar mismatch in expectations. Striving Melissande (Tallulah Haddon) and anxious Delphine (Lily Sullivan) temporarily move into a convent before they are to find husbands in the colony. Since the men greatly outnumber the women, wives are a much-desired resource, though their scarcity doesn't guarantee them respect or kindness from their husbands. Melissande and Delphine, too, desire the kinds of prospects unthinkable to them in their hometowns. Material comforts are important, but a chance to escape scandal and ill repute perhaps even more so.
Watching these four settlers find their unexpected destinies in the New World is one of the few pleasures of Barkskins. Adapted from Annie Proulx's ecologically minded novel, which follows the descendants of Sel and Duquet for 300 years, the 10-part limited series, set only in the late 1690s, is crowded with scheming characters but thin on reasons to care about them. And the show's Game of Thrones-esque indifference to differentiating its menacing beardos doesn't help.
I've thus far spared you yet another pair of new arrivals, investigative partners Hamish Goames (Aneurin Barnard) and Yvon (Zahn McClarnon) from the nearby English settlement, who are in search of a missing colleague. Also making an appearance in town is local land baron Claude Trepagny (David Thewlis), whose confidence in New France's prosperous future is extreme even for his fellow colonists. Amid the many conniving men is the brutally pragmatic innkeeper Mathilde Geffard (Marcia Gay Harden), who takes in a silent little girl (Lola Reid) found to be the sole survivor of an ostensible native attack on her homesteading family.
That latter storyline was also featured in HBO's Deadwood, and the comparison is an unfavorable one to the narratively unfocused, terminally humorless Barkskins. If Deadwood brought unusual intellectual heft and David Milch's high-low poetry to the Western genre, Barkskins initially distinguishes itself as a kind of Western without prostitutes or guns — until an ahistorical shoot-'em-up scene necessitates improbably fast-loading 17th-century muskets.
The relatively novel setting of French-colonial Canada makes it ripe for definition, but creator Elwood Reid (with Proulx as an executive producer) seems more interested in recounting the many threats to Wobik than in identifying the French colony's differences from (or similarities to) their more familiar English counterparts.
Alliance, betrayal, alliance, betrayal — so go the well-paced but soap-operatic rhythms of Barkskins. Since we know little about each character's past, the transformations they undergo in the New World resonate little. The production is further hobbled by most of the cast speaking in all manner of French (or French-esque) accents, which can make the dialogue sometimes difficult to understand. With executive producer David Slade serving as the pilot director, the series occasionally achieves a painterly beauty in its shots of nature, but modern details, like the blindingly white shirt Harden wears in one scene, also poke periodically through the screen.
Barkskins takes its name from the woodcutters — many of them indentured servants — who cleared the forests to build New France. But the series' most compelling plights may well belong to its female characters, including a hard-nosed nun (Leni Parker) and Trepagny's half-native common-law wife, Mari (Kaniehtiio Horn), who bears the would-be empire-builder a son. One by one, the women of Barkskins discover, at least in the first seven episodes, that their destinies lie outside traditional domesticity and family life, and that at least one of them possesses a hunger for revenge that won't be denied. But too much of their distinctness is lost in this thicket of blah.
Cast: Marcia Gay Harden, David Thewlis, Christian Cooke, James Bloor, Aneurin Barnard, Thomas Wright, Kaniehtiio Horn, Zahn McClarnon, Tallulah Haddon, Lily Sullivan, David Wilmot
Creator-showrunner: Elwood Reid
Premieres Monday, May 25, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on National Geographic