'Gunpowder': TV Review

A good-enough costume drama, badly timed.

HBO's miniseries is decent enough but comes at a very bad time for people still trying to catch up with the best TV of 2017.

The danger in dropping a miniseries in December is that you run the risk of potential viewers suffering from TV derangement.

You know, that Peak TV ailment that only gets worse when you spend most of December cataloguing the best series of the year, which often means (for some of us) going back to finish what you started, seeking out a bunch of stuff you haven't seen but need to before your Best of 2017 list and only then, as well as you can manage, reviewing all of the late-push December entries.

Frankly, it can lead to blurry eyes.

Especially if the that mid- to late-December offering from out of nowhere is one of those historical dramas the Brits love so much and, caught in a less-than-open-minded mood, you might think with a heavy sigh, "Was this really necessary?"

And if your main star is best known for a separate TV series most people love, well, yeah, there's either going to be a wish he or she was playing that more familiar role or the comparison to their current role might not end up flattering.

Which is why HBO's Gunpowder, a three-part miniseries starring Kit Harington (Game of Thrones), is perhaps an entree that would have fared better in a different month.

It's a period piece about 1605 England that is, let's be honest, a particularly British idea to offer up, with enormous castles, horses and fighting for some old king or queen that we Americans might not remember why they are famous or infamous.

True, this is kind of a whiny defense, but — are you aware of how many really exceptional modern-day series are out there still left to get through, and you're coming here in December with this costume drama about a Catholic rebellion against King James I?

What might motivate viewers to fight through an affliction that perhaps affects TV critics more than the general public (though, in all honestly, you know by reading all of those Best of 2017 television lists that you are impossibly far behind on the essential stuff) is a very strong cast and, by miniseries standards, a relatively short running time.

Along with Harington, Gunpowder stars Mark Gatiss, Peter Mullan, Liv Tyler, Shaun Dooley, Edward Holcraft and Tom Cullen, and focuses on the "Gunpowder Plot," but shifts much of the focus from Guy Fawkes (Cullen) to Robert Catesby (Harington), a devout Catholic who sought to kill the new King James (Derek Riddell), a Protestant, because of crackdowns on Catholics throughout England led by the King's advisor, Secretary of State Lord Robert Cecil (Gatiss) and his henchman William Wade (Dooley).

It's admirable of Gunpowder to switch the emphasis to Catesby's passionate fight for his religious beliefs instead of Fawkes' role in the plot (which history has already distorted), because then it's more about one man (well, many men and, in this case, some women) and the lure of a spiritual calling rather than one man and his explosive cache waiting to strike a match.

That doesn't make Gunpowder inherently more interesting in its approach, historically (you could make the argument that religious devotion blinds people to the bigger picture as they kill other people who don't believe what they believe, all in the name of God), but it does at least allow Harington to take action a lot quicker than he was able to on Game of Thrones, and sidelines, to an extent, Guy Fawkes Fever.

The results are entertaining enough (the writing from Ronan Bennett and directing from J Blakeson has a fluidity to it that never makes you check the time) and the cast certainly delivers, but this is a miniseries that would have been better timed for March, given everyone trying to catch up on the best that TV has to offer right now.

Cast: Kit Harington, Mark Gatiss, Peter Mullan, Liv Tyler, Shaun Dooley, Edward Holcraft, Tom Cullen
Written by: Ronan Bennett
Directed by: J Blakeson
Airs: Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET/PT (HBO), beginning Dec. 18

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