Nat Geo debuts 'Barkskins,' a period drama set in 1600s New France

Wednesday, 20 May 2020 12:00 AM Written by 



The first season of period drama "Barkskins" (9-11 p.m. Monday, National Geographic Channel) – airing two hours every Monday for four weeks – wasn’t expected to air until fall but with production wrapped in October, “Barkskins” was ready-to-go once Nat Geo had to pull “Genius: Aretha” from its intended Memorial Day weekend slot due to an interruption in filming following the COVID-19 outbreak.

Based on the first 150 pages of the Annie Proulx doorstopper novel of the same name, “Barkskins” was created for television by Elwood Reid (FX’s “The Bridge”), who grew up outside of Cleveland but has family in Washington County.

The series follows indentured servants (AKA “barkskins”) in the wilds of late 1600s New France, which is also where the series was filmed outside Quebec City.

Read more after the jump. ...

The show features almost a dozen regular characters (none based on actual historical figures), including an innkeeper (Marcia Gay Harden), a wealthy landowner (David Thewlis) who wants a wife, an agent of the Hudson’s Bay Company (Aneurin Barnard) and those two barkskins (Christian Cooke, James Bloor).

Reid said he was attracted to the project by the challenge of telling a period story in a time and place he hasn’t previously seen captured in a TV series.

“We’ve all seen well-intentioned period shows that don’t have that snap and that’s the trap I was trying to avoid,” Mr. Reid said in a phone interview last month. “It’s a period piece but I tried to set it up to have a lot of action, a lot of mystery, a lot of intrigue.”

While “Barkskins” takes a few episodes to really get going – Who’s French? Who’s English? What’s their role? They all look dirty-but-similar, how do I tell them apart? – it brings to mind “Vikings” and filmed-in-Pittsburgh “Outsiders” and not only because “Barkskins” and “Outsiders” share an enigmatic lead actor in Thomas M. Wright who plays a cutthroat English businessman who couldn’t’ be more different from his soft-spoken “Outsiders” sheriff.

Another similarity with “Outsiders”: The woods in “Barkskins” give off a malevolent, bordering-on-supernatural vibe.

“It’s one of those things I wanted to percolate under the surface,” Mr. Reid said. “I was trying to put the viewers back [in that time] and for these characters, when you walked into the woods, a bear could come eat you or some unknown monster – there wasn’t much different between the two of them.”

The settling-a-new-frontier spirit of “Barkskins” also brings to mind “Deadwood” as does the large cast of characters who will become intertwined as the episodes unspool.

“The whole thing comes to a big conflagration at the end” of the first season, Mr. Reid said. "You're probably gonna get more closure than you want and get more cliffhangers than you want. I’m ruthless with my characters.”


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