Sharpe’s Peril is Our Misfortune: When British TV Goes Bad

“Not all Masterpieces are masterpieces,” my dad said in a profound tone of voice.

We had just finished watching the second episode of Sharpe’s Peril, a new series on PBS’ Masterpiece Theater, which was more like a reinvented British western than the taut Victorian dramas or Austenian comedies the network usually airs.

In the course of two episodes, we meet British ex-officer Sharpe who returns to India to search for an old friend and happens to find some “adventure” along the way. Although he may have been a Hobbit in a past life (Sharpe is played by Sean Bean), he is now the rogue gentleman, a transformation that is less startling on the screen. As Sharpe, Bean tosses off more slurred one liners than John Wayne and he rumbles through the plot, managing to do the impossible like any good cowboy or rogue vigilante, a la Clint Eastwood.

But unlike Clint or John Wayne, Bean struggles along as he attempts to act through a Gordian knot of a script. As we came to realize after investing too much time watching the first one and half episodes, there was no plot. Instead there were pointless scenes of soldiers riding around for what must have been a millennium. When we can finally grab hold (or a semblance of coherence), we find our hero Sharpe in an Indian hillside fortress, trying to rescue the daughter of an English officer from an evil turncoat British General and his Indian lover, a famous concubine, played by Padma Lakshmi.

Managing to include a multitude of stereotypes about both Indians and women, this piece of revisionist history is left sinking, waiting for someone to hopefully drown it one final time. [Along those lines there were two scenes in which Indian men ripped off the front of a white woman’s dress in order to “shame” her. As my dad pointed out, this wasn’t a western, “It’s a bodice ripper.”]

I think it would be easier to be more forgiving if there was something to glean from Sharpe, or to even like. But he’s a sham, a charlatan in the world of movie badasses. He’s flat, both in his personality and his copied moves. Anyone worth their salt could tell you that the snake pit was so Indiana Jones and riding into the sunset is so passe. Even Chuck Norris has a sense of ridiculousness that gives him a personality. But Sharpe’s character is alienating in his lack of development or personality.

Although if we are going to throw around stereotypes, I’m glad his sidekick is an Irishman. Might as well use the stereotypically culturally repressed counterpart as a stand in for Satchmo. I also liked how one of the cast members is a pretty close twin physically of Michael Phelps and that you really can’t tell bald, fat British men apart.

What we learned: Nobody wants to watch a British western.

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