Recently, National Geographic aired the scripted drama BARKSKINS, based on a small part of the Annie Proulx novel of the same name. Now available on Hulu, the eight-episode drama follows French (and a few English) colonizers in the so-called New World, or New France as it was known, in the late 1600s. What would become the United States and Canada is still a wilderness, and the people portrayed live far away from their familiar civilizations. Their best connections back to their homeland are the new arrivals, but those newcomers must adapt quickly to the harsh life of the forest or die. Native Americans fight for their land, while the Europeans bicker amongst one another. It’s a wonder our current society came out of it.
The title BARKSKINS refers to indentured servants who labored three years in return for freedom and a chance at prosperity. Two of the characters in the series, Rene Sel (Christian Cooke, Witches of East End) and Charles Duquet (James Bloor, Shoplifters of the World), are in the titular position. Though, Charles has no intention of serving out his time. They work for Monsieur Claude Trepagny (David Thewlis, the Harry Potter films), who has dreams of building an everlasting city. Will they help him?
It’s actually quite easy to miss that Rene and Charles are supposed to be the leads. Yes, there is a quite a bit of screentime with them, but there’s plenty without them, the show boasting a sweeping cast. Among the most recognizable are Marcia Gay Harden (Code Black), who plays innkeeper Mathilde Geffard, Matthew Lillard (Good Girls) as the sleazy Gus Lafarge, Zahn McClarnon (Longmire), Aneurin Barnard (The White Queen), and Thomas M. Wright (Outsiders). But there are plenty of others besides, representing a wide swath of people that make up the residents of the area.
BARKSKINS is trying to be a sweeping drama, but lacks the feel of one. Quite honestly, most of the characters blur together, and after watching the premiere, it’s hard to actually sit down and pick out each player and actor (sans beards in their IMBD photos). It’s not confusing, exactly, since the same players tend to stay in scenes together. But picking up names is difficult, and without the context and backstory as the show begins, harder still. Lots of these characters have pasts, but they are slow to reveal them to the audience.
The production looks fantastic, of course. This is clearly a show with a budget, or at least they spent it on look. Period costumes and miles of actual wilderness help BARKSKINS feel like it’s another time and place, nature only beginning to be spoiled by man. But it lacks the epic feel that compelling characters and a sweeping score could lend it to kick it up a few notches. There are a number of recent shows that have achieved a similar thing with a lot more filled out than BARKSKINS presents, leaving this more like a cable also-ran than an awards contender. It doesn’t feel like a show that’s going to amass a following and run for very long.
Also confusing, while it is a National Geographic series, and NatGeo’s website boasts that you can watch your favorite shows from them on Disney+, don’t look for this one among the offerings on the new streaming app. Surprisingly, it IS on Hulu, so you can find it if you want it and are up on your streaming subscriptions. It’s just not in the obvious place.
All in all, I can’t say BARKSKINS is disappointing because I’d heard almost nothing about it and no expectations had been built up. But it doesn’t feel like the type of series that will be a sleeper hit, either. It’s fine, no major complaints other than the size of the cast and lack of distinguishing characteristics and personalities (at least initially). Just nothing special.
As mentioned, you can watch BARKSKINS now on Hulu.