NatGeo's 'Barkskins': Wilderness Miniseries Is Year's Best So Far

The new NatGeo miniseries “Barkskins” appears to get the fundamentals just right in its depiction of a crude French settlement in the wilds of Canada circa 1690.

As this pungent eight-part series makes abundantly clear, the Europeans who came to North America in that era had to be at least half-crazy and half-wild to want to settle in a wilderness that was more vast and less settled than anything they had ever known before.

“Barkskins” has been adapted from a novel of the same name by Annie Proulx. The miniseries consists of eight, one-hour parts that will air in pairs on four consecutive Monday nights starting May 25 (Memorial Day).

This miniseries is one of NatGeo's occasional forays into big-budget, scripted drama. It also happens to be one of the best new productions for television to come along so far this year.



“Barkskins” concerns itself with the uneasy relationship between three main groups in the forested and so-far unspoiled region where it takes place.

The three are the French, who have named this territory New France; the English, who also have a foothold in North America and wish to strengthen it in the very territory that France has claimed for itself; and the region’s native population, identified here as Iroquois.

All three are embroiled in a contest of strength that predictably becomes violent.

You might even say there is a fourth antagonist in the territory -- nature herself -- whose power might just dwarf all others, at least for the time being.

Certainly, the aim of the Europeans is to civilize and commercialize a wilderness that is so large that they cannot even conceive of its size. They see this thinly populated forestland as brimming with limitless potential to make them wealthy.

In the miniseries, the Europeans enjoy a mere toehold amid the vastness of this new land. Civilization itself, as represented by the rule of law, also has a mere toehold here. Not surprisingly, life is cheap and good manners are in short supply.

Watching the first hour of “Barkskins” for the purpose of writing this review was one of the most rewarding viewing experiences the TV Blog has had all year. I have no doubt that the remaining seven hours are just as worthwhile.

The cast of “Barkskins” includes Marcia Gay Harden as the tough wife of a not-so-tough frontier innkeeper, and David Thewlis as a wilderness settler who dreams of establishing a world-class city on land he has claimed for his own, but for all intents and purposes, is basically squatting on.

He is crazy, of course, but in this miniseries, and in the era the miniseries portrays, he would have to be.

“Barkskins” premieres Monday (May 25) at 9 p.m. Eastern with two back-to-back, one-hour episodes on National Geographic.

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