PBS’ ‘Around the World in 80 Days’ Review: David Tennant’s Revisionist Take Is More Cringeworthy Than Fun

The “Dr. Who” alum leads a diverse adaptation of Jules Verne’s novel, which turns the protagonist into a colonialist punching bag

around-the-world-in-80-days-review david-tennant
PBS Masterpiece

I apologize. I may be among the few viewers who actually feels sorry for David Tennant (“Dr. Who,” “Broadchurch”) as the white male colonialist piñata at the center of the revisionist adaptation of “Around the World in 80 Days,” debuting Sunday, Jan. 2 on PBS’ “Masterpiece.”

Based on the 1872 Jules Verne adventure novel about an English gentleman explorer during Queen Victoria’s reign, the eight-episode series clips along, mortal danger at every turn. It’s a paean to the unquenchable human spirit behind the Industrial Revolution and the ways that steamships and railroad travel shrunk the world well before the internet. The wonder of it all is that the fallible but intrepid hero, Phileas Fogg (Tennant), accepts a 20,000-pound bet to circumnavigate the globe in 80 days – and well beyond the comfort zone of his exclusive white-men-only London Reform Club.

There have been many adaptations of Verne’s book — among the most memorable features David Niven as Fogg and the well-known Mexican comedian Catinflas as his valet. With an Oscar-winning script by S.J. Perelman, John Farrow and James Poe, the 1956 feature film adaptation won four additional Oscars, including Best Picture. However, times have changed, inclusivity is top of mind and color-blind casting has been embraced, as well it should be. Huzzah! But not every modern period piece is “Bridgerton” or “The Great,” or even the very proper, until it’s not, “Downton Abbey.”

Historical fiction often reveals more about the biases of the time in which it was made than the earlier era that inspired it. Which leads to the central party-pooper, ax-to-grind tone of this adaptation shot during the pandemic. Fogg, once a bold protagonist, is now a sniveling, spoiled, entitled racist and misogynist, a supporting player to his oppressed valet Passepartout (played by the athletic French actor Ibrahim Koma) and the journalist ingénue, Miss Abigail “Fix” Fortescue (“The Crown’s” appealing Leonie Benesche).

Miss Fix, subbed in for the original’s male detective Inspector Fix, has flouted the wishes of her newspaper magnate father – and Fogg’s best friend – to join the expedition. She positions herself as the Boswell to Fogg’s Johnson, creating his myth in newsprint while schooling him in the inherent equality of women and trying to heal the man’s gaping emotional wounds that have left his upper lip so stiff.

The eight-part series, which has already been greenlit for a second season, boasts bountiful adventure but little joy. The latter day “Mod Squad,” now of relatively equal stature, rescue the French president, ride camels with an Arab sheik and celebrate a colorful Indian wedding while rescuing the groom from certain death. The famed Fogg even trips balls after being slipped a mickey by Passepartout. Really? They go there?

PBS Masterpiece

In the end, this “Around the World” is more cringeworthy than fun. And I could use more fun. We live in a world where, via air travel, we can span the Earth in 51 hours, give or take. And, via the internet, we can watch international crises like the recent American exit from Kabul in real time, including the shocking sight of infants being hoisted over fences at the airport to relative safety. Yes, the globe has shrunk – and English dominance has shriveled along with it.

I can get behind a story set at England’s colonial peak, where the entitled public school boy grown into manhood looks on foreign cultures in the British Empire as his own personal zoo – and is called to account. But does that fiction have to be so smug and joyless – and do we have to cast a marvelous Scottish actor only to repeatedly beat Fogg with a stick to make the point?

“Around the World in 80 Days” debuts Sunday, Jan. 2 on PBS’ “Masterpiece.”