There is a lot to love about “Masterpiece: Indian Summers” on PBS. The nine-part historical drama is beautifully shot and costumed, culturally inclusive and sensual.
But the best part about the soapy series is star Julie Walters. The Oscar-nominated actress is such a treat to watch that nearly every scene she’s not in is dull by comparison.
“Indian Summers” is set in the 1932 tourism town of Simla where the rich and powerful vacation and escape the summer heat in the foothills of the Himalayas during the twilight of British Raj in India. Walters plays Cynthia Coffin the memsahib of the Simla Club, a posh establishment where socialites sip gin, devour roast beef and dance and canoodle without a care in the world.
What makes Walters such a joy to watch is how she convincingly embodies both the upstairs and the downstairs of this world. Cynthia is rich but not as wealthy as her patrons. She is British and therefore enjoys a position of power higher than that of her Indian employees but she is a woman who must tow the line of social propriety.
And oh how she tows that line. In one scene, she mourns the loss of her late husband who used to run the business with her, tearfully wondering if she can go on. In another, she cunningly convinces the Viceroy’s private secretary Ralph Whelan (Henry Lloyd-Hughes) she can help him ascend the ranks to become the next Viceroy.
After all, singing and dancing for one’s supper isn’t without its benefits. As the owner of the Simla Club, Cynthia knows all the lies and secrets her clientele attempt to conceal and uses them to her advantage. If only all of the characters in “Indian Summers” were so nuanced.
Nikesh Patel and Jemima West make the most of their portrayals in the pilot as Aafrin, an Indian civil service worker, and Alice, Ralph’s beautiful but mysterious younger sister.
Patel’s Aafrin even gets to heat things up and eschew asexual stereotypes in a sensuous love scene with Sita (Ellora Torchia), his girlfriend from a lower caste. Viewers can expect an even racier love scene between Ralph and an American named Madeleine Mathers (Olivia Grant) in an office at the Simla Club. Wow. Who knew PBS could be so blue?
Randiness notwithstanding, too many of the characters feel like amalgamated archetypes from “A Passage to India” and other works of this nature. None are more unsympathetic and hard to like than Sarah Raworth (Fiona Glascott), the racist and uncouth wife of missionary Dougie Raworth (Craig Parkinson).
Sarah is such a clod that viewers will find themselves hoping and praying that Dougie runs away with his stunningly beautiful and intelligent coworker (Amber Rose Revah) as soon as humanly possible.
Justifying such a desired outcome is too facile. Seriously, even the villainous and calculating Ralph has a softer side. Hopefully as “Indian Summers” goes on, Sarah will become more than an easy to dismiss punchline.
If Sarah doesn’t evolve, Walter’s Cynthia and the historical knowledge that Mahatma Gandhi’s Indian independence movement inevitably put an end to British rule is more than enough reason to keep watching.
“Masterpiece: Indian Summers” premieres Sunday Sept. 27 at 9 p.m. ET on PBS.