“Around the World in 80 Days” immediately showcases why adapting Victorian novels is a good idea right now. You can do whiz-bang CGI effects for them, but you can also make a white guy the hero and then have marginalized people in the supporting roles and get away with it. The white man was the inarguable king of the Western World. In “World” ’s case, the white guy is David Tennant, and the marginalized folks are Black guy Ibrahim Koma and white woman Leonie Benesch. However, no one really craps on Koma for being Black since he’s also French, and Frenchmen are much more shitting-on-worthy (according to “World”). Meanwhile, Benesch is busting ass to establish herself as a journalist, and her own father (Jason Watkins) is erasing her, giving her a male pseudonym.
Meanwhile, Tennant’s generally incapable and only survives thanks to Koma. And mercenary nuns.
The episode opens with Tennant receiving a postcard with a single word—“Coward”—with no postmark. We’ll find out he’s got a series of these postcards, though it’s unclear if they all have “Coward” written on them, and his fellow rich men think he’s, well, a coward. Koma is a waiter at Tennant’s club, which is why he’s in the story, and then Benesch’s there because dad Watkins is one of Tennant’s fellows at said club. The other important guy at the club is Peter Sullivan, who spends his time trying to humiliate Tennant whenever possible.
Benesch is upset with Watkins because he took her name off an article about how it’s now possible—thanks to technology—to circumnavigate the globe in eighty days. Tennant reads that article and, full of piss and vinegar from the postcard, declares he will attempt such a journey. Sullivan mocks him and publicly bets against him, setting Tennant up for failure. Thanks to some poor personal choices, Koma finds himself in need of a new position and becomes Tennant’s valet—unaware they’ll be traveling the globe—because Tennant’s existing butler, Richard Wilson, is old and useless.
Once Benesch finds out Tennant’s going to attempt the trip, she tells dad Watkins she’s tagging along, and he better not give her a dude’s name in her column recounting the adventure.
All this setup is rapid, and the real action of the episode happens once they get to Paris. The French people getting screwed over by their government. Koma’s been out of the country for some personal reasons—on the run from responsibility—so when they get there, and the police have closed the train station, stalling their trip on the first day, no one’s happy. Tennant’s incapable of fending for himself, Benesch doesn’t realize it’s actually dangerous, and Koma’s just trying to survive seeing revolutionary brother Loic Djani again.
Tennant spends much of the episode passive, only getting his steam going when he realizes Benesch is in danger and he can’t get friend Watkins’s daughter killed. Koma hasn’t been honest with Tennant about his history (or his present situation), so Tennant’s mostly unaware of that angle. But Benesch gets the whole story, which creates an interesting relationship between her and Koma.
It’s all solidly acted—Koma’s the best here, getting to be flashy and proactive while Tennant and Benesch are reactive—with superb production values and surprisingly strong direction from Steve Barron. I’m saying “surprisingly strong” because I only know Barron from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which I don’t remember being well-directed at all. Quite the opposite. But “Around the World in 80 Days” is well-directed, combining a nice sense of humor with harsh reality. I’m not sure what I was expecting—I haven’t read the Jules Verne novel, and if I’ve ever seen another adaptation, it’s been literal decades—but this one is a somber look at classism, sexism, and politics in the late nineteenth century.
The show’s off to a great start.