On Mondays, I miss The Musketeers, which was finally aired in Sweden recently by one of our commercial channels (TV 4, Sweden's answer to ITV). Mondays is when I go to a gym session which - though on the "basic" level - is quite exhausting enough, thank you. The first working day of the week, followed by exercise: after that, all I want to do after wolfing down some supper is watch something on TV which is a) not too taxing on the brain b) not too demanding emotionally c) no more than an hour long, preferably less (it's depressing to have to go straight to bed after you've watched TV) and, of course, finally d) good fun. Currently I'm watching the Danish series Borgen, which is both brainy and engaging. But precisely for these reasons, it's not ideal post-gym viewing. Now, The Musketeers, on the other hand, fulfilled all the criterias above with ease.
I could guess by the English reviews that the series wouldn't be very faithful either to history or to Dumas, and I was right: it isn't. On the other hand, it's sometimes a little more ambitious than one would have expected. Some episodes, including the first one, were uncomplicated adventure yarns which could easily be viewed and appreciated by fans of, say, Merlin. Other episodes, though, aimed higher and were more grown-up. I preferred those containing high, political intrigue where both the heroic Treville and the devious Richelieu found themselves essentially on the same side, trying to preserve the interests of France. The Cardinal, however, was prepared to go much further and be much more ruthless in his pursuit of this aim. In the best moments of the series, the conflicts between the musketeers and the Cardinal were less good vs bad and more idealism vs cynicism. As a viewer, you generally thought Richelieu went too far, but you saw his point - and there lies the recipe (or one of them, at least) for succesful villainy.
The series made two wise decisions regarding Richelieu. One, they cast the always excellent Peter Capaldi as the Cardinal. Surely, he was born to play clever villains - and I say that who haven't even watched In the Thick of It. He will make a very intriguing Doctor (not a villain, but clever and with a dark side) in the next Doctor Who series. Two, the series depicted Richelieu not as someone who merely wants power for himself, but as someone who really cares for the future of France and of the monarchy. In the latest Three Musketeers film, by contrast, Richelieu was plotting to overthrow the king and take absolute power himself, which is ridiculous and completely unhistorical. What would be his title as supreme ruler? Lord Protector? President of the Free World? As a cardinal, he would naturally have no legitimate heirs, so how would the succession be managed? By voting - in 17th-century France? Unthinkable. No, Richelieu was always a loyal servant to the crown: even if he liked to boss His Majesty around, he had no intention of taking his place. By reflecting this, the series gives at least one nod to historical reality. The fictional Richelieu is still a far cry from the real Richelieu, of course, but you can put up with an extra bit of musketeers vs Red Guard silliness from a show that takes its villain seriously.
The musketeers themselves are likeable enough, and there is a star turn from Tamla Kari as a sweet, plucky Constance. But you're rarely completely cut up if something goes a little awry. It will work itself out later on, and anyway, the Cardinal - and an admirable, if strangely un-blonde, Milady in the shape of Maimie McCoy - are still worth ten Arthoses, Porthoses and Aramises. Some things never change.