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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Gentleman Jack is a drama about a real 19th-century figure who is often called the first woman to enter a lesbian marriage in England. Main character Anne Lister is brave and shows great integrity in living her life relatively openly. However, she is often haughty and unkind to others, referring to kindly neighbors as "dull and stupid." Sexual content is mature, like a scene when a woman rhythmically moves her hand in another woman's lap underneath a sheet, as the second woman moans and sighs. Violence may be more intense than viewers might expect, given the time period, like when we see an autopsy with a man who has his entire brain exposed, or a scene where a small child falls from a bridge and is screaming and bloody. Animals may be in danger too, as in a scene when a character shoots a sick horse (we see her holding the gun to the horse's head; the camera cuts away as we hear a shot and a thud). Scenes take place at bars with patrons who look like they might be drunk, although main characters drink a glass of wine mostly at meals and gatherings. A child is given brandy as a calming agent, and a maid drinks gin to try to induce a miscarriage. There's no cursing, but characters use words in reference to Lister that imply she's less-than: "odd" and "freak."
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What's the story?
As GENTLEMAN JACK opens, bold Anne Lister (Suranne Jones) has just returned to her ancestral home, Shibden Hall, after a relationship with a female friend went mysteriously south. Left in the care of her bumbling father (Timothy West), her kindly Aunt Anne (Gemma Jones), and her polar-opposite sister Marian (Gemma Whelan), Shibden hasn't been kept up the way it should have been -- in particular, Anne soon finds out that the coal at Shibden has great value in the new age of steam engines. Anne had only planned for a short stopover at home. But when she realizes Shibden needs her -- and when she meets the beguiling Miss Walker (Sophie Rundle), the lady of a neighboring estate -- Anne starts to think that she may be staying at Shibden for longer than she'd planned.
Is it any good?
Jaunty, sexy, and blessed with a magnetically charismatic lead in Jones, this period drama about an anachronistically bold gay woman is hampered by two problems. One: The stakes are curiously low. Despite the potential peril of being a lesbian in 19th-century England, no one in Anne Lister's circle seems to mind a whit. Her family asks politely after her special friends, clearly aware that they're more than just friends; her servants shrug at Lister's habits; even gossipy neighbors seem delighted by a woman who's clearly letting her freak flag fly. And two: The pacing is odd. Anyone who reads a two-sentence bio of Anne Lister will realize how soon her soulmate-to-be shows up in the proceedings, making such obvious cow's eyes at Lister that the lead tells the camera confidently she's sure the woman is already "thoroughly in love with her."
Given that Lister was a woman of many and tumultuous passions, all faithfully recorded (the most scandalous parts in a code of her own invention) in her voluminous journals, it seems strange that this story would pick up just as she settles down. We meet Lister in mid-life, when she's longing for a slippers-by-the-fire type of settled relationship. As nice as such relationships are to be in, most would agree they're not as interesting to watch play out on a TV series. Even so, there are pleasures to be found in the slow unrolling of Lister's world of business deals and tenants and horses and servants, which is likely to remind more than one viewer of Downton Abbey. If carriages and top hats and neighborly calls are your thrill, it's worth spending a few hours in vintage Shibden with Gentleman Jack, admiring Lister's modern dash and confidence in a bygone world that couldn't possibly appreciate it.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the fact that this drama is based on a true story. Is it unusual to see historical stories about LGBTQ characters? Why? Was it acceptable in Lister's era to live openly in a gay relationship? What did Lister and Walker risk with their relationship?
It's fairly common to begin a new show with a character who is away coming back, or a new character coming onto an established scene. Why? How does it help introduce the places and faces in the new world we're getting to know? Why would Gentleman Jack want to pick up with Anne returning home after some time elsewhere?
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