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Vanity Fair

TV review by
Marty Brown, Common Sense Media
Vanity Fair TV Poster Image
Bland literary adaptation even dulls edgy protagonist.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this TV show.

Positive Messages

It's tough to pull any resolute positive messages from this social climbing satire, but some of the characters try to do what's right under the circumstances.

Positive Role Models & Representations

At its heart, Vanity Fair is meant to be an indictment of the British class system, so no characters here really come out unscathed.

Violence

The series takes place during the Napoleonic War, and some characters fight at the Battle of Waterloo.

Sex

There's no sex, only courtship and some failed attempts at making out.

Language

The language is appropriate to the period, and doesn't get worse than the likes of "jade" and "hussy."

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Characters regularly consume alcohol, often to excess, and frequently appear inebriated.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Vanity Fair is an adaptation of the 19th century British novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, which follows a young woman named Becky Sharp as she attempts to gain social standing despite coming from a poor and disreputable background. The material is most tween-appropriate, though -- as with many British period dramas -- the issues of class might be difficult to parse for young American viewers. There is no sex, and the foul language is limited to period-appropriate cursing like "hussy" (and it is notable that most of the foul language is sexist.) Characters do drink to excess, though Becky's manipulative, antisocial behavior, which is at the heart of the novel, appears to have been toned down for the show.

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What's the story?

In VANITY FAIR, partly due to her reputation and her parents' social standing, Becky Sharp (Olivia Cooke) is dismissed from her position as a school teacher and assigned a job as a governess for an eccentric, off-putting family. Before she can begin work, she is taken in by the family of her best friend Amelia (Claudia Jessie), where she meets Amelia's fiance George (Charlie Rowe), brother Jos (David Fynn), and would-be suitor William Dobbin (Johnny Flynn), who are all enlisted soldiers in the British army, soon to be called off to the Napoleonic War. When she finally begins work as a governess for Sir Pitt Crawley (Martin Clunes), she ingratiates herself with his family... especially his son Rawdon. 

Is it any good?

Literary adaptations -- especially those of centuries-old material -- tend to work best when there are strong answers to the questions: Why this? Why now? Vanity Fair doesn't seem to have those answers, making it feel like an arbitrary and bland series. There are hints that it wants to feel contemporary, like the use of pop music or Becky's occasional knowing glance into the camera, but they're never followed through on with conviction. Worst of all, the show seems to have dulled the edges on its protagonist, who in the novel is meant to be a manipulative and striving young woman, but here comes off as mostly charming. Without a point-of-view on its characters, its source material, or even its own stylistic choices, Vanity Fair feels completely by-the-book in the worst possible way.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about social and class dynamics. What sets Becky Sharp apart from her peers? How does she deal with those differences? Do you think these kinds of class systems still exist today?

  • Who are the characters you find likable in Vanity Fair? Where does Becky fall on that spectrum? 

  • What does Becky appear to want out of her life and her social circle? How does she go about getting it? Are her actions ethical?

TV details

Themes & Topics

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