On one level, the new “Masterpiece” series “The Durrells in Corfu” is a bit of location porn. It’s a spectacular trip to the Greek island of Corfu, with sunshine-brightened views of the bluer-than-blue Ionian Sea. It’s set in the 1930s, and the series manages to recapture an undeveloped and pristine place. Really, you could watch the six-episode PBS series with the sound off and still be dazzled by the eye candy. (But then you Anglophiles would miss all those lovely British accents.)
On another level, the series is a rich family portrait of widowed mother Louisa Durrell (Keeley Hawes) and her four idiosyncratic children. Based on the somewhat autobiographical Corfu trilogy by naturalist Gerald Durrell, who’s 11 when the action begins in 1935 England, the drama finds the depressed Louisa deciding to uproot her gang for a big adventure. The Durrells don’t talk much about their late father, but his absence has put them at financial and emotional odds in Bournemouth. He has left a giant hole in the family.
Louisa, lonely and exhausted by her kids, is sneaking gin. Gerald, the youngest, is obsessed with nature to the detriment of his schoolwork; at one point, we see Louisa telling off his teacher for caning her son. Lawrence, the oldest, is indiscreetly sleeping around and struggling to write (he will later become a celebrated author). Sister Margo is pathologically unmotivated. And brother Leslie is obsessed with guns. It’s time for a change.
On yet another level, once “The Durrells in Corfu” goes to Corfu, it’s about culture clash. It’s about what it takes for people from very different worlds to understand one another — and how valuable that kind of barrier-crossing can be. There’s a touch of “A Passage to India” in the story, with sensitivities and misunderstandings between the Durrell family and the Greek locals, including various men with whom the children are secretly setting up Louisa. Occasionally, the show, written by Simon Nye, reduces the Greek characters to little more than quaint locals; but on the whole they are well-developed, including the family’s friend and guide, Spiros (Alexis Georgoulis).
It all holds together nicely, as we watch the Durrells heal and the kids’ identities emerge once they get away from the cold British environment. What were character flaws back home become sweet eccentricities in Corfu. Early in the series, Louisa says, “We can’t just run away from our problems,” but in a way they do just run away, and in a way it does work. They thrive in new ways that are satisfying to observe, even when growing pains flare up. And Louisa, too, flourishes, a process given graceful shape by Hawes.
“The Durrells in Corfu” was a hit in the UK, and it has already been renewed for a second season. It’s not as finely observed as “Downton Abbey,” and its themes aren’t quite as ambitious. It can also be a tad precious. But there’s something pleasing about the way it captures a time of innocence and a family in recovery. If you like this kind of escapist fare — and you know who you are — then I expect you will savor this laidback, elegant entertainment.
MASTERPIECE: THE DURRELLS IN CORFU
Starring: Keeley Hawes, Josh O’Connor, Milo Parker, Daisy Waterstone, Callum Woodhouse, Alexis Georgoulis, Yorgos Karamihos, Leslie Caron. On: WGBH 2, Sunday at 8 p.m.