The lewd vanity parading on your screen is the popinjay world of Laclos' "Les Liaisons Dangereuses"--a society of fops, ale houses, petticoats, lilac wigs, pink eye shadow, rapiers, rakes and seduction.
It's Samuel Richardson's 18th-Century epistolary novel "Clarissa," an erotic tapestry of rape, prostitution and virtue deflowered and the one tragic novel of its time, not to mention the longest novel in the English language at 1 million words and seven fat volumes, published in 1747-48.
In what the BBC traditionally does best--adapt classic novels--this mammoth cautionary tale has been dramatically distilled to three one-hour episodes, the first airing Sunday night on "Masterpiece Theatre" (at 9 p.m. on KCET Channel 28 and KPBS Channel 15, at 8 on KVCR Channel 24), with subsequent installments set the following two Sundays.
The entitled, moral-bound heroine (Saskia Wickmam) flees her family to avoid marrying a ninny and falls into the clutches of a dashing libertine (Sean Bean). Under elaborate pretense and with the help of lecherous cohorts, he squirrels her away in a high-toned London brothel, protests his love and, after exhaustive and vain efforts to get Clarissa to bed, drugs her and rapes her.
The novel, told entirely in the form of letters exchanged by a roster of characters, conveyed the rape scene with merely a scratch of quill and scroll from the rapist: "The trial (i.e., pursuit) is over. Clarissa lives." Not exactly cinematic. Director Robert Bierman and his two talented scenarists, David Nokes and Janet Barron, open the action up all right, not with gratuitous flesh but with an unexpectedly jarring scene that powerfully clarifies the feisty heroine's decline.
By this point, the obsessive rogue, named Lovelace no less, has maddeningly fallen in love with his victim and the result is tragedy for both.
This is not a paperback romance. It's a sensual, ripe entertainment of morals and manners anchored by a vivid portrait of a corrupt society. And crisply paced, considering those 1 million words, in which the first hour primarily sets the tone and mood and introduces Clarissa's sniveling, authoritarian family. Momentum greatly accelerates in the last two episodes, with Clarissa's fight to survive as a virtual prisoner in London, followed in the third episode by her sexual nightmare and her final, willful plunge into peace, her spirit intact.
The supporting cast, arrayed in the richest costumes ever seen in a TV period piece, is a gallery of perfumed aristocrats and white-faced, dimpled prostitutes that seem to leap from paintings by Hogarth and Gainsborough. This was, after all, the world of Samuel Johnson.
But "Clarissa" remains contemporary: a woman, like Nora in "A Doll's House," who walked out on her family, took a stand and wouldn't be bullied. Call her a pioneer.