Oh those magicians. With their top-hats, capes and "ta-da!" girls. Making mischief with the public's gullibility. Probably from the time that people first gathered for entertainment purposes, there was some guy standing around with a smirk, going, "Check it out! I can make this thing disappear!"
The premise of Susanna Clarke's big, rambling and popular 2004 novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, is that "magic" actually disappeared, became a lost art in England for several hundred years. And then, in the early 19th century, it was revived by a couple of strange geniuses and put to good use helping England in the Napoleonic Wars.
The novel, all arch and canny in its pastiche of classic English novelist style, with characters who might have come from the mind of Dickens with a dose of the cutes, was an indulgence. A one-off, an elaborate trick.
The TV adaptation, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (Sunday, The Movie Network/Movie Central, 8 p.m.), is by turns a delight and terribly annoying. It is also very male, and underlines the fact that the book, the premise and the entire concoction, is seriously nerdy. Entertaining, if you like that sort of thing – serious men talking in their code of seriousness, and fantastic special effects erupting at regular intervals.
Things begin in the usual style of British historical dramas (it was made by the BBC and has recently aired to some acclaim on BBC America), with a lot of period costumes, local colour and the plumy-voiced English actors being given free rein.
One Segundus (Edward Hogg) goes to a meeting of what are called "Classical Magicians" and makes an angry declaration. "Great feats of magic are read about in books, not seen in the streets! Why is magic no longer done in England?" He is then loftily informed that, "Magicians study magic, they do not perform it. You don't expect a botanist to create a flower."
Yes, magic has gone from England. But as Segundus discovers, this bloke named Norrel (Eddie Marsan, who is having the time of his life here) has been gathering all the best books about magic and is probably carrying out elaborate tricks. And before you know it, statues and gargoyles have come to life, and people everywhere, from politicians down to children on the street, are in a tizzy.
The set-pieces are impressive if you have a childlike wonder about inanimate things coming to life. Tip-top special effects are on display here. It's in the character department that things are lacking. It's all so very male, with chaps saying things such as, "I must go, I have a carriage to catch!" that you keep wishing some lady would show up to bring a halt to the gallop of these childish men talking with such gravity.
Eventually, Mr. Strange (Bertie Carvel) enters the action – another magician, but a sloppy one. He's posh, lazy, unreliable and charming. And in his relationship with one Arabella (Charlotte Riley of Peaky Blinders), we actually get some sensible female content.
It's a rum business, this series. It wobbles often and attempts to weave all manner of seriousness into what is, really, a drama about elaborate trickery. Sometimes it is outright comedy and sometimes it is a serious rewriting on English history as a clash between common sense and magic, or between science and the wonders of art. In its superficial complexity, it will hold some viewers enthralled, and others will realize they are watching a mildly intriguing mash-up of Big Bang Theory, Dickens, Jane Austen and Jules Verne.
Also airing this weekend
Shark Week (Discovery, Sunday, 8 p.m.) kicks off with the documentary Shark Trek, which is all about Dr. Greg Skomal, Massachusetts' senior marine fisheries biologist, as he "tags great white sharks off the coast of Cape Cod and attempts to determine their swim patterns once they leave the Massachusetts coast.
As patterns point to the southern U.S., Dr. Skomal tries to determine why the Florida coast is the new great white shark hot spot in the Atlantic." Good question. Another question is why, since 1988, Discovery Channel, here and in the United States, has had such success with a week devoted to all things shark. It's one of TV's most bizarre and enduring phenomena. One supposes we're afraid of sharks in the way some people are intense in their dislike of magicians.