The Durrells is ab-so-fucking-lutely delightful. It’s everything I’ve ever wanted from a Masterpiece period piece, and my one true wish is that I could erase all my memories so I could watch it again for the first time. That’s it, my friends. That’s the whole review. Go watch it.
Ha! AS IF! Of course I’m not done talking your ear off about this show!
Before we begin, you should know that the series is based on the real-life experiences of the Durrell family, as recounted by Gerald Durrell in his book My Family and Other Animals. A lot of the criticisms about the series stem from the liberties it took with his account of the family’s experiences. For my purposes, though, that doesn’t matter. (I mean, obviously it matters a great deal. It’s crushing to read a book that you truly love—and from everything I’ve heard his books are fantastic—and have it be distorted by someone else’s vision. I very much get that. All I’m saying is that, for my purposes here, and having not yet read the books, I’m focusing on the series as its own entity, which is, and please don’t stop me if I’ve said this before, such a lovely entity.)
So, on with the show! Louisa Durrell (played magnificently by Keeley Hawes), is a widowed mother living with her four children in Bournemouth, England in the mid-1930s. They are all, to put it mildly, very miserable. At home, cooking meals and keeping house, Louisa waits for the moment the clock finally ticks to 1:00 so she can take her first drink of gin for the day.
Her youngest son, Gerry (Milo Parker), who is constantly bullied for being different, is caned for skipping class to feed the rats behind the cricket pavillion at school, for which Louisa gives the headmaster the most delightful telling-off and then declares Gerry won’t be returning to school. Larry (Josh O’Connor, currently Prince Charles on the third season of The Crown), her oldest son, is frustrated to be working as an estate agent when what he really wants to be is a writer. Leslie (Callum Woodhouse), her middle son, declares he has also left school and has taken his uniform into the garden and shot it. (He shoots a lot of things.) Margo (Daisy Waterstone), her sixteen-year-old daughter, adds that she might as well leave school, too, because she is “as thick as two short planks.” They barely have enough money to make ends meet, and the bills are piling up. It’s cold inside the house and rainy outside it, and Louisa aptly describes them all as being stuck and sinking. When talking to Larry, her sounding board and confidant, she says, “All I’ve been able to do is raise one unteachable son, one psychopath, one vacuous daughter, and you.” In return, Larry asks, “What about you? You drink like a fish. If fish drank gin.” And so she decides, at Larry’s urging, to move the family—including the dog Roger (Mossup)—to the small Greek island of Corfu where there is no electricity, but the sun shines off of blue water and the cost of living is lower. It appears that they move there knowing little more about the place than that, which is a leap of faith so breathtakingly brave and desperate that I fell in love with Louisa Durrell on the spot. I suppose, alternatively, you could also argue that uprooting your family and moving them to a less developed country with a lower cost of living is largely tied to some colonialist mindset, but let’s just go ahead and not do that.
Once on the island, they soon meet Spiros Halikiopoulos (Alexis Georgoulis), a very attractive (Very Attractive!), and also married, taxi driver with one of the few cars on the island, who loves both speaking English and the English (and quite possibly Louisa, specifically).
With his help, they find an extremely run-down but affordable house to rent that overlooks the sea. There is also, as Larry proclaims, a “zoo in the lavatory.”
The very next morning, Larry begins to try to write his novel, Leslie takes his guns and goes off to find things to kill, Margo leaves to go sunbathing, and Gerry wanders into the wilderness to fulfill his naturalist fantasies, while Louisa is left to clean and set up house with the only sometimes helpful support of Lugaretzia (Anna Savva), a maybe hypochondriacal local housekeeper with strong opinions. None of this goes particularly well for any of them at first, with the exception of Gerry, who meets Theo Stephanides (Yorgos Karamihos)—a local naturalist who quickly becomes his friend and mentor—and begins to gather creatures for what will become an extensive and eclectic collection of local and more exotic fauna. By the end of the first day, everyone is shouting, angry, and blaming each other for their troubles. Don’t worry, though! Things get better (and worse again) because it’s only just the beginning of the Durrell family making a life for themselves in Corfu, and the beginning of them all growing into themselves as individuals and as a family.
My usual response about what it is exactly that I love so much about The Durrells is to wave my hand vaguely while saying, “You know, just…everything.” Does that work here as well? Not so much? Well, let me try to get a little more specific.
The way the characters speak to each other is a magical combination of frankness, dry wit, snark, and love. For example, the family is endlessly giving Larry a hard time about his writing, rolling their eyes when he calls himself a writer and refusing to read his books because they’re too boring. At one point when she is trying to encourage him Louisa says, “You’re going to make us very proud.” “In this family?” he asks scornfully. To which Louisa concedes, “You’re going to make us mildly pleased in a complicated way.” What I can’t show you here is the amazing delivery that everyone, but especially Louisa with her lip twitches and eye rolls and micro-facial expressions, gives of their lines. Honestly, I could write an ode to Louisa’s eye rolls alone, but I will spare you. None of the verbal sparring comes across as mean-spirited because it’s clear that underlying it all is love and devotion to each other as a family unit and an acceptance of each other as very different individuals. When Larry faces a life-threatening situation and Louisa sighs, “I don’t know why I’m getting upset. He’s really annoying,” you know she absolutely adores him. And I absolutely adore this show!
It’s incredibly funny and touching. So much of the show is about this family finding their way in an unfamiliar place that gradually becomes more familiar than home ever was. They build a community of unexpected allies and friendships. There are romances, heartaches, adventures, and day-to-day stories of people working to make a life for themselves. Of course, you won’t be surprised to hear that at the heart of this is the deep friendship and constantly thwarted romance between Louisa and Spiros. Dear God, my people, if for no other reason, just watch the show for the handful of times he calls her by her first name instead of Mrs. Durrells. And, obviously, you could also watch it for his Genetically Blessed Face™ and Longing Looks.
But probably the most tender part of the show is its treatment of Gerry and his many animals. The parts of the series where he is out observing animals are almost always filmed through a soft focus, giving the scenes a dreamy sort of quality where you can almost feel the heat rising off the land and the languid longing Gerry has to better understand and care for all animals. And that dreaminess carries over into my own feelings about the animals as part of the show. He starts off by bringing home a couple of insects, then some dormice, then a turtle, and it just keeps expanding from there. He brings home flamingos to determine how much their diet affects their color. Otters come home with him so he can help them breed in safety. Soon there is an entire menagerie of animals both inside and outside the house. A pelican wanders through the kitchen, a goat disrupts social gatherings, and owlets are housed in the outhouse. It’s totally impractical and absolutely magical.
And all the scenery, not just the parts when Gerry is communing with nature, is amazing and inviting. Sometimes it’s sweeping views of the land leading out to the sea. Sometimes it’s the picturesque patio outside the Durrells’ house with its pergola and high sea wall. Sometimes it’s marshes or forests. Sometimes it’s inside their crumbling house where a kind of decaying beauty is juxtaposed against the vibrancy of the Durrell family’s lives. There are scenes in the town that make it hard not to drop everything and start planning a trip. The series was filmed on location in Corfu, with local people playing small roles, and you can almost feel how much everyone seems to enjoy being there.
Wait? What’s that you ask? Who’s my favorite character? I am appalled that you ask me to try to choose. (Also, clearly it’s Louisa, but I feel very guilty saying that because I love them all—and all the ways they interact with each other—so very much!) Look, do you really need more reasons? You do not! Just go watch the show so we can sit together, gesturing vaguely and sighing contentedly with a dreamy look in our eyes.