‘Tom Jones Masterpiece' Review: PBS Adaptation of Fielding Classic
MASTERPIECE "Tom Jones" Episode One Sunday, April 30, 2023 at 9/8c on PBS Tom and Sophia hit it off, despite their wildly contrasting backgrounds. Molly complicates the picture for Tom, and Blifil for Sophia. Shown from left to right: Sophie Wilde as Sophia Western and Solly McLeod as Tom Jones For editorial use only. Courtesy of Mammoth Screen and MASTERPIECE

‘Tom Jones Masterpiece’ Review: PBS Adaptation of Fielding Classic

The least compelling thing about “Tom Jones: Masterpiece” is Tom Jones himself. When the four-part miniseries debuts on April 30, it transforms Henry Fielding’s 800-plus page picaresque novel into a romcom in which the female lead isn’t only every bit the hero as her male counterpart, but often outshines him.

For the uninitiated, “Tom Jones” revolves around an orphan of the same name who is raised by a squire as if he were his own. It’s a coming-of-age story in which Tom grows up with and falls for his neighbor, Sophia Western, all while shagging plenty of other women and often getting in his own way. There are forces conspiring against him, of course: namely his cousin William Blifil, who is born into privilege and hates everything about his relative from Day 1.

This iteration of “Tom Jones,” which comes decades after the Oscar-winning, 1963 film starring Albert Finney, follows the same storyline, but is very much a product of the time. Screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes had a gargantuan task ahead of her in boiling down the tome into four hours, while also extracting the female voices that define Tom in the first place.

To do so, she cut plenty of scenes from the middle of the novel and the plots that keep Sophia and Tom apart for too long, choosing instead to focus on the lighter, comedic moments and its sweeping love story. The result is this sprightly, if not surface-level, miniseries.

Here, Solly McLeod (“House of the Dragon”) picks up the mantle of Tom Jones, and while he’s likeable enough, you never quite get to know him. On his own he doesn’t captivate — but that feels intentional. Instead, he’s defined by the women whose company he keeps, transforming him from literature’s first fuckboy into mouldable clay — a young man with a good heart and little direction.

With Sophia (Sophie Wilde) he’s the best version of himself, which is why Hughes chose to have her narrate the series. However, with Sophia’s aunt, Lady Bellaston (Hannah Waddingham), Tom becomes the worst iteration he can be, proving his detractors right. With other women, he falls somewhere in between, wanting to do right by them, but remaining infuriatingly unaware of how the real world works. It’s on brand for a character without a mother who is constantly searching for his own identity.

Speaking of the women, they throw themselves at Tom, and he’s quick to relent in that repulsive, “boys will be boys” way. He loves Sophia, but he reminds you of a Golden Retriever — he’s loyal, yet he can’t help playing fetch with stick-wielding strangers whenever they appear.

Fair enough for a character who is only 20 years old, but that distinction isn’t made until Episode 4, at which point a much older-looking McLeod has already whipped through most of the character growth. Much of that occurs earlier in the series during memorable scenes with Lady Bellaston, particularly following a beautifully shot masquerade party.

Waddingham easily commands those scenes as the villainous aunt, pulling back what could have been an excessive and indulgent role and settling into a nuanced character with wicked intentions whom you love to hate. For his part, James Wilbraham also plays Blifil with seedy aplomb, and some of the mini’s best scenes are when Blifil and Lady Bellaston conspire together on screen.  

Wilde is equally compelling as Sophia learns the ropes of the world, taking on more agency as the episodes unfold. As her true character and spirit emerge, she truly becomes the heroine of this story, one who was always going to get the guy in the end. The only question is, does she truly want him after all of the heinous things he’s done?

In the end, this is a low-commitment and easy watch that should satiate period piece lovers with its subtle comedy, outlandish recurring characters and gorgeous handmade costumes. But make no mistake: While “Tom Jones” contains themes of identity, class and what it means to be a woman of the time, at its core this is just another situational romcom in britches.

“Tom Jones: Masterpiece” airs in four parts at 9 p.m. ET on PBS from April 30 to May 31.