The Way We Live Now is about the way we would have lived in 1875, if we were British. But oddly enough, it is also about the way we live now, even though we're American.
In light of the recent corporate scandals, dot-com failures, and political shenanigans, this six-hour Masterpiece Theatre presentation (PBS, Mondays, beginning April 1, check local listings) seems prescient about our own era.
It's also quite contemporary in tone: Screenwriter Andrew Davies ("Othello," "Bridget Jones's Diary") adapted Anthony Trollope's dark tale of corporate fraud in Victorian England with tremendous insight into the complexities of human motives.
Only one person in the story can be characterized as really good Hetta Carbury. All the others come in shades of gray, ending with that charcoal spider spinning his ashen web, Augustus Melmotte, the international financier. (David Suchet is brilliant in the role.) Melmotte is a villain who preys on scoundrels, a man who has grown rich scamming foolhardy aristocrats and then moving on to the next country leaving a trail of debt, fraud, and economic collapse behind him.
But by the time he gets to England, he has grown weary of his vagabond lifestyle and decides he wants to become an English gentleman. He plans to marry off his bitter daughter to an aristocrat and plans to mingle in the best society as he sets up a huge swindle a company to build a railroad in America.
Of course, he has no intention of building it. And while greedy dupes are investing their last pound in the enterprise, Melmotte grows too smug in his own deceptions. Not everyone he deals with is equally foolish.
The real tragedy is that his creative intelligence could have been used for good, making money the old-fashioned way by earning it with a real railroad.
Meanwhile, Melmotte's odd, but sympathetic daughter falls in love with a ne'er-do-well, whose virtuous sister, Hetta, loves Paul Montague, a man of somewhat compromised character.
The young man (an engineer who has sunk his fortune in Melmotte's scheme and plans to build the railroad himself) is, in turn, stalked by a beautiful American woman, whose own sense of honor includes shooting men who jilt her. There are other liaisons too numerous to mention, but each is connected to the others through Melmotte demonstrating just how small the world of privilege can be.
"When we were shooting, it was about the time of those dot-com collapses," said director David Yates, reached by phone at his London office. "And it had huge relevance. Everyday we would come to the set, and we would be going through scenes with Melmotte in the board room where he would be convincing others that they had endless horizons before them, that the railway would make them richer than they could imagine.
"It seemed relevant then, and now [the series] is coming out in America in the shadow of Enron."
These period TV shows are often driven by romance, he says. But one thing Mr. Yates and his gang felt passionate about was having a contemporary relevance. At one point, Melmotte gives a speech in which he tells his investors that it is their duty to become rich men.
"'We won't need wars anymore,' Melmotte says, and what he's really talking about is globalization," Yates says. "It was a time in history when people thought there were no boundaries.... Human nature doesn't want to miss the boat if [people] sense change, they want to be on board with it."
What Yates finds fascinating about Melmotte is that his whole scam is driven by his personality. But he brings apparent legitimacy to the con by involving everyone he can from politicians and newspapermen to the elite of society. It's like the Emperor's new clothes in that everybody deceives themselves and others until the whole charade collapses.
"With many of the characters, what you see is not always what you get," he says. "People's motivations and desires are not always straightforward."
Mr. Davies has a real talent for writing strong female characters, and the women in "The Way We Live Now" are varied and robust. Another film that deals with strong women this week is an intriguing documentary called When I Was a Girl (WE: Women's Entertainment cable channel, March 21, 8-9 p.m.).
Actresses Candice Bergen, Elizabeth Perkins, Edie Falco, Wendie Malick, and Gillian Anderson; opera singer Denyce Graves; former Clinton adviser Dee Dee Myers; WNBA star Lisa Leslie; Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Anna Quindlen; astronaut Sally Ride; and Children's Defense Fund advocate Marian Wright Edelman answer questions about their early childhoods, their awakening to the world, and their careers.
They are all interesting and intelligent women, though one might have wished for a teacher, minister, lawyer, or businesswoman instead of so many actresses for variety's sake.
This provocative documentary makes us ask these questions about our own lives and perhaps those of our daughters as well. What were the formative influences that have led us to where we are, the choices we've made, the inspiration we've found? And how are we encouraging the women and the men in our lives?
The answers we give in our 20s and 30s may be different from the conclusions we come to later in life. The trick is to remember to reflect on it all.