“Masterpiece Theatre” is getting a new host (Gillian Anderson), but it’s much of the same old/merry old, as this stately production of “Persuasion” launches “The Complete Jane Austen,” a mix of original adaptations (including new versions of “Sense and Sensibility,” “Mansfield Park” and “Northanger Abbey”), an Austen biopic and encores of “Emma” and “Pride and Prejudice.” For committed Austen fans, it’s surely a treat; for the rest of us, it’s a tribute to palpable longing, ill-timed relationships, rolling hillsides and sumptuous gowns — all of which are put to good if predictable use in this slick and stylish premiere.
Watching “Persuasion” and the other productions made available, it’s no wonder Austen has become a favorite literary diversion for teenage girls across multiple generations, given her ready way with plucky heroines and the dashing if emotionally constipated young men for whom they achingly pine before true love conquers all.
Poor Anne (“Little Britain’s” Sally Hawkins) was desperately in love once, until her parents intervened (persuaded her, if you will), preventing her from what they saw as an ill-advised marriage. Now 27, she’s seemingly destined to become an old maid while the onetime object of her affections, Captain Wentworth (Rupert Penry-Jones), has blossomed into a dashing, wealthy and extremely eligible bachelor, forcing Anne to nurse pained expressions while younger beauties around her jockey to catch his eye.
Along the way, there are misunderstandings and miscues, moments where all hope appears lost and where class-consciousness — including that of Anne’s status-minded father (Anthony Head) — risks derailing a fated coupling. These are all recurring Austen themes, and “Persuasion” (as well as “Northanger Abbey,” starring Felicity Jones) offers an appealing heroine, with Hawkins proving especially vulnerable as the passive Anne, who again risks letting a lifetime of happiness slip away from her.
Granted, viewing the Austen adaptations in close proximity highlights the underlying sameness that permeates them, but taken strictly at face value, it’s a handsome collection — and faster, God knows, than wading through the books, which should make the planned DVD collection (the Jane Austen Society of North America and Penguin Books are among PBS’ partners) sought after among slacker students everywhere.
The Austen nights will continue (barring a few pledge-week preemptions in March) through the conclusion of the two-part “Sense and Sensibility” in early April, bringing welcome continuity and perhaps even a few younger viewers to PBS through the new year. So despite some ups and downs, the whole thing ought to work out fine for everybody, just as in an Austen story.