Around the World in 80 Days is a thrilling adaptation of Jules Verne’s classic adventure novel. David Tennant (Good Omens, Broadchurch, Doctor Who) stars as literature’s greatest explorer, Phileas Fogg. He is joined on his remarkable journey by French actor Ibrahim Koma (OSS 117, Wùlu) as Jean Passepartout, Fogg’s irrepressible valet, and German actress Leonie Benesch (The Crown, Babylon Berlin) as Abigail “Fix” Fortescue, a determined and headstrong journalist.
Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days is one of those books where even if you’ve never read it, you’re still fairly familiar with the plot. I mean, when Looney Tunes builds an entire film around parodying a story, there’s a good chance it’s seeped pretty deep into the public consciousness. And that sense of familiarity definitely shines through in PBS’s new adaptation of the novel. I’ve never read the book, so I can’t speak on how faithful this adaptation is. But what I can say is that the David Tennant-led series is rip-roaringly fun. Carried by fantastic performances by Tennant, Ibrahim Koma, and Leonie Benesch, Around the World in 80 Days delivers blockbuster-worthy action on a TV budget. And it’s endless amounts of fun.
A Mixture of Serialized and Episodic Storytelling
Developed by Ashley Pharoah and Caleb Ranson, Around the World in 80 Days follows the novel’s basic framework. Spurred on by a bet, Phileas Fogg (Tennant) embarks on a quest to travel around the world in eighty days. Joining him are Abigail “Fix” Fortescue (Benesch), a journalist from the Daily Telegraph, and Passepartout (Koma), a valet hired by Fogg for the journey. Their trek takes them all across Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas. And along the way, they face challenge after challenge, including a revolution, a poisoning, a shipwreck, and more. All to be the first people to travel around the world in eighty days. And honestly, the whole series is just endless amounts of fun. It’s like watching a big blockbuster movie spread across eight episodes. But in a good way.
Around the World in 80 Days takes the best elements of serialized and episodic TV shows and smashes them together into one series. The overarching plot focuses on Fogg’s journey around the world, with each episode detailing a single stop on that journey. So, every episode stands on its own and features a specific objective that the characters work toward. At the same time, each episode also pushes the overarching story forward and deepens the audience’s understanding of the characters. And sure, this is all storytelling 101. But it is genuinely impressive just how well Pharoah, Ranson, and the other writers pull this off. Because at no point does the show ever feel like it’s treading water or wasting time. Instead, the writers fill every episode to the brim with great character moments, great drama, and some breathtaking visuals.
A Globe-Trotting Adventure
Fans of Tennant’s time on Doctor Who will be delighted by Around the World in 80 Days‘ variety of tones. Each episode feels like a mini-movie, with constantly rotating settings and guest casts. One episode takes place almost entirely on a train, another takes place on a deserted island. And another, still, basically takes the form of a heist. Each episode has its own identity. And the sheer amount of variety between episodes ends up being as captivating as the overarching story itself. Plus, if you find yourself not vibing with one of the episodes, there’s a really good chance the next one will wow you. While the plot, itself, might not be particularly original, the series oozes so much charm that it’s easy to get swept up in the adventure.
And speaking of the variety in locales, Around the World in 80 Days features some breathtaking visuals. At times, it’s hard to believe this show was shot on a TV budget. It helps that much of the series was filmed on location (including in parts of South Africa and Romania). So, when the audience watches Fogg, Abigail, and Passepartout wander across a desert, it feels real. Because Tennant, Benesch, and Koma likely filmed those scenes in a real desert. And that sense of reality always helps in a show like this. Directors Steve Barron, Brian Kelly, and Charles Beeson all do a brilliant job at capturing these locations, too. The show is full of long, sweeping shots showing off the various landscapes. And these moments add a lot to the show’s sense of scale. Plus, they’re just gorgeous to look at.
Compelling Characters and Great Performances
Even more impressive than the visuals, though, are Tennant, Koma, and Benesch’s performances. Here, Tennant plays against type a bit. Unlike the heroic Tenth Doctor or the lovable demon, Crowley, Tennant’s Fogg is far less likable. As the series begins, Fogg is a shell of a man. He’s sad, bitter, vindictive, and all-around pathetic. And watching Tennant’s natural charisma fight against Fogg’s inherent unlikability proves to be a lot of fun. But fear not, as the series goes on, Fogg is given plenty of opportunities to grow. And Tennant plays those scenes every bit as brilliantly. He walks that line between making you hate Fogg and making you root for him perfectly. And he’s an absolute joy to watch.
Benesch and Koma deliver equally good performances, too. From the little I know about the novel, the show’s versions of Fix and Passepartout differ pretty significantly from the book’s version of the characters. And I’d imagine that’s to give Benesch and Koma more to do in the story – which the show definitely does. While both characters certainly play second-fiddle to Fogg, the show spends a great deal of time developing them. And both characters often play central roles in solving each episode’s various objectives. But honestly, where Benesch and Koma shine the brightest are in their characters’ quieter moments. The two share a very sweet romantic tension that builds throughout the series. And it’s a delight watching Benesch and Koma lean into that.
At the end of the day, Around the World in 80 Days is a rip-roaringly fun show. It’s like watching an eight-hour-long blockbuster film – but in the best way possible. Pharoah, Ranson, and the other writers cram each episode with as much adventure, drama, and character development as possible. And while I’m not entirely sure the series needed to be eight episodes long (it probably could’ve made do with five or six episodes), I can’t say that I felt any single episode was wholly disposable. And I always appreciated how much room there was for the show to slow down for a second and properly develop its characters.
But at its heart, Around the World in 80 Days is a big, bombastic adventure. And no matter what episode you’re watching, that feeling shines brightly. I’m thrilled beyond belief that the show’s already been greenlit for a second season. And the final episode even teases what the plot of the second season might be, leaving me deeply excited for what’s next. But regardless of what story the second season ends up telling, I love these characters a lot. And the show, itself, is an absolutely delightful watch from beginning to end. If you’re a fan of any of these actors, or well-made adventures in general, then Around the World in 80 Days is a must-watch.
New episodes of Around the World in 80 Days air Sundays at 8pm on PBS and PBS.org
Part-time writer, part-time theatre nerd, full-time dork.