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"Bleak House" is far from, er, bleak

Okay. I will admit it: I am a sucker for TV costume dramas... especially when they are well-made, produced by the BBC, and adapted into multiple hours. I've stared mesmerized for hours at the fantastic 6-hour Colin Firth/Jennifer Ehle opus Pride and Prejudice, the twisty and addictive Our Mutual Friend, and the thrilling adaptation of Dickens confidante Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White, among others.

And with the latest addition to the oeuvre, the BBC's brilliant adaptation of Charles Dickens' multi-layered novel, Bleak House, the BBC has outdone itself in every aspect. Adapted with skill by screenwriter Andrew Davies, Bleak House aired in the UK last year to critical and commercial acclaim. Structured as a nighttime soap (sort of like EastEnders with street urchins and Chancery suits), the BBC aired the series as 15 half-hour installments twice a week, keeping the serialized aspect of Dickens' original novel.

Fortunately, when Bleak House arrived across the Atlantic, PBS realized that the drama addicts such as myself couldn't just watch a half-hour episode and then wait a few days for another installment. Instead, those wise sybils shuffled the structure into a two-hour premiere and finale and four one-hour episodes in between.

The cast for such an endeavor is, as one would expect, top-notch. Charles Dance as the evil Mr. Tulkinghorn and Gillian Anderson as the icy Lady Dedlock provide the two most recognizable faces in the bunch, but standouts include Anna Maxwell Martin (Esther Summerson), Dennis Lawson (John Jarndyce), Carey Mulligan (Ada Clare), and Burn Gorman (Guppy), who turns in a chilling performance as the oily Esther-obssessed young lawyer who unknowingly propells the plot (and several characters' ultimate fates) with each move.

So far, the plot of Bleak House is like literary crack and contains everything one expect from Dickens and more: mistaken identity, assumed names, duplicitous detectives, orphans, saintly street-crossing cleaners, star-crossed lovers, lawsuits, and a case of spontaneous combustion. Yes, you read that last bit right: Dickens kills off a supporting character by having him suddenly explode into flames from within.

And when Miss Flite and Mr. Snagsby run into Guppy outside the deceased's establishment and both remark on the greasy flakes that seem to be everywhere in the air, you just know that Dickens must have chuckled at his own cleverness upon writing such a gruesome, shocking scene.

Bleak House currently airs Sunday evenings at 9 pm PST on PBS. Check your local listings.

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