18 March 2012

Downton Abbey: Season 1, 2, and The Christmas Special

Downton Abbey Series 1, Series 2, and the Christmas Special
(Because I’ve had That Kind of Marathon!)
By Kristin Battestella

Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and his American wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) are distraught to hear their cousin and heir presumptive to the family title has died in the sinking of the Titanic.  Eldest daughter Mary (Michelle Dockery) was engaged to the late Patrick to ensure the fortune and Downton Abbey estate remained within the family, but now middle class solicitor Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens)- a third cousin once removed- stands to inherit all.  Matthew comes to Downton with his mother Isobel (Penelope Wilton) -who butts heads with Robert’s mother Violet, the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith).  Middle daughter Edith (Laura Carmichael) schemes to displace Mary in the social circles while looking for romance of her own, and youngest daughter Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) spends more time downstairs with the servants as World War I shortly and irrevocably changes Downton Abbey.  Embroiled in their own personal highs and lows, valet Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle), butler Carson (Jim Carter), housekeeper Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), and maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt) must also deal with embittered lady’s maid O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran) and conniving footman Thomas (Rob James-Collier) as the Great War leaves marriages, positions, and social classes in turmoil. After becoming a soldier’s convalescence home during the war, Downton Abbey faces more change and upheavals as 1920 dawns.

Whew! I must admit, I was a little reluctant to catch on with the recent Downton Abbey hype.  After all, those of us who’ve been in the British period piece know all along shouldn’t be surprised that Oscar winning creator Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park) has a hit on both sides of the pond.  The good folks and evil characters here are not necessarily synonymous with either high or low stations, and this fine balance amid the personal drama is Downton Abbey’s glue. Yes, snots exist above and below, but the higher ups are quite kind and respectable enough to consider far-flung family as well as those on the wrong side of the class divide.  Somehow I suspect Americans must have thought these aristocrats would be cruel and nasty the likes of HBO juice.  However, the fact that all the servants and nobles are essentially one big family at Downton Abbey makes the budding soap drama easier to accept for viewers who wouldn’t normally tune in for the expected stuffy English tale. Honestly, all this acclaim and success for a show that is essentially about a chick trying to find a husband!  One could boil Downton Abbey down to that simplicity, yes; but the period heavy and personal angst upstairs and down (wink) becomes so much more.  Of course, with such a large cast, it is tough to tell who is who at the start, and a revolving door of guests might even make it difficult to tell who’s actually a regular player!  Fortunately, Fellowes and his writing team smartly focus on those characters instead of relying on saucy elements. Again, I think stateside audiences expected debauchery like The Tudors and are surprisingly pleased by the proper period strata and changing societal storytelling at the forefront of Downton Abbey.  Okay, there is one critical and scandalous indiscretion, but if Downton Abbey did fall into those sex, drugs, and rock and roll trappings, it wouldn’t be any good.  This show goes its own way, and the opposites attract approach is a refreshing treat.

 It’s ironic, however, because there are some unlikable people and scenarios that keep Downton Abbey’s word turning.  At first, I disliked Michelle Dockery’s (Red Riding) Mary- her love life indecision is damn nerve racking! Then again, she and Laura Carmichael’s (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) meddling Edith grow, or at the very least, ebb and flow with the audience’s attachment.  There’s an early sympathy for Edith, but she becomes increasing cruel and mishandled by time we get to the Christmas Special.  Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay, Albatross) also doesn’t have much to do at the start, and her involvement with chauffer Branson (Allen Leech, Rome) is also somewhat uneven, ranging from endearing to possessive. Fortunately, the veteran players Hugh Bonneville (Iris) and Elizabeth McGovern (Once Upon a Time in America) are great; a loving yet proper couple who understand the formal but know how to be warm to all in their household. Of course, Maggie Smith (you must kidding if you need a Dame Maggie reference!) is playing, well, somewhat of the same character she always plays- but Dowager Violet is a hoot.  Its great fun to see her and Penelope Wilton’s (Doctor Who) upper middle class Isobel go toe to toe. However, I must say I do find Dan Stevens (Vamps) as heir and romantic foil presumptive a bit dry.  The back and forth romancing, crushes, proposals, and possibilities just gets laid on too thick at times and it can be kind of obvious to say the least. Even so, the entail structure and class situations keep the Crawley family intriguing throughout the First Series. The family loves and hates as needed, with the performances well done all around.

But let’s not stop there! The downstairs of Downton Abbey might just outdo their ‘proper’ counterparts.  While we can get tired of aristocratic technicalities now and again as they go round and round, seeing good servants rise above while ne’er do well ones get their do is always quality television. I can’t wait to see Siobhan Finneran’s (Benidorm) O’Brien and Rob James-Collier’s (Coronation Street) Thomas get theirs!  Their plotting, moments of regret and humanity, and continuing scams are love to hate fun.  With them causing trouble, the servants become a dysfunctional family themselves. Jim Carter (Shakespeare in Love) is delightful as the dutiful butler trying to keep Downton Abbey a smooth machine along with Phyllis Logan (Lovejoy) as strict but sensitive housekeeper Mrs. Hughes. It’s a beautiful irony the way these dang fine people have rather tame pasts that they consider a black mark- when in fact all the dirt and blackmail is upstairs.  Though they’re obviously on the relationship merry go round, too, Brendan Coyle (True Dare Kiss) and Joanne Froggatt (Robin Hood) as Bates and Anna are charming. Really, servants are expected to live like monks and nuns with only Downton Abbey in their souls? I think not. Junior maid Gwen (Rose Leslie, Game of Thrones) and cook Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe) are also somewhat stock or less developed early on, and likewise Sophie McShera’s (Waterloo Road) kitchen maid Daisy and Thomas Howe (United) as happy footman William are typically annoying but shy and sweet. Fortunately, the dreams, contentment, and taking pride in what one does even if you are supposed to be ‘low’ add a lovely charm and wit. Everyone does indeed have a part to play at Downton Abbey, just as World War I comes along for Season 2.

 Sure, the warfare is somewhat subdued and small scale despite Downton Abbey’s enormous budget, but the trench conversations and no man’s land action is still damn well done stuff for television today. Survivor and reality shows my arse- we simply don’t see enough Great War material that often anymore. It’s much more interesting than the heir and love speculation of Series 1, but the uneven presentation this season is a tough balance indeed.  We had to see the highlife drama before the war in order appreciate the changes, and it is indeed great how the high, low, good, and bad has all gone topsy turvy.  Unfortunately, the war years are dang rushed- the entire show could have simply taken place from 1914 to 1918 with more than enough material.  There’s no need to create storylines that don’t ring true for Year 2. I must say, all these soldiers going off to battle and heavy hospital changes do get me choked up, but it is much too hasty!  With the passing of last WWI veteran, an entire generation is now gone. It’s a past that is no longer garnering respect, and it saddens me that this will happen to World War II veterans- perhaps in my lifetime. Already, we look on the latter war with far-gone period piece nostalgia, rather than seeing the heroes of the 20th century as the living elders with which we grew up.  It’s a shame that The Great War didn’t receive true focus and finite looks for Downton Abbey’s sophomore year.  More effort was spent on the aspects of change itself.  The hats are smaller, the hems are a bit higher, the lines of class are blurring, but it’s still treated as a romantic, radical time.  Fortunately, 100 years later, we do certainly understand the idea of war and the home front emotion it brings- even if we don’t have footmen at dinner anymore either.

Perhaps my sympathy over the War is a sore spot because it was displaced by a few less than stellar new characters. Too many would be at home scandals are just not that interesting- Amy Nuttall (Emmerdale) as new maid Ethel is just a real stick in the mud that I could really care less about, and my gosh Clare Calbraith’s (Heartbeat) maid Jane is just too weird. I mean-spoilers!- one kiss in a few episodes when it took years for everyone else? This isn’t anything we haven’t seen before either, coughjaneeyrecough.  Wasting time on a quick war resolution and affairs while others are ill with the Spanish Flu was indeed a misstep. I’m sure favoritism and higher up favors went on, but the Earl pulls a few strings every episode it seems.  While it is great that they still care about all at Downton regardless of station- it’s quite touching actually- but Matthew’s extended leaves, English tours, and back and forth war travel feels too convenient. Ian Glen (Game of Thrones) as crusty newspaper man Sir Richard Carlisle is intriguing foil for Mary, but the love triangle between them, Matthew, and his kindly but dull fiancée Lavinia (Zoe Boyle, Sons of Anarchy) is also all over the place.  Why go round and round with them when we have under used sassy sister Samantha Bond (GoldenEye) and Maria Doyle Kennedy (The Tudors) as Bates’ scheming and love to hate worthy wife Vera? 

Even with World War I aside, it seems the two-hour finale of tacked on Spanish Flu is just an unnecessary twist. Yep, Downton Abbey zips right through that too, boiling the epidemic down to a Mary and Matthew convenience! Unfortunately, while others are praising the feature length Series 2 Christmas Special follow up, I must say I was a little disappointed.  This special was no more seasonal nor any more of a return to glam heights of the First Season.  The pace again seemed haphazard, with a Servant’s Ball that was just so important yet we never saw it before the war.  And said dance was squashed amid the much more critical Bates on trial drama- along with an odd Aunt Rosamund storyline and more dalliances with the maid.  Weren’t we just here? I love Samantha Bond as Lady Painswick and would much rather have more of her than this rotating maid door.  But tragically, all of this is also sharing screen time with a kidnapped dog plot. Huh? The Christmas Special seemed like an awful lot of filler, a strategically timed delay on the end of the Second Series. Did we really need an extra episode just to get some resolutions finally about ^$%#$&* time! for a few characters? I think even Downton Abbey’s most ardent audiences can agree Series 2 seemed a little by the seat of its pants, and viewers who liked the show when things were fine, dandy, and pretty to look at with not much was going on probably don’t prefer these fast paced war heavies and upheavals. 

Yes, international acclaim and all, yet Downton Abbey is not entirely perfect.  Again, despite the stylized favor, those of us who already watched British period dramas will feel a sense of déjà vu, with generic Titanic references, tame Lady Chatterley put ons, and repeat locations that akin Downton Abbey with feelings of Poirot, Englefield House, and even Hex and X-Men: First Class.  The Series 1, Episode 5 flower show plot is more than just a tribute to Mrs. Miniver; it immediately recalls the classic Greer Garson picture for anyone who’s ever seen it.  Sometimes, it’s as if Fellowes has run out of little events to pin each episode on - and underutilizes the big events- so the critical character storylines get down played for these seemingly random and standard soap opera plots.  Watching all of Downton Abbey together is nice, but viewing everything so closely when the episodes themselves span over 8 years is also unusual for the audience.  To us, all these dramatic life-changing things just happened, so how could they so easily forget? Oh yes, it’s been a few years for them hasn’t it? The uneven skipping- accentuating little plots while missing half of World War I- makes things move too awkwardly- slow on the relationships but fast on the history. It definitely looks like the ball’s been dropped by the writers, and if you don’t have some idea of the history, one can get even more confused.  Series 2’s expanded length further exposes these faults. You can’t have all the war mayhem and glory and shoehorn in the regular society at home, too.  The aforementioned maid meanderings are here one episode, gone the next, and are truly needless in the grand scheme of Downton Abbey.  Though a plus, the editing and pace of what’s good suffers when you have to cut away to the drivel.  Enough is already happening, and these random soap opera entrappings didn’t need to be part of Downton Abbey.

 Thankfully, that style, suave, and Edwardian glamour makes it easy to forget the soap pacing or story issues.  Everyone top to bottom looks dang smashing!  From Lord Gratham’s adorned military get up to Daisy’s little pink frock, Cora’s black netted gowns to Thomas’ footman livery.  The supposedly lower class people are just so proper and well mannered, too.  It’s not that they are British- the dialogue and accents are easy on all ears, classy and old school.  I wish I could speak like this without being looked at as though I have two foreign talking heads!  While I would have preferred more Christmas décor and celebration, I can’t say any more about the costumes than what’s been said by every single person watching Downton Abbey!  Oh, the fashion nostalgia! The period scoring and music are lovely, along with Highclere Castle and the surrounding English towns and countrysides.   The use of early technology changes is divine, too.  You know 21st century kids simply cannot comprehend what it takes to get used to electricity, telephones, cars, typewriters, or gramophones. Hello, if they wanted to hear music they actually had to sing it or play the instruments themselves!  O…M…G!

 Despite some storytelling kinks and growing pains pacing, Downton Abbey is wonderful television on either side of the pond.  I liked it a lot actually, and am looking forward to more in Series 3! With a short seven episode debut and Year Two also available on PBS, streaming, and video outlets; it’s fairly easy to jump back with the Crawley gang for a marathon or a quick few weeks of yesteryear. I actually sort of forced myself into my marathon because I had all the glorious looking HD episodes hogging up my DVR!  It can get that addictive, oh yes. Period piece fans, anglophile audiences, and young or old viewers of soap drama can and should definitely get down with Downton Abbey.



Juanita's Journal said...

I had no problems with the debauchery of "THE TUDORS". I certainly don't regard "DOWNTON ABBEY" as the better production. Both are entertaining, yet flawed television series in their own rights.

I could swoon over the costumes and setting all the night long. But for me, the backbone of any good production - movie or television - is the writing. And not only did Julian Fellowes failed to address the flaws of Season One in Season Two, the writing in the latter grew worse. I guess we'll have to wait and see how Season Three will turn out.

Kristin Battestella said...

Hi Juanita! Thanks for visiting and taking the time to comment.

I love the debauchery in The Tudors, too, but I'm glad they didn't try and cover up the writing flaws in Downton Abbey with any attempts at saucy material.

I like the characters and performances and am curious indeed how Season 3 will go, but I agree you can only do so much when the writing isn't waterproof. I think they really only thought in terms of a limited series and some of the holes are coming back on them.

But people are indeed still watching, breakneck speed and all.

Again, thanks for stopping by with your insights!!

Jeremy [Retro] said...

Attn: HBA Members,

Updates, Changes... and No Response you might be considered D.E.A.D.

"The Horror Blogger Alliance" is having a "Give Blood [Money]" Drive,
March 10th to April 1st 2012, for
more details: http://horrorbloggeralliance.blogspot.com/

Thank You,
Jeremy [Retro-Zombie]
HBA Curator