While Mark Clamen is our regular television critic, both David Churchill and Shlomo Schwartzberg keep up the pace with their own interest in both network and cable programming. If there is still anyone out there who thinks that television is inferior to movies or theatre, better think again. Downton Abbey is drawing eager viewers once more with its second season that is just underway. Here's Shlomo on the pleasure of discovering it last year.
|Downton Abbey (ITV, PBS) is now available on DVD|
|Elizabeth McGovern and Hugh Bonneville|
Downton Abbey, which ran on PBS in four parts, over about 5 1/2 hours, takes a leisurely, intricate approach to its unfolding story, alternating between the Crawleys and the manor’s servants, and slowly revealing the inner workings of their varied lives. What I liked best about the series is its disavowal of stereotypes that often accrue to dramas of this sort, namely the portrayal of the rich as cold and forbidding. Not here: Lord Grantham is actually a very kindly sort, who’s extremely uncomfortable when he realizes he has to sack one of the servants and who, as Downton Abbey begins, has just hired on John Bates (Brendan Coyle), his valet with whom he served in the military. (The relations between the Crawleys and their staff are usually generous and human, which has bothered some bloggers who didn’t buy it, but as rendered in the series strikes me as utterly believable.) Bate’s has been injured in battle, leaving him with a noticeable limp, which makes doing his job difficult and inspires some of the other servants, notably the duplicitous Thomas (Rob James-Collier), Downton Abbey’s First Footman, and the insecure Mrs. O’Brien (Siohban Finneran), Lady Grantham’s Lady’s maid, to try to force him out of his position. Bates, for his part, is an overly proud and secretive sort, who doesn’t make his life easier by refusing help from anyone, though the comely Head Housemaid, Anna (Joanne Froggatt), eventually cuts through his stubborn exterior. Theirs is a touchingly sweet love story. Fortunately, most of her fellow servants are prepared to do the right thing when the chips fall.
That theme of rebellion, usually couched in a modern vernacular, is the undercurrent of much of what goes in the manor and its surrounding environs. Matthew and his mother Isobel (Penelope Wilton), a doctor, ruffle some feathers by refusing, at least initially, any servants to help around the house. And Isobel, too, brings in some newfangled medical ideas that don’t sit well with the doctor and nurses at the local hospital. Other rigid concepts, from preservation of virginity before marriage to the whole idea of the modes of inheritance going through the male, are assailed as Downton Abbey and England as a whole begins to settle into the 20th century. It’s not all serious, either, as the show makes comedic hay with the introduction of a new invention, the telephone, a technological development that doesn’t sit well with the easily irritated butler, Mr. Carson (Jim Carter). Then as now, it’s the younger folk who find it easier to adapt to modernity.
|Jim Carter as Mr. Carson|
|The Crawley Sisters: Edith, Mary and Sybil|
As is, our cut of the series was thus able to flow naturally, consistently and pleasingly. (Three directors, Brian Percival, Ben Bolt and Brian Kelly shared the duties. The art direction and costumes are, as in most British period pieces, impeccable.) Much happens in Downton Abbey by the time it reaches its climax with the declaration of the First World War, two years after the series begins. And while the show isn’t groundbreaking or revelatory so much as it’s smart and well laid out, it’s rewarding viewing. It also garnered good enough ratings for a second instalment to be commissioned for airing in England in the fall, and likely early next year in North America. I for one can’t wait to see what happens to the owners, heir apparent and servants of Downton Abbey in the years following the beginning of WWI. It’ll be a journey well worth taking.
- originally published on April 5, 2011 in Critics at Large.