Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Review: DOWNTON ABBEY, series 1 & 2

Tuesday, 3 January 2012
Series 1
Series 2
Christmas Special
(Warning: Major plot spoilers occasionally alluded to.)

It's easy to see why Downton Abbey's become such a hit on both sides of the Atlantic. It arrived on our airwaves with impeccable timing, coinciding with a period where it feels like the world's on the brink of financial ruin. What better way to distance yourself from the present uncertainties, than by revisiting the Edwardian era, where life was more rigid and everyone knew their place. It's cultural nostalgia, warped and beautified accordingly, but Oscar-winning creator Julian Fellowes' idealised view of the early-20th century has the power to seduce. We're in such a muddle nowadays, preoccupied and confused by our own lives and the direction of the world, that it's refreshing to watch a more black-and-white, romantic existence. A British Empire at the peak of its power and influence, where the classes all had their roles to play within the imperial machine.

Cleverly, Downton Abbey immediately feel like a comforting old friend, perhaps because every iteration of this genre covers broadly the same stories and archetypes. There's the kindly Earl of Grantham, Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), the kind of chap who'll gladly pay for a servant's eye operation; his American wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), the one with the wealth he inherited after marriage; their beautiful elder daughter Mary (Michelle Dockery), whom they're anxious to marry off; plain middle child Edith (Laura Carmichael), who harbours deep resentment of Mary's special treatment as the eldest; politically-minded youngest daughter Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay), who's interested in nursing and bucking the system; and sharp-tongued grandmother Countess Violet (Maggie Smith), a Victorian relic who refuses to accept the world is changing around her. It all feels oddly familiar, particularly given Smith's Emmy-winning turn, as she's really just refining a character she's often asked to trot out. But you can't deny Smith has a way with disparaging one-liners, delivered with a wide-eyed burble--the most satisfying of which is saved as a parting shot during the Christmas special.

The working class servants are likewise recognisable in their broad personalities: fastidious butler Carson (Jim Carter), who keeps the grand house running smoothly; tough but fair housekeeper Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan), Carson's right-hand woman; devious maid Mrs O'Brien (Siobhan Finneran), who can't help meddling in people's affairs; affable head housemaid Anna (Joanne Froggatt); freckled Gwen (Rose Leslie), the lowly housemaid who dreams of becoming a secretary; clandestinely gay footman Thomas (Rob James-Collier), whose good looks mask his inner ugliness; naïve kitchen maid Daisy (Sophie McShera); doughty cook Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nicol); and enigmatic valet Bates (Brendan Coyle)—the most interesting character (narrowly beating Thomas, his enemy and rival), as he feel like less of a stereotype. It's notable that Fellowes wrote Bates with Coyle in mind, so perhaps that helped him craft a character who's more like a person from the start. It helps that Bates is also setup as being extremely sympathetic (he walks with a limp sustained in the Boer War, is the target of uncalled-for staff bullying upon arrival, and develops a sweet romance with a maid).

The first series revolves around an interesting state of affairs, following the tragic deaths of two heirs to the Crawley fortune, after the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. Worse, the estate's entail says only a man can inherit the Earl's title, which thus passes over his three daughters (the eldest of whom was engaged to marry the original heir) and goes to debonair Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), who's initially seen as a poor choice because he's a middle class doctor (who'd rather dress himself and make his own tea). As first episodes go, Downton Abbey's in actually one of the best I've seen, seeing as it nimbly introduces a broad range of characters and sets key ideas in motion, leading into an equally compelling second hour involving a scandalous murder. As I've said, it helps that so many of the characters are types we've seen many times before, but that shouldn't undervalue the excellent work done by Fellowes here. The biggest compliment I can give is that after watching the first hour, feeling uncertain I'd even enjoy Downton Abbey because the genre can sometimes be very stuffy, I was immediately compelled to watch a further two episodes that same day.

That's not to say Downton Abbey doesn't have its issues and flaws, many of which become more apparent in the messier second series. You watch the show with an expectation that the servant/master dynamic is going to elicit most of the drama, but instead it becomes clear that the Crawley family are so charitable to their staff it can almost feel comical. It's definitely heartening and endears "the toffs" to the audience, but I couldn't help thinking some tricks were missed by taking this decision. Fellowes attempts to turn Edith into a villain towards the end of series 1, as she tries to scupper her sister's chances of a happy life, but it comes too late and is anyway forgotten about come series 2. Instead, the show's prominent villains are from "downstairs", which is a shame, although I very much appreciated the addition of slimy press magnate Sir Richard Carlisle (Iain Glen) in series 2. But, by and large, the English nobility have a great PR campaign in Downton Abbey, make no mistake about it.

One thing that's striking about the show is its weird sense of pacing and the general passage of time. The first series actually covers two years, and it comes as quite a surprise when that's mentioned in a piece of dialogue during episode 5. It's strange because most of the stories feel barely weeks old, but in fact many of the show's relationships and situations have been brewing for months. While there are occasional title cards letting you know when we've entered a different year at the beginning of some episodes, the show never really feels like such time is passing.

I was aware going in that series 2 was received less warmly by critics going in, and I can now understand why, although it contains more eventful episodes in every respect. I wonder if Fellowes felt additional pressure, knowing that Downton Abbey had become a worldwide hit, as there's an occasional feeling of desperation in how the series evolves. Fellowes wrote series 2 single-handed, unlike the previous year, and he most likely bit off more than he could chew. Series 2 is primarily focused on showing how the Great War (announced at the end of series 1) was the catalysts for change in British society on many levels, and it fuels a very different mix of problems and situations for the characters to tackle. Most notably, many of the young men are whisked off to fight in the trenches of the Somme—most notably Crawley, Thomas, and footman William (Thomas Howes)—while Downton Abbey itself is turned into a convalescence home for injured soldiers, thanks to the pressure exerted by Matthew's do-gooding mother Isobel (Penelope Wilton) and Lady Sybil.

Again, it's the pacing that's most remarkable, as series 2 is particularly fast-moving and years literally pass between key episodes. And while that brings freshness and vitality, there are times when you wonder what all the rush is about. In listing the events that occur from beginning to end, any other drama could probably have spread that material out across double the allotted hours. And in many instances that would have been beneficial, because so many ideas are given short-shrift, or story arcs you expect to last ages get resolved in two hours.

Perhaps most alarmingly, you soon begin to realise just how much of the plot is led by coincidence or mixed luck. Or you just feel the writer's hand guiding the characters' destinies too much, to put it another way. Life can sometimes happen to people, rather than people happening to life, but there's often too much of the former going on. Have you been left with a baby born out of wedlock? Don't worry, your son's well-heeled family will appear from nowhere. Have you been left paralysed from a war, unable to father children? Never mind, your doctor probably got his diagnosis wrong. Are you a nobleman with an indecorous crush on a lowly maid? Tricky, but she'll soon resign, once your wife becomes sick and guilt kicks in for you both. Is there a facially-scarred Canadian officer with amnesia, claiming to be heir to your family estate? Never fear, he'll be gone very soon. Do you have a fiancé you can't jilt to be with your true love, out of a feeling of loyalty? Oh look, here comes Spanish 'flu to sort things out...

Maybe this is why the stories that really stick out about series 2 were the ones where it really did come down to people interacting, trying to sort out their lives. Lady Sybil falling in love with the Irish chauffeur, Mary going through a marriage of convenience with Sir Carlisle, sweet Daisy being guilt-tripped into marrying someone on their deathbed, or Bates and Anna deciding to marry under the cloud of a murder investigation.

Still, Downton Abbey overcomes many of its failings through sheer gusto and an eye for good entertainment. Judged on the level of a high-class period soap, it's undeniably entertaining to watch it grab every plot cliché you can imagine and take them all for a good long run. War, murder, birth, death, sickness, tragedy, marriage,  divorce, betrayal, scandal... the show merrily skips through them all, even if its own eagerness sometimes comes at the cost of believability and a story being allowed to breathe. Thankfully, the ragged nature of series 2's telling is somewhat salvaged by a very impressive Christmas special that brings the majority of storylines to a satisfying end, told in a memorably festive and (mostly) heartwarming way, with a final scene guaranteed to melt the iciest heart.

written by Julian Fellowes, Shelagh Stephenson & Tina Pepler / directed by Brian Percival, Ben Bolt, Brian Kelly, Ashley Pearce, Andy Goddard & James Strong / 26 September-7 November 2010 (Series 1), 18 September-6 November 2011 (Series 2) & 25 December 2011 (Christmas Special) / ITV1