Thursday, January 10, 2013

Review: Downton Abbey

I've always had a love/hate relationship with British period pieces.  I love history, and even glimpses of it through the eyes of characters in a story is always a delight.  Be it Renaissance, medieval, British aristocracy, or early Americana, the stories that take place between wars, disasters, and politics are fascinating.

However, many of the stories are British.

...I should amend that sentence.  While I love stories that take place during these time periods, there is one thing that has always bothered me: the English class system.  There's just something about people accepting "well, these people are better than those people because they are."  Especially when it's accepted as truth by people on both sides of the societal line.

I'm certain this is the chief underlying reason why the Queen has never invited me to tea.

But, the newest (in terms of things I haven't seen) thing to catch my eye is the series Downton Abbey. Having now blown through the first season in a week, I can state that Downton Abbey is everything I love about period pieces.  It's also everything I hate about period pieces.  Let's see if the love outweighs the hate.

The series takes place at a fictional Yorkshire home called Downton Abbey (not a big spoiler, that).  It is currently resided in by the Earl and Countess of Grantham, their three daughters, and their servants.  I'm not entirely sure why the Earl and Countess don't live in Grantham or how it relates to Downton, but maybe I just missed it.  The season takes place through seven episodes and starts with the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 and ends with...well, it ends in 1914, you can probably figure out what's happening.

The overarching plot of the season surrounds the attempt to bring a distant relative into the family to act as the new heir after disaster befalls the family, while trying to find a way to secure futures for the rest of the family.  The stories that develop from that one incident shape not just every family member, but also every servant who works for them.

Starting with some high points, let's discuss the cast.  With a few exceptions, the cast is absolutely fantastic, and ranks with some of the best I've seen.  Not a single actor is wasted, and because the only one I really recognize is Maggie Smith, the actors seem to embody the characters.  There were one or two moments where I felt an actor wasn't putting as much into a scene as the others in the room, but these moments were so far between (and done by people who had, to that point, been great), I can overlook it.

That face is the embodiment of "not amused by your shenanigans."

Character-wise, the highest praise I can give is that this is a series with about twenty characters, and I kept track of every single one.  I had trouble keeping the cast of the first Game of Thrones book straight, my mind struggles to keep separate the singers on reality shows, and I even have trouble connecting the final contestants to the people who get slapped around in an episode of Wipeout.

What I'm saying is that these are memorable characters, including some of my favorites from any period piece, Mr. Bates, Anna the maid, and, of course, the Dowager played by Maggie Smith.  A few characters, however, are puzzling.  One character, in particular, seems to be negative for no discernible reason, and an event late in the series seems to add the only depth we get to the character (though, we do get more in the second season, of which I've watched one episode.)  Plus, while the eldest daughter gets much of the screen time through the series, the other two don't really develop at all until much later on.  The youngest daughter profits the most from this late development, and easily carries scenes in which she would have been a spectator in earlier on.  The middle one, however, takes part in some behavior that is absolutely puzzling considering the effects it would have on the family.

For something negative, we can look at the story.  While it's great that every character has their own story, some of them do get rather tiresome.  A conspiracy between two characters drags through the season without really going anywhere, and a side plot involving the chef places a lot of hints before coming to a head, but leaves us with a rather negative outlook of her before the sudden reversal.  A rather dark turn very late in the series seems to be tacked on for emotional drama, and while it does affect things around it, it would be rather simple to have the same things happen without this baggage,

Now, to be fair, there are so many plots it's easy to be distracted by the negative ones, but the positive ones make up for them.  The overarching plot of the heir learning about the life in which he's suddenly found himself is enjoyable, as are the contests of control between his mother and the Dowager.  A scandal in the story raises tension every time someone new finds out about it, and that plot gets heavier with every episode.  I also liked a minor subplot about one of the maids taking typing courses by mail to learn to be a secretary.  The puzzlement by Maggie Smith as to why any person would want to leave working for a family such as hers is delicious.

Of course, that leads to what I mentioned before, the class system.  For much of the series, it manages to be both prominent and subtle, only really becoming unbearable when the "upper class" discusses the "place" of their servants, something that glares when you see just how much people on both sides of the class line care for each other.  Conversations between the staff about lives beyond the "downstairs" and the discussions of the "upstairs" people about their problems are quite appropriate for the times, but it feels strange to watch that for entertainment without the culture theme weighing it down.

Now, to be fair, I can't blame the TV show for the classic English class structure, just like I can't blame Gone With The Wind for slavery or Casablanca for World War 2.  And while the class structure does affect the story, it doesn't define it, except in the story of the heir, but even that story manages to cross the gap slightly by having its focus manage to bring the "lesser" people up in different ways.

Overall, the characters and acting on their own would make this a show I would recommend to anyone who appreciates classical acting amidst today's flashiness and "reality" entertainment.  The story, while having a few glaring moments of "wait, what...why....huh?" is still solid where it counts, and the growing relationships between several characters manages to keep most of the darker plot threads from overpowering it.

Normally I'd do my "good" and "bad" focus here, but since that was the point of the whole article, I'll simply conclude that Downton Abbey is a solid watch, and at only seven episodes shouldn't intimidate people away from an intriguing look at how people lived in that period.

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