Thursday, February 21, 2013

Review: Downton Abbey Season 2

I'm starting to believe that I should just automatically dock five points from the score of any TV program or movie I watch when it doesn't include Maggie Smith.

So, as you can guess from the title, I got around to watching season 2 of Downton Abbey, and I can't really say for certain if I liked it less, as much as, or more than the original season.  The high points were higher, but the lows, for me, were a bit more glaring.  But before I nitpick, let's look at the series as a whole.

I'm not going to recap the entire series again, as I've already described it once in another post.  I'll simply say that the storylines, for the most part, pick up from where the first series ended and plunge us headfirst into the first world war.

The fact that this series takes place across the first world war is, frankly, remarkable.  Most historical period dramas seem to like to skip over this time period, ending at "pre-1900" and starting up again at "Pearl Harbor or thereabouts."  The way the family at Downton Abbey loses piece by piece of their old life is telling (which I cannot praise the writers and actors for enough), and is something I was waiting to see since the end of the first season.  New characters, and with them new ideas, bring a fresh flavor to what might be slightly stale, and interactions between characters who found themselves questioning the way things were to the way they could be was an intriguing philosophical debate I'd find myself having with myself some time after an episode ended.

One thing that was always missing from my history classes in school was a context for everything I read about.  It's one thing to hear about what happened in Country Y during a time and then later learn that, during the same time, something else was happening in Country Z, but it's programs like Downton Abbey that allow you to connect them, as characters reference events, historical figures, and even pop culture from across an ocean.

A few stories that developed this season I found extremely fascinating.  The youngest daughter's progression from society girl to nurse to outspoken independent thinker was great.  This allowed her to embody the changing times and force other characters to react to a face and personality, not simply news they receive through telegrams or rumors overheard from the wait staff.  I wasn't as fond of her relationship with the Irish chauffeur, but will find it interesting to see how it progresses to have a character stand at "middle class" instead of simply the "masters" and the "servants."

I was also eager for the development of Carson as a character.  He seemed so desperate to cling to the rules and decorum of how things "should" be, just to watch more rules get bent or broken as wartime stripped him of the essentials to do his job. His interactions with other characters were more developed as well, building on his relationships with family members and shaping just how protective of them he is, but also what lines he refuses to cross.

Of course, Maggie Smith was a delight every time she was on screen, and watching someone firmly rooted in the "old ways" having to react to having no control over major situations try and grasp hold of anything she could hold dominion over was also fascinating.  Along those same lines was the growth of Cora as a strong character able to take control of her household when Isobel (sometimes rightly) would grab it from her.

 Now, as always, there are flaws.

I guess I should start with the topic that drove me nuts the most:  It turned from a period piece soap opera to a soap opera happening within a specific period.  For me, it would be the difference between watching the Harry Potter franchise, which is steeped heavily in wizardry and witchcraft...and watching a rerun of Passions which I only remember existing because it had "a witch."

"Hi, I serve no real purpose and have no impact on the plot."

I found the unnecessary drama to be tiring, such as the middle sister's dalliance with a married man, the spontaneous romance between Lord Grantham and Jane was taxing, and for gods sake, we all know that Mr. Bates is the greatest human to ever live, so dragging out the storyline with his wife just feels like drama for the sake of drama.  While I was initially intrigued by the character of Lavinia Swire (the "new eyes" to Downton, much like Matthew did in the season before), the whole love triangle business became rather tired.  The resolution to said plot, though, left me torn, because while it was a well-placed use of actual historic events, having a character suddenly say "oh, I've felt this way for a while" with few to no real clues indicating such seems a bit of a cop-out.

I have to admit, I didn't mind O'Brien as much this season, and her full face turn from heel to overprotective figure for Cora is interesting.  Still hated Thomas, though, but I guess I'm just supposed to.

Oh, and then there's Daisy.  Having to listen to episode after episode of "I don't love 'im!" followed by episode after episode of her going "It was a sham" was Just. So. Tiring!  At least give us some personal motivation for why you can't accept that his family loves you because he loved you, regardless of how you felt for him, and maybe I'll care, but for now you're just so WHINY.

Okay, moving away from the characters, let's find a happy place again.  Storytelling-wise, it was interesting to see major events (such as the Spanish flu) creep into the plot.  It helps to know your history and be able to pick up on events that are either coming or will be mentioned as an aside.  The set designs were, of course, amazing, making me wonder just how big a budget this show has.

Overall...I'm torn.  I loved the development of this world, and can't wait for season 3 to be available (I'm also watching the Christmas special separately, so there will be a review on that later) so I can see what happens next on a major scale, but the show really needs to decide just how much it wants to focus on swirling soap opera drama, because I really feel like it's starting to hold it back from reaching a truly amazing status.

Now, there's still a Christmas special to watch, as well as season 3 that just came out on DVD recently, so I'll probably watch that as well, but if I feel that this series really is taking the dive into full-on soap opera and not "fictional but accurate account of changing times during a key shift in how the world looked at itself" ... I might not stick around for season 4.

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