It happens all the time: someone will ask me to suggest a new show to watch, and I’ll name a title and start describing it, and about 10 seconds in, the other person’s face will curl up and they’ll say, “Oh, I’m sure it’s great, but I don’t want to watch a show about high school football,” or “I don’t want to watch a show about a guy who cooks crystal meth,” or “I don’t want to watch a show with spaceships and robots and clones.” And I’ll shake my head and lament that they won’t be able to see what I saw in “Friday Night Lights,” “Breaking Bad” and “Battlestar Galactica.”
But even I’m not immune to that line of thinking, as I discovered last year when PBS’ “Masterpiece Classic” debuted “Downton Abbey,” a drama about the masters and servants at a large English country estate in the years leading up to World War I. The social mores and problems of the landed gentry have never held any interest for me, and when faced with a crush of other material to watch with more appealing subject matter, I passed on “Downton” and moved on. Even rapturous reviews from most of my fellow critics wasn’t enough to sway me, and I imagine they would have looked at me the same disappointment I feel at the people who didn’t want to get to know Coach and Mrs. Coach.
Then on a whim one sleepless night a few months after the series debuted in America, I put on the first episode just to see what I was missing. And I kept watching all through the night and into the next day, eventually coming to three conclusions:
1)The craft of writer Julian Fellowes and his directors and actors was top-notch. This was a show that had as meticulous an eye for detail and as sharp a wit as, say, “Mad Men” brought to the early ’60s;
2)The material about the servants – particularly handicapped but stalwart valet Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) – was endlessly fascinating to me;
3)Despite the high quality of the work by all involved, I still couldn’t have cared less about most of the material about the noble Grantham family, as they tried to maneuver around a tricky inheritance law requiring a male heir when Lord and Lady Grantham had only daughters.
And that third conclusion finally made me empathize with the people who didn’t want to watch “Breaking Bad” or “Sons of Anarchy” or “The Sopranos” because the subject matter was too great a barrier for entry. There was very little that Fellowes could have done with the upstairs part of the series to make it more engaging to me, even as I could see that it was good.
Still, I liked Bates and the other servants enough that I was very happy to get screeners of the first six episodes of “Downton Abbey” season 2, which PBS debuts Sunday night at 9. (A Christmas special wrapping up the season aired in the UK last month, but PBS didn’t send it to US critics for review.) And having again marathoned a “Downton” season in short order, I came to two conclusions about this batch:
1)By having the Granthams interact more with the world as the events of the Great War begin to knock down class barriers, I was vastly more interested in what those characters were up to the second time around;
2)Despite that, this is probably a weaker season of the show overall.
On the first point, Fellowes takes the upstairs story in a natural progression from last year. Season one was about the last days of a particular kind of living for aristocrats like Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) and daughters Mary (Michelle Dockery), Edith (Laura Carmichael) and Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay). We had to see them in their natural habitat, living as they always had and worrying about the same old rules and regulations so we could better appreciate what a shock to the system it is when many of those rules cease to matter.
So while new heir Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) is off fighting in the war, Downton Abbey itself is converted into a convalescent home for wounded soldiers. Sybil takes a keen interest in nursing – and in the family’s socialist chauffeur Tom Branson (Allen Leech) – while Edith tries to figure out a purpose in life. Even Mary, the most traditionally-depicted sister, winds up dating a newspaper magnate (Iain Glen) who has enough money to move in the same social circles as her family, but none of the obsession with proper decorum.
This was all, to me, much more interesting than watching the Crawleys run around and try to figure out how to get Matthew to propose to Mary, and most of the nobles seem much more human this season than last. As Robert’s mother Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, Maggie Smith gave arguably the best performance in the entire first season, but Violet was so rigid and orthodox in her thinking that I never much liked her. Here, circumstances force her to at least acknowledge that the world is changing, even if she doesn’t much want to change with it, and her presence seems much warmer as a result.
But both the upstairs and downstairs storylines feel choppier than they did in the first season. The new season takes place from 1916 to 1919, but it’s hard to get a sense of how much time is passing for the characters. Developments that should feel natural to these people and their situations instead seem to come out of nowhere to generate drama. Bates has to get out from under the thumb of his cruel, manipulative estranged wife so he can marry his beloved housemaid Anna (Joanne Froggatt) in a story that feels particularly soap-ish.
And “Downton Abbey” is a soap opera. So, frankly, is “Mad Men.” But both shows at their best are executed so well, and also have such interesting things to say about class and culture and emotional longing, that the soap operatics flow well with everything else. Here, you’ve got deathbed confessions of love, possible resurrections, hidden pregnancies and every trope short of an evil twin. The ideas behind most of these developments are fine, but they get thrown at the viewer so haphazardly as to require dramatic organ music when each is introduced.
“Downton Abbey” is still a fine, handsome entertainment, and if you inherently like this sort of thing more than I ever will, I imagine you’ll be very happy to return there for the new season. But even though my biggest obstacle to fully appreciating the series started to come down this season, the show has suffered in other ways.
NOTE: While “Downton” season 2 has aired in its entirely in the UK and some other countries, the spoiler policy on this blog says that if it hasn’t aired yet in the US, it’s a spoiler. So those of you who have seen the whole thing (including the Christmas special, which I haven’t as yet) can certainly weigh in with your opinion on it all, but any discussion of plot specifics is not okay and will be deleted. I won’t be doing weekly write-ups of this for a number of reasons (not least of which is the knowledge disparity between the different audiences), but will come back after the season ends on PBS so we can all discuss things in great detail.