Monday 6 January 2014

Downton Abbey: from "jumping the shark" to sharknado (hook's still in deep, though)

At long last, possums, we're back in Downtontown, and I couldn't be happier! It's a show millions love, yours truly included, though this love can't blind me to the show's faults.

And so, in honour of Downton Abbey's season 4 launch last night on PBS, I'm reposting last January's  rueful commentary on Downton's lunge over the top (below). But first, a few nits picked from last night's episode, and the shape of the season to come:

--A few too many info dump scenes, or overly short scenes, for example, the one where Lady Mary finally breaks down to Carson (Carson, and not her own father! How pathetic is that?), and the other between Carson and his old friend Grigg. These scenes reminded me of that West Wing axiom: no meeting ever lasts much more than 30 seconds. Would that real life was this way! Yes, yes, I know: short scenes keep the story clipping along (as does all that rushing around), but lesser writers are forever cautioned to make each scene exist on its own merits and not simply to set up a future plot point.

--I'm sorry, but even Lord Crawley couldn't be that big a ninny (the Dowager's repeated references to fetching the Nanny to care for him were downright ridiculous). 

--Speaking of Nanny, there's another laughable pseudoconflict generated at breakneck speed. It gives me no pleasure to say it (by which I mean it gives me HEAPS of pleasure), but Downton Abbey's becoming a caricature of itself. From "jumping the shark" to sharknado.

--Despite Cora Levinson Crawley's supposed shiksadom (see below), last night's episode leaves little doubt Lady Edith being set up for a "peril in Germany" story line, lifted right from Herman Wouk's The Winds of War (a much worthier miniseries, IMHO).

"Sorry fans, no Yiddishkeit at 'Downton Abbey'"

The reason neither Martha Levinson nor Lady Cora (played by Elizabeth McGovern) are Jewish, it turns out, is very simple: They’re Episcopalian.  
We know this because the definitive guide to Season 3, Jessica Fellowes and Matthew Sturgis’ “The Chronicles of Downton Abbey,” tells us so. (They should know: She’s the niece of Julian Fellowes, the show’s creator.)...

--Finally, still in the Jewish content vein, could somebody PLEASE tell us why Fellowes' is allergic to actually casting Jews as Jews? Shirley MacLaine and Paul Giamatti?? SERIOUSLY? (Okay, I know Martha Levinson isn't supposed to be Jewish but simply a brassy nouveau riche New Yorker...but isn't that kinda the same thing?) I suppose he'd feel comfortable casting Whites in Blackface to play Blacks, too? (PS This last is a joke...sort of)


Downton Abbey jumps the shark (January 9, 2013)

Downton Abbey's season 3 premiere: Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville, foreground) continues to do dopey things, his mother-in-law, Martha Levinson (Shirley MacLaine) is fizzle and a gasbag, and viewers are reminded of familiar Downton truisms: “Downton’s in peril. Wills are complicated. Servants are sickly. Canadians are trouble.”

Photograph by: Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for Masterpiece-PBS

Spoiler alert! Contains Downton plot twists: If you haven’t yet seen the opening episode of Season 3 (or, for that matter, Seasons 1 or 2) and plan to, you might want to hold off on reading this article. It contains some of the notable developments in the plots of the series.

I’d been psyched for months by the promise of the newest season of Downton Abbey, which the New York Times’s Alessandra Stanley recently called the Fifty Shades of Grey of its ilk: “soft-core pornography, but fixated on breeding and heritage rather than kinky sex.”

But I was hugely disappointed by the two-hour series opener the other night, which drew the Crawley family — and voyeurs like us along for the ride — to new depths of fatuousness.

In the interregnum prior to the start of Season 3, hubby and I took the opportunity to rescreen Seasons 1 and 2. I’d been struck by writer Julian Fellowes’s apparent initial intention to make Lord Grantham, Robert Crawley (played by Hugh Bonneville), the heart of the series. The opening credits have him striding majestically through the grounds, golden lab at his side. But it wasn’t long before daughter Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), whose young Turkish lover shockingly expires in her bedchamber (in most morality plays, death is what happens to the girl seduced, not the rake) and the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith, who makes the most of the immortal line “No Englishman would dream of dying in someone else’s house — especially somebody they didn’t even know”) began to steal the show from him, and run with it. Lord Grantham becomes sadly befuddled — for example, imagining that he will see active duty in France during the First World War.

But this year’s offering is a contraption so creaky with ersatz conflict that it reminds me of Oz the Great and Terrible at the moment Dorothy discovers that behind the curtain is an ordinary little man.

Opening with the revelation of Lord Grantham’s utter and advised-against squandering of the family’s fortune in Canada — as June Thomas says on Slate, “they sure do return to the same themes over and over: Downton’s in peril. Wills are complicated. Servants are sickly. Canadians are trouble” — the episode continues at breakneck pace to the wedding of Mary and Matthew — though skipping completely what true Fifty Shades fans would prefer to have seen: the honeymoon. But first — oh, irony — it picks up their latest complication: the father of the late Lavinia, Matthew’s one-time fiancée, has died and Matthew is third in line to inherit his huge fortune.

While the issue of whether the two men before him as inheritors are alive or dead is needlessly spun out, Matthew — looking a tad overfed and unctuous, proving himself a fitting heir to the doltish current lord — announces his resolution to give away the money should it come his way, because taking it would constitute a form of theft. He arrives at this weird notion through tortured guilty logic: Lord Reginald Swire could only have intended the money to come to Matthew because he was the great love of Lavinia’s life, but Matthew betrayed that love, sending Lavinia to an early, broken-hearted death by way of the Spanish flu.

It makes Harlequin romances appear deep.

Lady Mary castigates Matthew with the deadliest of accusations. In refusing Swire’s bequest, in his willingness to allow, dare one say it, Downton to be lost, Matthew is, she charges, betraying that he is “not on our side.”

Seriously? This is the complication on which Fellowes seeks to hang the season?

It was the moment that Downton Abbey, despite its high production values and effervescent cast, finally jumped the shark.

And it was only downhill from there.

Shirley MacLaine as Martha Levinson in Downton Abbey.
Photograph by: Image courtesy , Nick Briggs

Shirley MacLaine, looking like she might have had a tad too much plastic surgery, was a total fizzle, her Martha Levinson (mother of the U.S.-born Cora, Lady Grantham) little more than a gasbag of accented clichés.

I'd heard rumours Dan Stevens (Matthew) would be gone from Downton, and this flop of a premiere was just the impetus I needed to root around the Internet to discover what happens to his character, while imagining all the time I might regain Sunday evenings by not having to watch the rest of the series.

As if.

Like Fifty Shades of Grey, Downton Abbey has become, most assuredly, one more in a long line of life’s guilty pleasures.


No comments:

Post a Comment