Monday, September 24, 2012

Downton Abbey - A Review of Series 3 So Far

Downton Abbey, now two episodes into its third series, feels like a completely different show this year, and I’m not quite sure what to make of it. The first two series were very much bound together by the cloud of war; the first series was the calm before the storm, and the second series showed that storm in full swing, reminding us that in times of great crisis petty things such as class divides really don’t matter very much at all. The characters, throughout those two series, often alluded to a great sense of change pervading the air; World War I is typically seen to represent a loss of innocence across society, and it is that loss which arguably kickstarts that societal change. Series 3 of Downton, contrary to building up to and foreshadowing that change, shows it in action. Set in the Roaring 20s, there's new 20s hair, new 20s suits ("Oh, you two are dressed for a barbecue!") and, tonally, it feels world apart from the show that began with the sinking of the Titanic, setting in motion a fateful chain of events.

Worlds Apart - Downton Abbey is a very different show these days.
The change in time seems to have manifested itself via a reshuffling of the cast. Sybil and Branson no longer feature particularly heavily, the nature of Anna and Mr Bates’ storyline has inevitably led to them being somewhat sidelined, and the introduction of such characters as Shirley MacLaine’s Martha Levinson (whose appearance is, admittedly, limited to just two episodes) and Matt Milne’s towering but loveable Alfred really does give Downton a very different feel this year. A cast reshuffle can often be good for a show, but only if done right, and I’m not sure that Julian Fellowes has quite hit the nail on the head. Sybil and Branson’s slow-burning but powerful romance built to a steady climax throughout the first two series, and it was so effective that I’d probably cite is as my favourite storyline of the show so far. Their presence was a real highlight of the first episode of this third series, but their absence in both the Christmas special and tonight’s episode were very keenly felt indeed. Similarly, the latter half of Series 2 saw Anna and Mr Bates’s contributions to each episode relegated to worriedly whispering in corners of the servants’ quarters, highlighting a failure on Fellowes’ part to “show, not tell”. I was hoping that this series would rectify that, but so far it looks as if the only change to their storyline is the location of their consternation-filled talks; instead of Downton, they’re now in prison. (It's also worth mentioning that Daisy, having gotten over her infatuation with Thomas and her storyline with William having drawn to a close, noticeably seems to serve no purpose anymore, and instead spends most of her screen time either seeing things that she shouldn't or complaining.) And whilst the banter between Shirley MacLaine’s Martha Levinson and Maggie Smith’s Violet was supposed to be one of the key draws of this series, one can’t help but feel that, actually, it’s not that good. Some of it is amusing, yes, an obvious example of which is Violet’s quip that, “When I’m with [Martha], I’m reminded of the virtues of the English.” “But isn’t she American?” “Exactly.” Mildly entertaining, yes, but I’m afraid the exchanges don’t rival the verbal jousting between Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton in preceding series. One of my favourite pieces of dialogue ever will always be this:

Violet: You are quite wonderful, the way you see room for improvement wherever you look. I never knew such reforming zeal.
Isobel: I take that as a compliment.
Violet: I must have said it wrong.

Disappointing - Shirley MacLaine as Martha Levinson.

Watching Episode 2 this evening seemed to confirm growing fears in my mind that the plot to this series of Downton is, so far, rather weak. The will-they-won’t-they excitement of the Matthew/Mary relationship has been tempered by their marriage, and the consequences of Lord Grantham’s dodgy investments fails to reach the emotional heights of the last series, where the characters’ primary concern was not the financial upkeep of Downton Abbey, but whether or not their friends and families would ever return to them from the war.

However, despite those flaws, the episode also established and built upon several plot strands which I’ve found really rather moving and effecting. Lady Edith’s relationship with Sir Anthony Strallan has arguably been longer in the making than that of Sybil and Branson, and there’s much more uncertainty in the will-they-won’t-they aspect of their relationship than there was in Matthew and Mary’s. But more interesting than whatever the conclusion of their story will be (which, by the looks of the trailer for next week’s episode, looks rather promising) is the fact that, as an audience, we seem to be rather rooting for Edith to get her happy ending. In Series 1, Edith was jealous, manipulative and, on the whole, thoroughly unlikeable. But over the course of the show, we as an audience have come to sympathise with her and really understand her situation, to the extent that we now share her hopes of a happily ever after. And that kind of character turnaround – from wholly unlikeable to downright loveable – always impresses me.

Lady Edith Crawley - a perfect example of how character development should be done.

But what affected me most about Episode 2, what really really got to me, was Mrs Hughes’s story. Since the first episode I have absolutely adored Phyllis Logan’s portrayal of Mrs Hughes. She manages to give a character who, on paper, might seem a little cold, a heart of pure gold. In many ways she’s always been a bit of a tragic character – forever stoic, and unwilling to let her personal feelings get in the way of her duties at Downton – but perhaps that’s part of her charm. Either way, she’s a character I really, really love, and one who is a part of the very heart and soul of the household she serves. And so naturally the revelation that Mrs Hughes has breast cancer really got to me. The fact that on screen it is revealed so suddenly and so out of the blue is an accurate reflection of her character, never wanting her personal problems to get in the way of what must be done. But that bluntness certainly helped add weight to the blow. Literally as soon as Mrs Patmore told Mrs Hughes that she could indeed feel a lump, I let out an, “Oh no,” and brought my hands to my mouth, instantly hoping that the character Julian Fellowes’ has told us will die in this series won’t be her. Now, although I do get quite emotional at times when it comes to TV, my reaction struck me as different to any reaction I’ve ever had to TV before – and not just because of how much I love dear old Mrs Hughes. Unfortunately, it’s because, once again, art is imitating life, and all too suddenly it was as though this plot strand was striking a little too close to home. You see, I recently found out that someone I greatly admire – someone who’s given me a lot of advice, guidance and support over the years – has breast cancer, just like Mrs Hughes. And just like Mrs Hughes, she, too, appears to be trying to keep her news as quiet as possible. I’ve been thinking a lot about her cancer over the past few days (the big realisation it made me come to is for another blog and another time), and to see it presented on screen like this… Well, I’ve never been able to really, truly relate to a fictional story before, but I can safely say I have now. So this is one plot strand that is going to have me completely engaged and involved for the whole series, without a shadow of a doubt.

Heartbreaking - Phyllis Logan as the stoic, loveable and brave Mrs Hughes.

Overall, I guess you could say the first two episodes of this series of Downton Abbey haven’t showcased the series at its best. But I’m not giving up hope yet, because it still has those moments where it just sings, and I don’t want to miss a single one.

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