Monday, January 07, 2013

It's good to have "Downton Abbey" back, but watch out, "Girls" and "Enlightened" are coming back too (plus we've got 6½ minutes of enchanting music)


Hugh Bonneville (Lord Grantham) and other cast members talk about the changes in Season 3 of Downton Abbey in a preview clip.

by Ken

I swapped times with Howie tonight for two reasons. First, I figured that whatever I had to say was going to be of less moment than what he did, and second, I still wanted to take a shot at writing something themed to the Downton Abbey Season 3 premiere, and not only did I not watch it tonight (I knew that, of course!) but I discovered when I got home from work this evening that I also didn't record it last night. I had this idea that I could watch it on the fly, or at any rate some of it and toss out something pithy. As luck would have it, my other PBS station was starting its showing of the two-hour season-opener at 8pm ET tonight. So I figured by post time for our late post tonight I would have something to say.

Or not. This is pretty much what kept happening all weekend when I tried to take a shot at writing something themed to the Downton Abbey Season 3 premiere. Is there really much to say? I like the show. I've enjoyed the first two seasons. And sure enough, in the Season 3 premiere, I kept checking the clock, not to see how soon it would be that the damned thing was over but in hope that there was still a whole lot of it to come. In my reckoning, that counts for something -- hoping for more rather than wishing the thing would just stop.

As I believe I've written here before, I've never understood why Downton Abbey caused such a furor on this side of the Atlantic.

that insane system in which only men can be heirs, and Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) finds himself in the situation of being unable to pass on to his three daughters, whom he loves dearly, either his title as earl or his estate -- the ultimate irony that most everything in that estate came to him from his American-born wife (Elizabeth McGovern). (SPOILER ALERT: As you've surely heard, the plot kicker for Season 3 is that Lord Grantham, in attempting to secure the family's future via what he persuaded himself was a surefire investment in Canadian railroads, has managed to lose virtually the whole of his, or rather his wife's, fortune.)

It was an interesting plot engine, and creator-writer Julian Fellowes is a fine storyteller, and it's all well cast and well acted and well designed with much interesting period flavor. The characters are likable enough to make their company welcome for an hour a week. It's hard not to root for young lovers Lady Mary Crawley (the oldest of the Crawley daughters; Michelle Dockery) and the distant cousin who's now the rightful Grantham heir, Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens).

And it was nice to see the happy but already troubled couple make it through their wedding in the Season 3 opener. But still, does anyone really care about them? It was nice to see the youngest of the Crawley girls, Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay), make the difficult return to Downton from her new life as the wife of ex-Downton chauffeur Tom Hanson (Allen Leech) -- nice simply because of the bond between the sisters. It was maybe more than nice to see the housekeeper, Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), faced with as scary a health crisis as they come, find unexpected support from the eccentric cook, Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol).

I'd have to say, though, that the characters aren't very interesting. I realize this is a highly subjective judgment, but does anyone really believe they are interesting? Compare it with, say, Upstairs Downstairs -- no, not the dreadful modern-day imitation Upstairs Downstairs, but the real thing.

As it happens, over the holidays I completed, in marathon fashion, a breathless perusal of all 26 episodes of The Pallisers. It only took me 34 years to catch up with the show. (I'm counting from 1978, when it was first shown on U.S. Public Television, not from 1977, when it was shown on HBO, which I certainly didn't have at the time, or 1974, when it was first shown in the U.K.) It took all those years plus a big Amazon one-day sale at a price I found irresistible, though it was months before I looked at any of it.

The Pallisers, after all, dealt with the world of the British aristocracy, rather than the middle class of, say, Upstairs Downstairs or The Forsyte Saga, and the British upper class is always a tough sell for me. Nor can I claim that the characters in The Pallisers are in themselves wildly more interesting than those of Downton Abbey. But the series writer, Simon Raven, working from Trollope's "political novels," created characters whose existences managed to matter in one way or another, and there was a lot of acting that went beyond "good" to compelling.

And I found a fascination in The Pallisers that struck me as eerily contemporary. The women have far more human dimension than the men, who tend to fall into the categories of drones, ninnies, and scoundrels -- and the women, maybe not all that surprisingly, keep developing passionate attachements to the scoundrels.

Why do you suppose this makes me think of HBO's Girls (which launches its second season next weekend)? On the whole this seems to me another wildly overpraised series, but there's something undeniably intriguing about the characters, who really do make me come back for more. The men are if anything more hopeless than those of The Pallisers, and the women, well, not so much less interesting as almost hopelessly less self-aware. Yes, they're young, but not that young. It's OK not to have much of a clue about life when you're 24. But to have no idea where to look for a clue?

But that's another story. I'm looking forward to Episode 2 of the Downton season than to Episode 1 of the new Girls (not to mention its decidedly unpleasant HBO stable mate Enlightened, which I stuck with even less accountably through the whole of Season 1).


I was utterly enchanted to encounter -- in the Nash Ensemble's two-CD set of Saint-Saëns chamber works -- this daffy-sweet little tarantella, that quintessentially Italian dance, from the young Frenchman, written for the unexpected combination of flute and clarinet with either piano or orchestra. I think that hushedly expectant little rhythm established at the outset by the piano makes the whole thing spring to life.

CAMILLE SAINT-SAËNS: Tarentelle in A minor for Flute, Clarinet, and Piano, Op. 6

Nash Ensemble: Philippa Davies, flute; Richard Hosford, clarinet; Ian Brown, piano. Hyperion, recorded July 2004


At 7:23 AM, Anonymous rosalind said...

Thx, Ken. I was exposed to Masterpiece Theater at a very young & impressionable age. My idea of fun still is traipsing along the Cornish coast in January. "Poldark" and "The Palisers" were my favorites, loved Susan Hampshire.

If you haven't yet seen, may want to check out a few episodes of her recent show "Monarch of the Glen". Gorgeous scenery, kinda silly, but nice to see her on screen again.

At 7:59 AM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Thanks, Rosalind. Yes, I do know MONARCH OF THE GLEN, and I do really like it -- as you say, "kinda silly" but with lots of compensating pleasures, including both Susan H and the wonderful Richard Briers for as long as he stuck with it.

In some of the interview segments on the PALLISERS DVDs (I still have to go through and make sure I watched them all), Susan H mentions that a lot of her roles -- roles we would consider her "signature" roles -- she was the 2nd or 3rd or 4th choice and often plunged right in with hardly any time for preparation, as with THE PALLISERS, where in addition she found herself from the start playing Lady Glencora at 18 in the morning and at 48 in the afternoon!



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