Thursday, January 31, 2013


Exclusive! I interviewed two-time Academy Award winner Shirley MacLaine at Michael's restaurant in New York City for my 'Lunch' column for and she told me exclusively that she will be back in Series Four. You'll find my conversation with her in this week's 'Lunch' column:

Sunday, January 27, 2013


The cast of Downton Abbey won the Screen Actor's Guild Award for best ensemble cast for a television drama tonight at the ceremony in Los Angeles besting the cast of Homeland and Mad Men for the top honor. While the cast took to the stage to get their award, one of the best episodes of the entire series was airing on PBS. Look for my recap on every episode of Downton Abbey on XFinity TV's website. Once it is posted there, I will repost here for visitors to my site. Congratulations to the best cast on television!


Try as they might, Lord Grantham and Carson cannot stop the winds of change from upending the once tidy, well-ordered life of the inhabitants of Downton Abbey. In the tonight’s installment, the Irish War for independence comes banging on the front door in the form of a soaking wet Branson (I know, it’s “Tom” but tonight he was vintage Branson through and through) delivering one of my favorite shows of the entire series.

Having gotten Shirley Maclaine’s distracting guest starring stint and two very different weddings and their respective dramas out of the way, Julian Fellowes wrote an episode to draw us back into the much more interesting than they have a right to be daily existences of the Granthams, Crawleys and their incredibly snobby staff (Mr. Moseley and Mrs. Bird I’m talking to you! If I were Ethel I’d have hissed at the old bird!) Tonight it paid off in a fast-paced episode with especially snappy dialogue that managed to move all the game pieces ahead several spaces ahead with some clever twists and one lively new character all while wiping out a whole box of tissues with one heartbreaking scene I’ll be thinking about for days.

On the same evening that the Granthams are entertaining the Archbishop of York where Lord G proudly touts his bigotry against Catholics (“There always seems to be something ‘Johnny Foreigner’ about the Catholics”), Branson turns up without Sybil explaining to Mary that he had to make a run from the police and left her behind to make her own way out. Rather than throw him back out into the stormy night, Mary hides him upstairs until their guest is gone.

If you actually thought that Lord Grantham was actually starting to accept Branson as part of the family, think again. After learning that his Fenian son in law left his wife behind in Dublin and the authorities are after him because they think he was “one of the instigators” in burning down a British aristocrat’s house, Lord G explodes with rage. Having thought the former chauffeur (“our tame revolutionary” as Robert called him last week) had finally put all that silly talk about freeing Ireland aside and embraced his inner aristocrat, the family is shocked by his actions. Cora is incredulous: “You gave them Sybil to save yourself.” Mary is horrified that the family whose house was destroyed belonged to a social swan she once knew. (“We came out together!”) But the Dowager Countess, who can always be counted on to put things in their proper perspective, thought the estate a bit unsightly and perhaps it wasn’t the worst thing in the world. “That house was hideous” she offers to defuse the tension in the room.

But Robert is not amused, particularly when Branson admits that while he didn’t set the fire, he was there to see the house burn to the ground. How could he be a part of this when the house is so much like the one he’s sitting in right now? asks Mary. “Those places are different for me – I don’t see charm and gracious living, I see something horrible.” But then admits, “When I saw them turned out watching their home burn I was sorry.”

“What a harsh world you live in,” says a disapproving Lord G.

To which Branson replies with the best line of dialogue in the episode that encapsulates its not so subtle theme: “We all live in a harsh world. At least I know I do.”

Cora tells Robert he must pull whatever strings he can to keep Branson out of jail for the family’s sake. “Go to bed!” he bellows at his son in law. (Funny enough Carson bellows the same directive downstairs when he’s had enough of the staff) “I’ll give you my answer in the morning.” Upstairs, the confused – and yes, tamed -- revolutionary dissolves into tears. Mostly for Sybil, I’m sure, but yet I also get the sense that he’s feeling just a bit torn now that he’s crossed the great class divide, put on evening clothes and played billiards with Matthew in the big house.

The next morning there’s more tears as Sybil shows up and there’s a reunion set to the couple’s love theme and accompanied by some dizzying camerawork. (It reminded me of E! 360 Glam Cam) The couple faces another dressing down from Lord G who went to London and made sure Branson is off the hook. The authorities “don’t want to make a martyr” out of Branson, says Lord G, so they’re willing to let him go on the condition that he never return to Ireland. They are to stay at Downton. Branson is outraged but hardly in a position to object – especially since he hadn’t told Sybil he went to several meetings she hadn’t known about. Is there trouble in paradise? Sybil has gone through too much and needs “peace and safety,” says Cora. Their baby will be born in England not Dublin – a convenient plot point that keeps my favorite couple at Downton giving Lord G and Carson plenty to harrumph about for the rest of the season.

Meanwhile, Mary, who seems perpetually annoyed at Matthew, is encouraging her husband to jump headfirst into being Downton’s co-owner. “You have to pull your weight,” she tells him as she’s being waited on hand and foot by her BFF and lady’s maid, Anna. Then she gets even more aggravated at him when he does. For his part, Carson isn’t sure what having two masters of the house means and asks, “Am I to answer to you both?” and is reassured when Matthew says, “Nothing has changed.” Sensing the opportunity he’s been waiting for, Carson asks the million pound question, “Can we bring the staff up to snuff?” to which the financially maladroit Lord G says, “Yes.” Not so fast, says Matthew, who after all supplied the loot for all the hiring the first lord of the manner just approved. But no one pays attention to his call for a modern, modest way of life. His father in law dismisses his objection as if swatting away a fly.

When Matthew does delve into the books, he finds a financial mess (did you expect anything less from a man who nearly bankrupted the family with bad investments?) and when he brings his concerns up to Lord G, they’re brushed aside. Matthew finds a surprising ally in the Dowager Countess when he tells her there’s been “no proper management for years.” Go ahead and do what you think you must, she tells him and don’t worry if you put some noses out of joint in the process. Seems Violet can’t get enough drama.

Matthew is also dismissed by his wife after she summons him to the nursery. He’s got babies on the brain and gets his hopes up when he hears that Mary has gone to the doctor, but she informs him she’s picking out fabrics for their new sitting room and any talk of babies will have to wait until the couple is “a little further down the line.” So much for newlywed bliss.

Speaking of weddings, Edith has seemingly bounced back quite nicely from being left at the altar which makes me happy because I’m rooting for her. Who needs that weird looking old codger anyway? The girl deserves a break, for god’s sake. There seems to be no shortage of advice from the family on what she should do. The Dowager Countess tells her: “Edith, dear, you’re a woman with a brain and reasonable ability – stop whining and find something to do!” And she does, writing a letter to the editor of the Times (at Matthew’s suggestion) criticizing England’s laws on women’s voting rights now that the 19th Amendment has passed in the states are giving women the right to vote. It was great watching the increasingly insufferable Lord G, who was certain the paper would never publish Edith’s writing, get his comeuppance when he found Edith’s letter in his morning paper. “Well done!” offers Matthew while his horrified father-in-law looks for solace in his fellow change hater, Carson. Could a career in journalism be in the cards for Edith? Or perhaps she’ll become Downton’s own Jane Austen and exposure “the underbelly” of her relatives who have been ignoring her since she was born. Go, Edith!

Downstairs, a handsome and cocky new footman Jimmy Kent (Ed Speleers, who looks like a young Simon Baker) arrives on the scene and sets everyone’s heart aflutter. While being interviewed by Carson, he tells him that his last employer “begged” him to move to France with her and he feared he wouldn’t like the food so he didn’t go. “Begged?” says Carson sensing he is dealing with yet another servant who doesn’t know his place in a household. “You know how women can be,” he says by way of explanation to which Carson offers this retort: “Not as much as you do.” Jimmy gets the job, of course, (and rechristened ‘James’ by Carson) and even Lady Violet is smitten. “He looks like a footman in a musical review,” she says when she sees him in the dining room for the first time. Thomas’ keen interest in Jimmy/James does not go unnoticed by O’Brien and I’m sensing this is going to result in some downright evil doings. Yikes.

I’m saving the best and most heartbreaking development for the end of my recap. (What can I say, I love a good cry) Ethel enlists the aid of Mrs. Hughes and Isobel to reach out to the ghastly Mr. Bryant and his mousy wife and arrange a meeting where she plans to give them her beloved son, Charlie because she see no way out of her life as a prostitute. (“I have no life. I just exist.”) Isobel does her best to convince the former maid that she does not have to give up her child, that she can help her, but Ethel is undeterred.

With adorable Charlie in tow, Ethel arrives at Isobel’s house where the Bryants have come with a teddy bear for the child and an offer of financial support for Ethel unaware of what she has in mind. “We know what you are,” sneers Mr. Bryant while his wife tries to soften the blow with, “We’re not judging you. We’ve decided to offer you some money.” That money could Ethel the funds she needs to give up being a lady of the evening (“Unless you like it,” says the hateful man). His words don’t hurt her, she’s too numb. There is no insult Bryant can hurl at Ethel now that she is about to give up her heart and the remaining shreds of her life so that her son may live the life of a gentleman.

I could barely hear the dialogue over my own sobs when Ethel bends down to say goodbye to the adorable tot whispering in his ear, “You have my blessing for your whole life my darling boy,” adding that she knows he won’t remember these words or her, but they will stay with him nonetheless. Amy Nutall’s acting is superb here and the child actor’s naturalness makes their parting one of the heartrending I’ve ever seen on television. Remember Ethel back in the early days when the saucy maid sat at the table in Downton’s servant’s hall reading a tabloid while proclaiming her desire for the good life? A sad, sad fall. This tender, heartbreaking moment is shattered when Bryant comes between them saying, “Let’s not make a meal out it” and walks off with the boy. Mrs. Bryant promises to write and says goodbye leaving Ethel, Mrs. Hughes and Isobel to watch the carriage pull away. Ethel doesn’t seem to fully grasp what she’s given up “forever” until they pull away. Her pained expression says it all as she watches her little boy wave goodbye from the back window of the car. She knows Isobel doesn’t approve and she’s right. The kindly Mrs. Hughes tries to reassure her telling her, “You did the right thing for the boy” because of the harsh realities of their world. Ethel finally walks off alone which is a good thing because by then, I was out of Kleenex.

In other news:

The Bates Anna storyline is going nowhere and has gotten really really tiresome I like both of these characters but enough already. Tonight they both were miserable because neither one had received a letter from the other and didn’t know why. It was because Bates had been declared a ‘dangerous’ prisoner after roughing his lovely cellmate who has a connection to a “dealer on the outside” (so that mystery package was drugs!). As a result, he wasn’t allowed mail or visitors. When a fellow prisoner explains all this to Bates he overjoyed because it means Anna hasn’t given up on him after all. He fishes out the contraband he was hiding last week and turns the tables on this enemy and just like that, is back in the guards good graces. Cut to a scene of different scenes of Anna and Bates each lying in their respective beds reading batches of long delayed letters. Just get him out of there.

Daisy, who for some inexplicable reason gets far too much screen time every week, was just about to tell Alfred how she feels about him (with William’s dad’s blessing to boot!) when she finally got her wish for a new kitchen maid. As luck would have it, Mrs. Patmore brought the new girl around for introductions just in time to interrupt Daisy’s declaration and wouldn’t you know it, she was pretty enough to catch Alfred’s eye. You know what they say – be careful what you wish for.

I’ll tell you what I wish, there are only four (!?!) episodes left in the season that’s barely begun, so I’m putting in my request now for a 13 episode order for season four. See you next week!

photo: Masterpiece/PBS

Saturday, January 19, 2013


The bride before the groom bolted.  Photo: PBS/Masterpiece

Raise your hand if you thought Lady Edith would finally get her happy ending with Sir Anthony Strallan. I thought so. Still, I was hoping she’d get a nice wedding and a honeymoon in Paris before the whole thing went to hell. But in this episode (season 3, episode 2), the soapiest of installments of  Downton's entire run thus far (and that’s saying something), Edith’s position as the unluckiest Crawley daughter was reaffirmed – for now, at least.

It’s been a long road for Edith and Sir Anthony. In season one, their budding romance was a casualty of Edith’s cat fight with Mary who, after learning that it was Edith who wrote to the Turkish embassy about her ill-fated one nighter with Mr. Pamuk, turned the tables on her sister by scaring off Sir Anthony who’d come to Downton’s garden party to propose. When Mary gleefully lied and told him Edith was making fun of him behind his back and planned to turn him down (then raised her crystal champagne flute to Edith from across the lawn. Snap) Sir Anthony scurried off not to be seen again until the end of season two after he returned home injured from the war. By that time, the kinder, more mature Edith had taken temporary leave of her senses and had a brief flirtation with a farmer (she drove his tractor for him for goodness sake!).

After that ended when the farmer’s wife spied them kissing and Edith was banished from the farm, she found herself falling for a disfigured burn victim who turned up claiming to be her cousin Patrick (but the kind you could marry if you’re a British aristocrat) and Downton’s rightful heir. He snuck away when things got hairy leaving only a note signed "P" and Edith’s broken heart behind. No wonder the poor girl decided she wasn’t going to Sir Anthony get away again once he invited her for tea and called her “lovely."

Now back to the present – er, I mean, 1920. As Edith watches the staff prepare the house for the reception, she is glowing with happiness that finally something at Downton was “about me.” No matter that Lord Grantham is broke and they’re all about to lose their home, someone seems to have found a secret stash to pay for the beautiful flowers, champagne and lobster being prepared downstairs for the big day. Perhaps Granny picked check for the whole affair. (It would explain why she wanted all the uneaten food sent to her house, wouldn’t it?) After all, she’s said she would have been willing to pay for a ‘Patou’ creation for Edith but Lady Cora was happy her daughter has opted for a more elegant choice in wedding dresses instead of “looking like a showgirl.” All I know it fit a heck of a lot better than Mary’s did. And Edith looked a lot prettier in her dress than Mary did. Come on, you know it's true.

Lord Grantham, who’d thought he’d put a stop to his daughter’s romance with Sir Anthony until Shirley Maclaine, excuse me, Martha Levinson, meddled into his family’s affairs decides to give up trying to break up the romance and just go with it. (Speaking of Ms. Maclaine, are we to assume that her guest starring role was for a mere two episodes? Certainly being such a strong supporter of Edith she would have been at the church if she were still at Downton) The night before the wedding, he gathers his sons-in-laws together for some after dinner male bonding.

What a difference an episode makes. Branson (sorry, I just can’t get used to calling him ‘Tom’) looks like he owns the place in his tuxedo (even though the rest of the fellows are in white tie) and doesn’t even look annoyed by Lord Grantham’s patronizing comments when he calls his Fenian son-in-law “our tame revolutionary.” After new BFFs Branson and Matthew go off for a game of billiards, Lord Grantham tells Sir Anthony, “We’re getting used to Tom and I hope you will, too.”
But Sir Anthony has more important matters on his mind. By the way, is it me or did this character age ten years overnight? We all know he’s pushing 100, but in this episode the makeup department seemed to be working overtime and made the actor look positively cadaverous. It reminds me of what they did to Dan Stevens when a grief stricken Matthew returned to Downton after Lavina died and he looked as if he were auditioning for the British version of Twlight.

The rapidly aging Sir Anthony tells Lord Grantham that he knows that he’s far from the ideal husband for Edith being “far too old” and with only one good arm and all. Ever the gentleman (whose disparaged his son-in-law to be in front of everyone but the groom himself) Robert dismisses his concerns. Still, Sir Anthony presses on to see how he’ll be received in the family once the couple is finally wed.

“Are you happy?” Strallan asks Robert rather absurdly.

“I’m happy that Edith is happy and I’m happy you mean to make her happy. That’s quite enough happiness going on,” replies Lord Grantham who clearly doesn’t ever really expect to be happy himself (Remember his comments on the subject to Jane when she asked him the same question – “I’m not unhappy and that’s almost the same’”)

Before going off to bed to dream of taking care of a man old enough to be her father for the rest of her life, Edith asks Lord Grantham for a few minutes alone with her future husband. He agrees but admonishes, “Don’t tell your grandmother.” By now Strallan is starting to look pretty nervous and I’m pretty sure the final nail in the coffin comes when Edith looks lovingly into his eyes and says, “I don’t love you in spite of your need to be looked after, I love you because of it. I want you to be my life’s work.” Not exactly the kind of sweet nothings that inspire wedding night passion.

But Sybil, who unfortunately had very little to do this episode, took care of that the next morning when all the Crawley women (except Isobel who is no doubt trying to save yet another ungrateful lady of the evening) are helping the bride get ready. Sybil kids her sister about saving her strength for the wedding night and is scolded by the Dowager Countess for her saucy remarks. “Sybil, vulgarity is no substitute for wit.” But Sybil, who long stopped living by her family’s rules volleys back, “Well, you started it.” Take that, Granny.

There’s a tender moment between Mary and Edith before the wedding when Mary tells the woman who was largely responsible for her having to put up with that dreadful Sir Richard Carlisle (whatever happened to him?) for most of season two in order to keep the Pamuk scandal secret, that she wishes her good luck. Maybe it was a curse in reverse. The sisters take a photograph together to commemorate this special occasion before Lord Grantham tells Edith it’s getting late and shoos them into the church.

We get a close up of Sir Anthony and he looks positively panicked. This is not lost on the Dowager Countess who observes to the Reverend, “He looks as if he’s waiting for a beating from the headmaster” to which the holy man offers some retort with a thinly veiled reference to performance anxiety. Uh oh.

Edith arrives at Sir Anthony’s side and says, “Good afternoon” to her beloved. “Good afternoon, my sweet one,” he replies. I’m just sick over what I know is coming. Just as the vows begin, Sir Anthony cries out “I can’t do it.” Even though I saw this coming my jaw still dropped open. Hasn’t Edith endured enough?

Evidently not, because Sir Anthony’s extremely ill-timed decision to bail on this wedding becomes something of a family discussion in front of the entire congregation. If you thought you didn’t get to see enough of what went on in the church for Mary and Matthew’s wedding, Julian Fellowes more than makes up for it this week.

Sir Anthony tells Edith, “I can’t let you throw your life away like this. “

A disbelieving Edith pleads with him while her family and the servants who rated a seat in the church look on, “We’re going to be so terribly, terribly happy.” God, this is uncomfortable to watch and great TV all at the same time.

Lord Grantham, who, it should be noted, bears more than a little responsibility for this debacle, tries to intervene, calls Sir Anthony 'chap' and says to him, “It is too late for this.”

Then the Dowager Countess gets up from her pew, puts a protective arm around Edith finally puts a stop to it once and for all. “Let him go,” she tells Edith. “You know it’s over, don’t drag it out. You know he’s right – it’s the only sensible thing he’s done in months.”

Sir Anthony, who has by now turned so white he looks like a statue, inexplicably thanks Granny and walks out of the church and, I’m guessing, will not to be seen or heard from again. The whole thing was downright painful as Edith really did love the old chap. She returns home, throws her veil off the balcony (So that’s what that was about in the trailer) and banishes her happily married sisters from her bedroom as they are once again reminders of all those things in life she doesn’t have. The always steady, always reassuring Lady Cora can only offer: “You’re being tested. Being tested only makes your stronger.” What else is there to say? The next morning Edith utters what is sure to be remembered as one of the series most memorable lines when Anna comes to Edith's room offers to bring her something to eat. "Spinsters get up for breakfast," she replies with a dead stare as she throws off the covers and gets up seemingly resigned to her fate.

Meanwhile, newlyweds Matthew and Mary are hardly the picture of wedded bliss. Still seething over Matthew’s refusal to accept his inheritance from Reggie Swire, Mary doesn’t let an opportunity go by to remind Matthew that she does not understand decision. I have to agree with Mary. If he got over his guilt over Lavina’s death to marry Mary than what’s with his sanctimoniousness over the damn money? Matthew is feeling so badly about coming into yet another undeserved inheritance that he can’t even bring himself to read a letter from Lavina’s father that accompanies the ill-gotten loot that’s just arrived from his lawyer.

Lord Grantham has told the family the move out of Downton is eminent so the Crawleys pack up for visit to see their smaller house (where they’ll make do “economically” with eight servants says Lord G) with footman Alfred in tow to serve champagne for a garden lunch while they contemplate Downton style downsizing. Lady Cora (the true voice of reason this season is charmed and has christened the country house any hedgie from Greenwich would kill for ‘Downton Place;’ the rest of the family is horrified at living in anything other than a castle). “You do realize for most people it looks like a fairy palace,” says Branson who is back to his man-of-the-people mode for the afternoon.

While walking the grounds and complaining about the impending lack of square footage Mary asks Matthew if he’s read Reggie’s letter yet. When he says he can’t, Mary can take no more of this wimpy behavior and reads it herself. That night, before bed (note to Matthew: burn that bathrobe, it’s hideous) Mary tells Matthew of its contents. It turns out that Lavina, while dying of Spanish Flu, managed to dash off a letter to her father telling him of her wish to call off the wedding but Reggie, clearly a kind hearted gent, is willing to focus only on what happiness Matthew did bring to Lavina and wants him to have “no guilt” over how things turned out and take the money. The writers of “All My Children” would be proud.

Matthew, angered by Mary’s actions, accuses her of forgery for a second before correcting himself by saying someone must have forged the letter. I can't believe she let him get away with that. Perhaps he'll pay for that remark later. I suspect so. Mary is hell-bent on discovering who posted Lavina’s letter and is relieved to discover it was Daisy (which explains why Lavina chose to communicate with the kitchen maid from the great beyond the night Matthew proposed to Mary. Ah, Julian Fellowes you are a wily one). And just like that Downton is saved from the brink. In case there’s any doubt, Mary tells Matthew: “If you try to find one more excuse not to accept the money, I’ll have to beat you about the head.” You and me both. This storyline was getting on my nerves.

In one of those great panoramic shots of the grounds, Robert and Matthew are standing outside the house when Matthew tells him the family doesn’t have to move, he will give him Reggie Swire’s inheritance. At first Robert, balks at taking the money but then he comes up with the brilliant idea to make Matthew an investor – a co-master of the house — which is just ducky considering Matthew stands to inherit the whole shebang anyway.

In other news:

The war between Thomas and O’Brien has gone nuclear. Forget about a few stolen shirts and nasty words exchanged in the servant’s hall. Thomas starts a bad game of telephone meant to push O’Brien out. The hapless Mr. Moseley (who not longer drinks after his ill-fated evening serving in the dining room) became an unwitting pawn in Thomas’ scheme to start a rumor that O’Brien was leaving. This results in Cora being annoyed and feeling betrayed and while untrue, just might have weakened O’Brien’s position (hardly a favorite of Lord Grantham and Mary’s) with the family. O’Brien quickly sees Moseley was duped and is surely plotting something dastardly in retaliation for her humiliation. Buckle your seat belts, it’s going to be epic.

Mrs. Hughes’ health crisis is over (or is it?), but not before she learns just how valuable she is to the house. Lady Cora, who learned the news from Carson, who got it out of Mrs. Patmore, tells the housekeeper she is not to worry about anything. If the worst happens, she will not go anywhere and will be cared for at Downton. While I’m glad to see this storyline resolved, it did provide two lovely moments in this episode. The exchange with Lady Cora (played perfectly by the undervalued Elizabeth McGovern) was tender and moving. Mrs. Hughes’ conversation with Carson where she relayed how touched she was by Cora’s kindness was terrific especially when she told her dear friend, “As you know, I don’t worship them like you do.” And how great was it when Carson was so happy at the news that Mrs. Hughes was not ill that he broke out into song? Sweet. Is there a romance brewing between Carson and Mrs. Hughes? I think that’s best left to our imaginations, don’t you?

Isobel continues her quest to help the county’s prostitutes and Ethel, a truly sad character, can’t bring herself to ask for the help she needs even when Isobel shows up on her doorstep. I’m guessing that Ethel doesn’t want to learn to sew (and neither do the women who have come to Isobel’s center for the free food) and she’s trying to screw up her nerve to ask her to find a home for little Charlie. That’s going to be a four hankie episode and I pray she doesn’t give the tot to that blowhard of a grandfather.

Finally, the dreary Bates in prison storyline limps (no pun intended) on. While walking in circles out in the yard, Bates gets a tip from a fellow prisoner that his cellmate has planted something in his bunk. I have no idea what it was and honestly, I don’t care. A contraband cigar? Some pot? The whole prison set up reminds me of those Capital One commercials. Wouldn’t be hilarious if they all broke into song? Enough already with all of this. The end must be in sight after all, Bates is back in his suit in the season three ads. I can’t imagine what over the top scenario Julian Fellowes has in store in order to free Bates but its sure to be welcomed by all. I loved the quiet, dignified valet Bates but I don’t know about Prisoner Bates. Even more confusing: Anna doing her best Nancy Drew visits Mrs. Bartlett, a friend of Vera Bates, and hears some pretty convincing stuff about Vera being afraid of him. I'm starting to think he really did kill her. Now that would be a juicy plot twist, wouldn't it?

Before the episode got underway, I was glued to the Golden Globes which was having its best year ever thanks to Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s brilliant comedy and some of the best gowns in years. It was heartening to see that even if best actress nominee Michelle Dockery didn’t win a statuette, she did snag best dressed honors for the night and is finally dressing like the star she’s become. Of course, Dame Maggie Smith won. The rest of the actresses in her category needn’t bothered showing up. The last thing she needs is another award for the mantel and she didn’t make it to the ceremony but no matter. Nothing succeeds like excess.

This post originally appeared on XFinity TV's site. I am recapping the remainder of Downton's season for them every Monday morning after the show airs and will repost here one night before the next show. See you on Sunday night!

Tuesday, January 8, 2013


I'm sure it had something to do with the new 55 inch HD TV my husband insisted on getting, but last night's season premiere of "Downton Abbey" had a much 'bigger' look and feel compared to previous seasons. I'm sure you noticed the Ralph Lauren commercials he's running at the beginning and end of the broadcast as part of his Masterpiece Classic sponsorship, so perhaps his infusion of cash resulted in a bigger production budget. In any event, the panoramic scenes were gorgeous (more, please) and the house looked like it got a bit of a face lift. In the special on the real-life Highclere Castle which aired before the premiere its present day residents said that the show's success and the resulting influx of tourists that have flocked to the estate have allowed them to do many improvements to the house including one new $10,000 for the library which I definitely noticed. I guess it wasn't just our new television after all but I would recommend watching the show on a big screen. Grandly cinematic and a lot more fun. Thanks honey!

Still, it's always a bit of a concern when something that has been so revered by a relatively small but fanatical audience goes viral and gets the all out multi-media treatment. In months between the end of series two and last night's premiere, Downton has gone from the surprise hit from across the pond no one saw coming to a genuine cultural phenomenon complete with cover stories in magazines whose editors may have last watched PBS during their preschool years when they were fans of Elmo.

All this kind of attention made me worry a bit about how it would change the show and news that Downton creator Julian Fellowes is now writing a Downton clone, "The Gilded Age," for NBC, gave me a sinking feeling that my favorite show's best days were behind us. And before I move on, let me just say one thing about NBC's penchant for looking for lightening to strike twice: There's Mad Men and there was -- for five minutes -- The Playboy Club. Enough said.

Happily my worries were, if last night's premiere was any indication, unfounded. Yes, "Downton" is bigger but it's hard to imagine that it could be better. It certainly is different, though. When we rejoined our favorite members of the landed gentry in 1920 we find they have all changed. Is it me or did everyone -- and I mean -- everyone -- lose a few pounds?

Upstairs, Robert has gone from the father every girl would like to have to a clueless man who has lost his wife's fortune, is oblivious to the fact that his valet is hated by virtually every other member of the staff and is far too preoccupied about what the villagers will think if Sybil and Branson come to Downton to Mary and Matthew's wedding. I have faith he'll come around, but it was quite disorienting seeing Downton's rock seem like an even bigger lost soul than he was last season. In last season's finale, his fatherly advice to Mary to go to America and bring back a cowboy to shake up the house when it looked like she's have to leave to escape the scandal of the story of Mr. Pamuk brought me to tears. And speaking of that pesky scandal,  whatever happened with Sir Richard Carlisle's threats of ruination? Surely the spurned newspaper man wasn't going to let Mary off without slinging some serious mud? I was sort of hoping he'd move into to Haxby to keep things lively even though he told Violet that with his engagement to Mary broken, he'd likely never see her again. ("Do you promise?")

Whatever happened after he left the house, it couldn't have been that bad because Mary is finally happy (at least in Act One and as long as she isn't biting her mother's head off because she's too American) and is trading plenty of sexy talk (for its day) with a generally humorless and self-righteous Matthew in anticipation of their wedding. As for the rest of the family, Edith is more assertive (and is borderline stalking Sir Anthony). Of course, of the Crawley sisters it's Sybil who has changed most of all. Pregnant and bursting with happiness from the love of a good man (much more on that later), she is serenely comfortable in her own skin. Having left her 'ladyship' behind and embraced life as Mrs. Branson, she seems worldly and wise compared to her sheltered, more brittle sisters. Cora has also undergone a metamorphosis. Undeterred by the news that her fortune is gone, she lets Robert off the hook far too easily and almost immediately starts talking up the idea that embarking on a new, albeit wildly downscaled, life could be exciting although none of her veddy British family will hear of it. Isobel is still stirring up trouble encouraging the family to accept Tom (who they keep calling 'Branson' out of habit) and let him wear is brown tweed suit to dinner. She finds it refreshing to have someone in their midst "from the real world."

And then there's Violet. Dame Maggie Smith's Dowager Countess is, in Violet's words, "a woman of many parts" and while she won't sample the newest concoctions served before dinner and mistakes her son for a waiter when he comes to dinner in a tuxedo, she is forward thinking enough to secretly send Sybil and Branson the money they need to make the trip from Ireland in order to attend Mary's wedding. As she told her son last year as they walked back to the house after Lavina's funeral, "The aristrocracy has not survived all these years by its intransigence." When Branson (oops, Tom) hears it was Violet that sent the money he tells her he's touched while Robert appears incensed by the gesture. And whatever Violet thinks of the union, she isn't about to let it tear Downton apart. "After all," she explains. "Branson is a member of the family now." Indeed.

Downstairs, Thomas has done his best at distancing himself from the rest of the staff and is standing straighter than ever (no pun intended); his treacherous side more finely honed because he has more to lose now. A scheming O'Brien has squared off against him as she plots to have her nephew Alfred, a former hotel waiter, rise through the ranks to valet. Mrs. Patmore is still bossing an even more petulant Daisy around (I thought William's dad straightened her out about this last season). Poor Mrs. Hughes is stoically facing a health crisis which at first causes Mr. Carson (Downton's biggest snob and most change averse resident, but you've got to love him) to unknowingly browbeat her over her lack of standards before it dawns on him that there may be cause for concern. Downton's own Nancy Drew, the stoic and steadfast Anna is still hellbent on unearthing evidence that will free Bates while he seems most upset about the possibility of his lordship having to sell the estate.

The biggest surprise: Who knew that Branson was going to be the most intriguing and okay, sexiest, character on the show this season? He was front and center in all my favorite scenes last night beginning with his arrival at Downton. Allen Leech was a revelation. One minute I wanted to give Branson a hug and the next I wanted to stand up and applaud him. Watching Branson navigate his way both upstairs and downstairs gave the show it's real heart and humanity last night and Leech made me really care about Branson and root for him in every scene.

The newly formed alliance between Branson and Matthew (who, let's face it, was pretty annoying the rest of the time) was well-written and gave both characters some interesting new directions to explore. Watching these two unlikely brothers in laws to be bond was fun and great storytelling starting from when Matthew stops Branson from ducking into a pub to drown his sorrows after a rough night in Downton's dining room. Matthew to Branson: "Do you really think you can recruit cousin Robert for Sinn Fein?" Classic.

Matthew comes to his new friend's aid again when Branson is slipped a mickey by some rich jerk intent on embarrassing the "grubby little chauffeur." After Sir Anthony Strallan outs the culprit for his boorish behavior and Branson practically has to be carried out of the dining room and taken up to bed by Sybil, Matthew boldly announces he wants Tom as his best man. Then, Branson gets to return the favor later when he tells Matthew not to screw this relationship up ("You're meant to be together. You won't be happy with anyone else as long as Lady Mary walks the earth"). Even better: he gets to play Cyrano to Matthew as the nervous bridegroom uses those very words by uttering them from outside Mary's bedroom door the night before the wedding to convince her to go ahead with it even though he's told her he won't bail out Robert even if he inherits all of that money from Lavina's father (Excuse me, but didn't Lavina say she had to play dirty with Carlisle because her father was in debt? Details, details, I know. And Matthew heir to two fortunes? I hope he plays the lottery)

I could tell it was Branson's storyline that was the most compelling of the episode because the second hour sagged (just a bit) when he and Sybil took a back seat after the blink and you missed it wedding scene. Really Julian Fellowes, that's all we get after waiting three seasons? That's it? Was there more footage in the UK series that you had to cut? My solution would have been a little less Daisy. It also would have been nice to know just how much time has passed between the wedding and their return from the honeymoon. I know, I'm being picky but the bar has been set so high I can't help myself.

Having said all this, I enjoyed every second of this episode and something tells me I'm going to need a lot of tissues for this season. I can smell some pretty serious heartbreak down the road for pretty much everyone.

Some Random musings ....

Not sure what the stunt casting of Shirley Maclaine brings to the party. As good as she is in the role, I can't help but think, 'That's Shirley Maclaine' and it is a bit of a distraction. She's only signed for a few episodes so this will be academic in a few weeks.

Perhaps to make up for the screen time she had to relinquish to Shirley, Dame Maggie Smith had more memorable one liners in this episode than she did all last season and boy were they beauts. ("Oh I thought you were a waiter" ) Im sure the tshirt will be available on by next week.

Now that Thomas and O'Brien are enemies instead of co-conspirators I suspect things are going to get very, very nasty. I'm terrified of both of them and if I were Alfred, I'd sleep with one eye open. Make that two.

Poor Edith. Is there anyone who believes her wedding to Anthony Strallan will come off? I do like the pluckiness of her character and I suspect after this romance sours she will become someone else entirely -- more independent and free-thinking like the woman who garnered the respect of the visiting generals for keeping the patients' spirits up when Downton was a hospital during the war.

If I were Mrs. Hughes, whatever her diagnosis, I'd get a second opinion. With Dr. Clarkson's track record with that poor farmer that would have died until Isobel intervened and his botched handling of Matthew's temporary paralysis, I'd get myself to the hospital in Ripon in a hurry.

The show's fashion quotient has been ratcheted up this season with the Crawley sister's Parisian styles in clothes and hair. If only Mary's wedding dress hadn't been such a disappointment. Yes, it was very much of the period but surely the show's underwriter Ralph Lauren could have whipped up something truly divine.

I'm loving this proud-to-be American Cora ("Have gun will travel") with her pragmatism about adapting to change and unwillingness to have her mother and brother pour more money into saving Downton. (But I want and fully expect for someone to come to the rescue!) "Lots of people live in smaller houses," she told her horrified daughter. "In my book," Queen Mary told her mother, "The Countess of Grantham lives at Downton Abbey." Snap.

Either Robert has a very short memory or he is been totally duped by Thomas. When his evening shirts disappeared thanks to a spiteful O'Brien and Thomas sputtered that someone was playing a joke on him by way of explanation when Lord G questioned him about it, Robert asked 'Are you not popular downstairs?' The answer, my lord, would be 'no.'

I don't know about you, but I'm beginning to think that if Bates didn't kill Vera (right?) he most certainly could have. He seems more than able to hold his own in that hellhole of a prison. Yikes.

Photo: Masterpiece Classic

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