DOWNTOWN ABBEY SERIES THREE PREMIERE RECAP
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 pbs.com 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