The second season of ITV’s period drama Downton Abbey may have already come, gone, and left a Matthew-and-Mary-sized hole in its native Britain, but it’s just now hitting America – and everyone is all atwitter.
The first season of the show, which ran on America’s public television station, PBS, was a surprise hit for the broadcaster, re-invigorating the Masterpiece franchise. As word about the sudsy period drama spread, Americans scrambled to snap up the first season on DVD or download it where they could, and now, the second season opened on Sunday, January 8, to great expectation (despite the fact that some in American media can’t stop calling it “Downtown Abbey”).
But Downton’s sophomore season was somewhat panned in Britain – too many characters competing for story space saw narrative arcs wrapped up in record time, while the writing seemed to be played for melodrama rather than drama. Will it fare any better in America?
How PBS sells Downton to America:
It’s like crack. Brian Moylan, writing at snarky gossip site Gawker, declared that everyone in the universe should be watching Downton, though he compared the early 20th-century drama rather anachronistically to George Eliot’s Middlemarch (written in the 1870s, set in the 1830s) and Jane Austen’s novels (Georgian England), because as we all know, most English fiction is about servants and tea and stuff and is therefore the same. Moylan touted Downton’s highbrow asthetics, married to its lowbrow plots (“You can be smart and trashy at the same time!”), excellent heroes (“There are just so many people to root for!”), and “even better villains”. Gushed Moylan, “I don’t know what it is but Downton, despite the troublesome second season, is incredibly addictive. It is so addictive that when you watch every episode one after another on Netflix, you still watch the opening credits every time. I just can’t explain what it is.”
“DOWNTON ABBEY — it’s STAR TREK for tea drinkers! #DowntonPBS,” offered comedian Patton Oswalt in a much-repeated tweet.
Good start. Ken Tucker, veteran reviewer for Entertainment Weekly, enjoyed the extra-long premiere, but not without caveats: “I have my reservations about the new, super-sized Downton Abbey, but these quibbles will arise more in the coming weeks. ‘You’ll find there’s never a dull moment in this house,’ said Maggie Smith; I will beg to differ at some points. The premiere, however, did a good job of ushering new characters in while reassuring us that our fond memories of the familiar cast were honest ones. The two hours had a sort of lurching pace — rushed in some spots, drawn out with obviousness in other scenes — but it certainly held interest, and exerted the narrative pull that first-rate soap opera must have.”
Best drama of 2012. It’s on the list, said TV blogger Ed Martin at Huffington Post: “I never thought I’d see the day when I would pick a crunchy gravel drama as the Program of the Year. But, improbable as it may seem, this Masterpiece mini-series was the only true scripted TV phenomenon of 2011.”
English treacle? Downton’s first season was a “perfect confection of clichés”, declared Lindsay Goldwert at New York Daily News. “The self-absorbed eldest sister. The overlooked, shrewish middle sister. The adventurous younger sister. The butler with the stiff upper lip. The tall, handsome stranger with a secret. The devoted housekeeper whose first love is her Master’s house. And Dame Maggie Smith, who can play crusty high class with a peeking heart of gold in her sleep. These clichés don’t make the series less enjoyable. Rather, they keep the drama flowing like thick Cadbury caramel.” Here’s hoping the second season brings on the treacle.
Occupy hearts Downton? It’s a fascinating paradox: Downton is chock full of idle rich, yet liberal, progressive, feminist, Occupy types are obsessed with the show, said Irin Carmon at Salon. “But whether this is a triumph of production values (or character development) over politics depends on how you read the goings-on in the stately home,” she added.
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