Monday, January 31, 2011

Downton Abbey: Where's the Beef?

When I heard about the series Downton Abbey, I was wildly excited. A new miniseries set just before World War I focusing on an aristocratic family and their servants, I was so there! It was all I could do not to order the DVD from the UK before it was shown on Masterpiece Classic. So why am I left feeling so disappointed after watching the last episode? Perhaps my expectations were too high, but after watching last night's final episode of the first series, I find myself asking "Where's the Beef?"

It's not that the acting wasn't uniformly excellent or that the costumes weren't absolutely to die for.  Seriously, I don't even wear hats but I was dying for each and everyone that I saw on screen. I guess my biggest problem was that the series was curiously bloodless and the Grantham family for the most part was nearly as interesting as the servants.  I was totally caught up in the story of Lord Grantham's valet Bates as played by Brendan Coyle (who also starred in Lark Rise to Candleford), a former soldier who went to prison for being a thief, who was also a former alcoholic. I found his tentative romance with Anna, one of the maids compelling. I even the stories of Thomas, the gay footman on the make, and O'Brien, her ladyship's maid who was a total bitch interesting.

However the storyline about breaking the entail so that Lady Mary could inherit instead of the Crawley's third cousin was less interesting.  For me, the two characters I wanted to spend the most time with were the Dowager Countess of Grantham, and Matthew's mother Mrs. Crawley.  Two strong-willed and intelligent women battling it over the infirmary and the Flower show, fascinating.  Lord and Lady Grantham have three daughters and no son, the middle daughter Edith feels invisible compared to her beautiful but annoying older sister Lady Mary, and her free spirited younger sister Lady Sybil.  I should have found her sympathetic, instead she was a brat who willingly ruined her sister's reputation. Even Lady Sybil, an aristocratic woman who was willing to champion her maid getting a job as a secretary, was little more than a cipher.  I had no idea who these women were beyond just their archetypes.

As I found the family incredibly isolated.  Granted there were a few episodes when they had local gentry over for dinner but it always seemed to serve a  plot point.  I wanted to see more of Lord Grantham taking Matthew around and showing him what it meant to be involved with the community.  Wouldn't Lord G have an interest in the local politics, who was going to represent the district in parliament? Did he spend time at the House of Lords.  In the final episode, the family went to London for the season, and apparently Lady Mary had a hard time because of her now tarnished reputation but we heard about it rather than saw it.  I would have liked to have seen more about what Lady G and her daughters did all day.

Of course, my complaints aren't going to stop me from watching the second season.  Hopefully now that England has entered World War I, the storylines will have more meat to them.

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