Some Disappointments In Season Two Of ‘Downton Abbey’

Continuing with season two of Downton Abbey in order to complete the totality of writing about the series so far, I find myself a bit underwhelmed. Season two finds the Grantham family in the midst of World War I, on the home front with their mansion being modified into a makeshift hospital and away from home with characters fighting in the war or moving away from Downton because of outward effects. Sadly, this season has been disappointing and didn’t really follow in the direction I thought it might that I had laid out in my article on season one. The direction Fellowes takes these characters as well as lingering and abrupt story lines begins to push things a little too far overboard or nowhere near far enough. The season still works largely though, due to the established characters who are just fun to hang out with, regardless of their overarching story.

My chief complaint of the season, is probably the handling of most of the storylines which seem to either be underdeveloped and abrupt or prolonged and wrung of any lasting emotion that makes us not even care anymore. Edith, the middle Grantham daughter, is a chief cornerstone of a couple short and undercooked story lines. Her first in the second episode concerns her relationship with a farmer that starts and stops solely within the confines of the episode. This could be fine if it contributed anything towards her character or story going forward (besides the pursuit of a husband), but it ultimately captures nothing and is never mentioned again. In episode six (the worst of the season) an injured Canadian officer comes to Downton claiming to be the previously thought dead heir to the Downton family while Edith re-establishes a previous attraction to him. It’s obviously set up to cast doubt on whether he’s lying or not, but it’s handled so haphazardly and offhand that it seems like we’re just rolling through obvious beats until he disappears at the end. These ideas seem very misplaced and serve as a roadblock to the hampered flow of the season. These complaints aren’t directed at Edith as a character (who grew more caring throughout the season, but it was mostly due to her activities as a nurse) but on how she is handled in certain storylines that neither serve her or the story any better.

On the flip side of things, Bates (Lord Grantham’s servant) tries to separate and divorce himself from his previous wife while taking up with Anna, one of the head servants. This could have worked fine if it was just spread over a couple episodes, but it lasts the entire season with him going back and forth with his previous wife and new repetitive kinks that keep popping up in his divorce. It’s a shame because Bates was one of the best characters of season one, and he gets shunned off to the side in a tedious story which keeps replaying the same beats. It’s as if Fellowes didn’t know what to do with Bates and Anna for a whole season beyond the divorce, so he just kept inventing new ways for them to be sucked back in until he ran out of episodes. Another frustrating storyline that lingered on for far too long was Daisy’s (a kitchen maid) guilt at marrying and saying she loved a man, just to make him feel better in the war, while she thought she didn’t share the same feelings. This would be fine for one episode, but it’s stretched so far beyond belief that it makes this dimwitted character even more unrealistically dumber that she can’t understand her feelings. All her actions of course point out that she did all these things because she loved him, while her dragging on about this helped no one.

The back and forth between Matthew and Mary over when they’ll get together (because it obviously was going to happen) is stretched, naturally, over the entire season as it is the major through line in the series. The story itself has enough twists and turns that it never really becomes boring in a narrative sense, except in this case it is the characters themselves who get a bit muddied. It’s frustrating when everything is laid out in front of these people to get together, and especially when you know they will get together eventually, and it takes a mountain of things for them to finally act on it. With how these characters are drawn, their actions and reasons why they can’t be together becomes impeding. Any normal couple would’ve got together by then, but it seems as if Fellowes is saying to the audience “Not yet, guys!”, and makes these emotionally stunted characters avoid each other once again. It only takes a couple people dying, a world war and endless gossip to be revealed before they finally get together.

It really all comes down to you as a TV viewer. Do you watch TV for the stories or for the characters? I’m still not entirely sure which side of the fence I fall on, I’d like to think it’s for the characters (which is true to an extent), but I largely also really care about the narrative with everything syncing together and feeling cohesive in the end. This season frustrated me because of that, as there was lots of stopping and starting, overwrought storylines and ones that just felt thrown in with not a lot of care done to them. The 8 episodes plus the Christmas special span about 4 years, with some of the episodes jumping as much as half a year in between them. This causes some inability to place what is still important, who knows what and creates a weird pacing problem where it’s hard to decipher what is still poignant and relevant at the time for these characters. My point is that even though the plot and its many regressions (lets not talk about how a character was “paralyzed”, but miraculously could walk again after a misdiagnosis) were dismaying, the characters still retained my patience and affinity for the show. I like pretty much all of these characters, and besides what I wrote above, I’m a big fan of the Matthew and Mary relationship story, just not always how the characters are strung along. I’m more forgiving of this seasons’ problems as I just enjoy hanging out with these characters and seeing them grow (for the most part) because of the war.

As it wouldn’t be all that fun leaving this article mostly negative (that’s a lie, it would be pretty fun), I’d like to touch on something that I forgot to mention in my first article and something that continues on into this season. There is an overwhelming sense of vision and direction that is showcased in each episode, with gorgeous shots that I could pick out of every episode if I wanted. While it’s not necessarily hard to make a shot look good in a period piece, since the sets and costumes are all so lush and elegant, making everything look picturesque, I’m more interested in the framing and shot compositions. A framing of a certain character between objects or other characters can do a lot towards building the emotion and carrying the story beyond words. While not a great episode in and of itself, in episode six after the Canadian soldier has left, Edith is seen sitting and seemingly enclosed between two pillars, crying, with the Grantham estate looming in the distance. It’s a striking image that makes us feel for her loneliness and her feeling of distance from the members of her family. In episode eight, the season finale, when Sybil, the youngest daughter, reveals to her father that she plans to marry a servant, her father Lord Grantham is framed terrificly. He faces the camera in focus, looking off screen while over his shoulder and behind him is his daughter, out of focus. This not only lets the actor Hugh Bonneville play this scene wonderfully off his face but also symbolize his unawareness of what’s going on in the house, especially with his daughter’s courtship. Simple framing and direction like this helps these scenes and characters portray dense layers and even encapsulate a whole character or storyline.

Looking back over the season and as I write this I’m beginning to question Fellowes’ writing in a complete narrative sense going forward. Coming from a largely film based background, I’m wondering if Fellowes isn’t all that accustomed with stretching and maintaining a story over eight hours as opposed to just two for a feature film. It’s a concept that intrigues me and something I’ll be looking out for next season with how he paces everything. All the pieces are there, it’s just a question of whether the form and structure of an entire season will be in place next year, instead of bits and pieces popping in and out. He can write characters and build their relationships like nobody’s business, it’s just the question of creating a believable and serviceable arc across the season that hits unique beats. I’m still all in with the show as these characters continue to engage and be pretty downright fun, but with some more focused narrative and structural development, season two’s disappointments could all just be a hiccup.

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The Characters, Themes And “Soap” In Season One Of ‘Downton Abbey’

Downton Abbey consists of an upper-class family, their servants and the pre-World War I atmosphere that surrounds them. Julian Fellowes, writer of Gosford Park, a film of which I’m a big fan of with beautiful directing from Robert Altman, is certainly in his wheelhouse both thematically and content-wise, but through the medium of TV he develops these characteristics quite well. Nothing is new or ground-breaking, but the characters and their developing relationships throughout the first seven episodes of the series create something that makes you want to keep coming back for more. We see familiar tropes such as a servant falling in love with a member of the upper-class, an out-of-her-times matriarch type, the audience conduit, the bumbling character, and the connivers. All these familiar character types work due to the dedication of the actors behind the roles, the writing in the maturation of these relationships and how well we know these characters almost immediately after we’re introduced to them. Even in the first episode, especially with a some-what sprawling cast, we are given a good handle on who these characters are, what makes them tick, all the while of course leaving some shading in to do later in regards to backstory and character growth.

This idea works so well within the TV model because it can get really soapy, historical, funny and dramatic all within the same episode, and it all works for the most part. Given that this is a show based off the lives of the rich and their lowly servants who are around them for the majority of the time, gossip is a huge factor. With this major crux of the show we’re able to transition between both sides quite easily and in this world are able to see different points of view which enlighten us on multiple sides of a particular character or action. With a series set right before World War I, in some increasingly glum times, the show can also get fairly comical and slightly silly, highlighted with the random death of a one-off character during a sexual encounter. This is where some of the “soap-opera” elements take place. At the time of the death it is largely played for laughs with the woman (Mary) unable to move him and has to enlist the help of a servant and her mother to carry him back to his room in a slightly slapstick manner. This event, though played for laughs, is actually quite important in the dramatical stakes of the character going forward as Mary is trying to find a suitable husband, and the leaking of this encounter to the press serves to show people questioning her sexual fidelity and “lady-like” demeanor when being presented as a prominent figure going forward for the family. I’m not personally a fan of outright silly or comical things like this (in dramas), but when it’s treated correctly and spirals out of control in a meaningful way, it can be very effective and realistic. Mining the line between comedy and drama is crucially important, so as not to undercut either side, but building off one area and using it to lead in to the other is something the show, and quite frankly the British, accomplish at a far better clip better than most.

If I do have a criticism, it’s that everybody is too damn nice. Coming in to the series I expected the upper-class family to be plain, spoiled assholes towards the servants, but it’s actually quite to the contrary. Robert Crawley, the father/husband and “boss” is extremely nice, forgiving and understanding. He desperately tries to avoid firing people, instead he tries to make things work, like by keeping on his old acquaintance as his servant even though he’s crippled, or by going so far as to send the cook (who’s slowly going blind) for eye surgery. His wife as well is not played as you might expect as the bitchy wife, nope, she’s just as nice to everybody, including the servants. Their daughters are as well, with a couple of them having actual friendships and confidants in the servants. These servants are seen almost like a part of the family, sure they have to do their jobs and serve the family, but they’re treated incredibly well and are not even harshly reprimanded for any mistakes. The servants are just as nice back and don’t outwardly hate the family they serve or even hate their jobs, with many of them seeming quite content. While there are two servants who do stir up some trouble, and try to get people fired while still being outwardly antagonistic, they’re not really that bad as their misdeeds aren’t really on a huge-consequence scale and one of them even starts to feel regret after her actions. I’m not sure what life was like between a family and their servants back in the 1910s, but I’m sure it wasn’t this cordial, so you have to take some of the relationships and formalities with a grain of salt, I’d imagine.

Leading into season two I’d like to see the show expand on or introduce some of these villainous or antagonistic characters who actually create legitimate stakes and decisions for the characters we care about. Having actual consequences would help to not only open up some story lines but strengthen the characters we do like as they more actively have to fend off these problems. Having problems and obstacles is important in pushing both the story and characters forward, as maintaining a constant status quo can cause a show to continue to spin its wheels season after season with little growth. It’s all very fun and enjoyable watching these characters be happy and intermingle across class lines, but there comes a point when you want the levee break and to have our characters faced with some tough decisions, rather than which type of pie they should make for dinner.

As the show heads directly into the start of World War I at the end of the season, I have hopes that the terror and tragedy of the war will be mirrored in the literal Downton Abbey moving forward. Fellowes smartly sets the show in the 1910s, right before World War I, where things were relatively swell, until things slowly started to unravel with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the subsequent power struggles between Serbia, Austria, Russia and Germany. Ones hopes that Fellowes purposely placed this series to remain relatively calm leading up to the war, echoed in the show, all to have everything break open during the war, both on a geo-political scale and within the social politics of Downton Abbey. I’ve heard some rumblings about what season 2 contains, that it gets more silly (Uh, Oh), but I’m intrigued to see where it goes and to at least see if Fellowes indeed has tied this show thematically to the larger world around it, or if I’m just reading to much into it. Either way, season one was some good, soapy, historical and dramatic fun, here’s hoping for some more out of season two, for better or worse.

‘Up All Night”s Place On NBC And How It’s Funnier Than You Think

Up All Night is kind of the forgotten sitcom on NBC (insert joke here that all NBC shows are forgotten). So, on Wednesday’s we had Whitney, one of the worst shows we’ve seen in a while and Are You There, Chelsea?, the worst show since, well, Whitney. While not entirely viewer heavy themselves, they’re nowhere near funny enough for us to ever discuss again.  They graciously finished up their seasons in favour of the actually pretty good Bent (R.I.P.) and the “Adam Pally clone” starring Best Friends Forever. NBC promptly took these shows out behind the shed before anyone even realized they had a new pet. Now, NBC’s PRIME UNCONTESTED UNBREAKABLE THURSDAY NIGHT OF COMEDY is, of course, falling in the ratings like everything else on the network, only to be somewhat redeemed critically by two shows. These two shows, Parks & Recreation and Community, although critical darlings are only getting slightly serviceable ratings (for NBC anyways), and remain one of NBC’s (very) few bright spots, so they’re set aside. 30 Rock seems content to churn out the same episodes until the dwindling ratings cause it to be cancelled, or Tina Fey wants to go focus on being a mother, or something equally ridiculous. The Office is falling in ratings, laughs, proper story lines, showrunners and cast members, looks like it has a bright future.

This is where Up All Night comes in. Yes, its ratings are falling as well, BUT SO IS EVERYTHING ELSE ON NBC, so lets just throw ratings out the window and never talk about them again (well, in this article) and focus on the content of the show(s). Nobody really seems to be paying attention to Up All Night anymore and I do see why. I’ve read a lot about people saying its not funny or it never delivers laugh out loud jokes, just a serviceable comedy for a couple small laughs. While that can be true in some cases, Up All Night is slotted with comedies that are completely different in tone and make-up. It’s not wacky like Community or 30 Rock, and its not as character driven yet (I’m speaking broadly here) as Parks & Recreation or The Office. Up All Night is grounded more in reality than its preceding shows and it seems like this exterior might be making some viewers wary since it isn’t a joke-a-minute sitcom like Community. It can be equally satisfying but in a more truer to life comedic slant where jokes are played off the trials and tribulations of parenting and the production of a talk show with an eccentric celebrity. Coming off its lead-in shows is quite the change of pace when segueing into Up All Night, and some people have just tuned out by then, literally and figuratively.

Up All Night is very funny though, and I find myself laughing out loud more than I do in latter episodes of The Office or even sometimes at Community (Just kidding! I just wanted to see how you’d react, well, kind of, but seriously, I’m not the biggest Community fan, but I do think it is a better than Up All Night). Will Arnett has great delivery and thus is able to save a lot of jokes and lines due to him being relegated as a “stay at home dad” type. Also, off on a slight tangent, Will Arnett has seemingly made his California-bred character a Toronto Maple Leafs/hockey fan (just like himself in real-life), which if you hadn’t been transported to California from elsewhere, I don’t think this person even exists if they were born and raised in California. A Californian who is a Toronto Maple Leafs fan? Alright, then. Christina Applegate is surprising game for a lot of things and will continue to grow as a character as long as they get some of her shrewdness in order (the character, not Applegate, I’m sure she couldn’t be more wonderful). The biggest change was probably getting Maya Rudolph’s character in order and having Jason Lee as her boyfriend, which helped ground her character and leave her less reliant on always being around Arnett and Applegate. There’s also an underlying sadness in Rudolph’s character which is just tapped enough to be effective and not overdone. Rudolph plays these emotional beats very well, garnering some sympathy for her character, especially against some of her comedic highs. Rudolph still has killer one-liners each episode, which largely contribute to the “laugh-out-loud” section of jokes.

I’m not writing this article to say that Up All Night is the greatest or funniest show ever (which its not), but just to shed some light on how I feel it got buried in the sand a bit and painted with a broad brush in terms of comedy style. It doesn’t even get the kinds of publicity or recognition from NBC that it gives to good shows (Parks & Recreation) and bad shows (Smash). I’m probably not even supposed to like this show, it’s about a married couple with a new baby and a women’s talk show host, I couldn’t possibly think of two worse things. But, of course it’s the actors that make or break it, and they do in deed make it. With its dwindling ratings (less than 3 million) who knows if it will get another season (Will Arnett curse) and if it doesn’t I won’t lose any sleep over it and probably will forget about it quicker than NBC burned off Bent. This is whole thing is basically just to say “Hey, guys! Up All Night is actually a little better and funnier than you originally gave it credit for!”. All I’m saying is that Up All Night may not be Parks & Recreation, but it sure isn’t Whitney, by a loooooooooong stretch.