News Column

Aristocratic Drama 'Downton Abbey' Displays Poor Form in Season Opener

Jan 3, 2013

Mark Perigard

'Downton Abbey'

Santa gave PBS coal.

After the third-season ender of the network's prize gem "Downton Abbey" aired in England on Christmas Day, seismic spoilers rocked this side of the Atlantic.

Even casual fans have seen the reports and the social media buzz, if not the catastrophic pictures.

No reason to repeat them, other than to warn that not everyone survives the new season of the aristocratic iTV/PBS soap, which begins here Sunday night with a two-hour premiere.

Change is afoot at Downton Abbey. It's 1920. The Great War is over, but the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) is crushed to realize he has squandered his wife's fortune and will be forced to sell the ancestral home.

Lady Cora reacts to impending homelessness by telling her husband: "Don't worry about me, I'm an American. Have gun, will travel."

Series creator and scribe Julian Fellowes writes Americans as if he's heard of them but never actually dared to have a conversation with one. It's no help that American actress Elizabeth McGovern delivers every line as if she's talking to a toddler.

"Homelessness," it should be noted, for the entitled Crawleys means re­locating from an estate the size of Texas to one the size of Maine.

As luck -- and Fellowes -- would have you believe, Matthew (Dan Stevens) stands to inherit a fortune from his late fiancee Lavinia's father.

What an astounding coincidence. What ridiculously trite writing.

Guest star Shirley MacLaine shakes up the family as Cora's rich, eccentric mother Martha.

"She is like a homing pigeon -- she finds our under­belly every time," the Dowager Countess (Dame Maggie Smith) snipes.

When a kitchen crisis erupts, Martha organizes -- oh, the horror! -- a buffet.

Plotting is not Fellowes' strength, but "Downton's" appeal is visual. The clothes, the cars and the sets are just gorgeous and lavishly displayed.

The drama also romanticizes a 1 percent at a time when the other 99 believe they are barnacles on society.

As he considers his finances, the earl is most stricken at the thought of letting go of the help.

As the countess says, "An aristocrat without any servants is about as much use to the county as a glass hammer."

It's the servants, in contrast, who are conniving, petty or inept and the biggest supporters of class lines. Daisy (Sophie McShera) goes on a sit-down strike and no one notices. O'Brien (Siobhan Finneran) and Thomas (Rob James-Collier) fight a war of dirty tricks with career-ending implications.

The Crawleys, no matter the crisis, practically dote on their staff.

And as recent news demonstrates, PBS needs to get on UK time. This sumptuous but often silly series deserves a prime showcase.

Source: (c)2013 Boston Herald. Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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