TV REVIEW: Downton Abbey - Episode One

I've developed a rather love/hate relationship with Downton Abbey of late with its shoehorned historical context, clunky exposition and paper-thin characterisation. I've returned for this series in the hope that it might have been a particularly cranky mood that made me give up on it last time. As the first instalment progressed however, I realise it may not have just been me...

This episode finds the Downton gang reeling from the news that a Labour government is in power. We know this because we get a whole scene in the library in which the family talk about it all in nicely phrased pieces that let us know exactly what this means for this particular class. Lord Grantham thinks it's about the most apocalyptic thing to happen since the working class began demanding things in the first place, Mary uses it to wind him up and Branson's there to lend an air of 'working class hero' to the proceedings. 

Below stairs, we have a similar discussion from the servants' perspectives, once again divided between Carson's 'it's the end of all we know' attitude to Jimmy's enthusiasm for a Prime Minister who is representative of a different social class. It quickly fades into the background though once the more salacious plot developments take hold; Thomas is plotting (obviously), Jimmy is fending off the amorous attentions of Lady Astruther (a wickedly game Anna Chancellor) and Lady Mary is wondering how to know who to marry without trying to, ahem, test drive him first (does she not remember the last time she tried this, she ended up in bed with a corpse?). 

Oh, and there's a fire. But it's neither as dramatic or as spectacular as you might have hoped.

The historical context has always been used to hang plot points on from the moment Lady Sybil decided to become a not-very-committed suffragette to the arrival of the First World War. It's dropped on us with all the subtlety of a grand piano crashing through the library roof and comes across as a little insulting. But then again, Mr Fellowes is the man who also thought he needed to rewrite Romeo & Juliet because us poor people without expensive educations couldn't possibly understand Shakespeare in its original form. 

It may be that I was too enamoured with all the glamourous trappings of the Abbey and its inhabitants, but it felt at several points in this episode as if it was lurching into self-parody. Thomas loomed from shadows like a moustache-twiddling pantomime villain even more so than usual whilst the aforementioned contextual conversations may as well have been offered a companion history textbook in a sort of readalong game. I also get the increasing sense that these characters simply cease to exist when the camera isn't on them. Anna and Mr Baaates have a conversation about Lady Mary which seems to pause once their offscreen and just resume from where they left off in a scene taking place a day later. I don't expect to have a detailed update from each one on what they've been up to since they were last onscreen, but it would help to at least have a sense that they do something other than stand prettily until the plot requires them.

I make a point of never watching things 'ironically'; if I enjoy something, I'm more than happy to admit it. I still enjoy Downton. I love how completely unaware of its failings it is, how the characters might as well just freeze in one place until the camera is back on them and they can carry on their conversation (despite it being days/years since the first half of their talk) and I still love these characters. Despite the newer faces amongst the cast acting as largely ciphers of whichever issue Fellowes has decided to explore this week, the old guard are still as brilliant as ever.

It's the regular cast that consistently keep me interested, rising above even the dullest material (honestly, how many times can Daisy try to do something different only to be told not to by Mrs Patmore. Every. Damn. Series). Michelle Dockery still brings a lovely warmth to the icy cold exterior of Mary and her romantic woes once again form her storyline, but that's all right, because she clearly knows how to handle a farming business. Rob James-Collier may fall into moustache-twirling, but there's a great inner conflict to Thomas that looks set to be explored further than it has been before. Obviously, Maggie Smith is awesome too. I love any scene where she goes up against Penelope Wilton. 

And so it all begins again with a wiggle of a dog's bum and the usual upstairs/downstairs shenanigans that we've come to know and, in my case, begrudgingly love. However, one can't help thinking that when Lord Grantham announced at the end of this episode 'the entertainment's over', he might just be right.

- Becky

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