Sunday, January 26, 2014

Downton Abbey Review: "Episode 4" - A Delightful Wandering

Bates and Anna finally lay most of the truth on the table

“Episode 4” is the midpoint of Downton Abbey’s fourth season and is far more subdued than its predecessor from the previous two seasons.  In the fifth hour of season two,* Matthew was paralyzed and footman William was mortally wounded while at war.  In the fifth hour last season, Lady Sybil died after giving birth to her daughter.  Nothing so dramatic happens this season with writer Julian Fellowes instead using the time to reflect on the season so far and set things in motion for the final four episodes of the season.  But despite its nature as largely a piece-moving episode, “Episode 4” pushed every storyline in a favorable direction, featured a pair of marvelous performances (and a third very subtle but wonderful piece of acting), and was easily my favorite hour of the season so far.

* This gets kind of complicated, but PBS has aired the first two episodes of each season as one two-hour long episode, so “Episode 4” in the United States aired as “Episode 5” on iTV in Britain.  To try to avoid confusion, I’ll refer to this episode in each season as “Episode 4” or “the fifth hour.”

With so many different stories going on this week and no framing device to group any together (like last week’s trip to London) it would have been easy for every plot to get the short shrift.  But what this episode does so well is to use its plots to develop the characters, something it often fails to do.  Take Mary and Robert’s story for example.  Robert has long been portrayed as a terrible businessman and his decision here—to offer the son of a delinquent, deceased tenant a loan so that he can keep farming the land—is likely mistaken as well.  But it shows off Robert’s true nature and finally shows the paternal spirit that Julian Fellowes clearly believes the landed estates had.  It also informs a clearly chastened Mary that there is more to operating Downton than earning a profit.  The house has a moral responsibility to the people in the village as well.  Since taking active roles in the management of Downton, Branson and Mary have been shown to be right, and Robert wrong, on pretty much every subject, so it’s nice to see the Earl finally win an argument.

The Bateses’ story finally comes to a head with Bates badgering the truth, or most of it anyway, out of Mrs. Hughes and Anna.  I’ve made my feelings about this storyline known, but I really enjoyed the work done here by Brendan Croyle and Joanne Froggatt.  I think pretty much every viewer knows how this is all going to play out (Anna’s attacker, Mr. Green is going to die under mysterious circumstances and Bates will be implicated – no spoilers, I’m just assuming), but it helps that the characters seem to know that too.  The emotions here are raw and true.   It’s difficult to watch Anna lie to her husband with both characters knowing full well that it’s a lie and that he sees right through it.  But the fact is, she’s probably right.  Bates is likely going to try to kill Green.  Or, at the very least, he’s going be extremely tempted to do so and will be forced to exert a heretofore unseen amount of self control to keep himself from going through with it.  The scene between the two of them is just marvelously performed and actually makes me interested in where this is going for the first time.

There’s much, much more to this episode.  I’m interested to hear what Evelyn Napier has to say about the state of the English estates.  Edith visits a doctor and Michael hasn’t been heard from in some time.  Thomas finds a new playmate in Cora’s new Lady’s Maid, Mrs. Baxter.  But these stories are all inching forward so incrementally that it’s hard to get too worked up over any one.  Still, the execution was great and there were no suitors, lords, or parties, so I am definitely putting this one in the win column.

A couple of spare thoughts –

So Edith is pregnant right?  Because if twenty-some odd years of watching television have taught me, women don’t randomly go to the doctor unless they’re pregnant.

Lots of slight stories this week, but easily the worst is Mrs. Patmore resisting the introduction of a refrigerator.  This makes absolutely no sense.  I get her being scared of a mixer, or a sewing machine, or other technological marvels, but a refrigerator?  There is zero difference between a fridge and an icebox except that one requires a great deal of physical labor and the other does not.  Granted, she doesn’t do the physical labor to fill the icebox, but still, she doesn’t need to do anything different with a refrigerator, so resisting its installation just makes her seem like an extreme Luddite.

Why does this show keep crapping on Molesley?  I mentioned at the beginning of this season that I liked the idea of Molesley being fired because Matthew died because it could potentially show the difficulty of life as an early-twentieth century working class person while also revealing the shallowness of estate life and their claims to moral goodness.  But the way Downton has treated Molesley makes clear that Fellowes only views him as comic relief and has no desire to have any kind of broader discussion of what it’s like to be in the working class.

So thoughts?  Comments?  Just want to tell me my blog sucks?  Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Sherlock Review: "The Empty Hearse" - How It Could Have Happened

Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman dazzle in "Sherlock"

The writers of Sherlock had an impossible task in essentially rebooting the series after a two-year hiatus and the mammoth cliffhanger we were left with at the conclusion of the second season.  Writer Mark Gatiss had to a) explain how Sherlock faked his death in a way that was realistic and interesting, but not obvious; b) reveal where Sherlock had been for the last two years in a way that was also realistic and interesting, but not obvious; c) reestablish the relationship between Sherlock and John; and d) pen an engrossing mystery that can provide a framing for the episode.  Given those standards, I’d say Gatiss went two for four.  He nailed the relationships material and the “why” behind Sherlock’s two-year hiatus, but the episode’s slight mystery combined with the cop-out in explaining how Sherlock pulled off his disappearing act made for a somewhat disappointing return, even though the performances were, as always, spectacular.

Starting with the positives, it was so fun to see Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman together again.  I often wish that we could get more episodes of Sherlock than the three that are made every few years.  But part of what makes the show so great is the talent behind the main characters and it simply wouldn’t be the same show without them.  So making compromises to meet their schedule only makes sense.  It’s particularly great to have these two back because “The Empty Hearse” really services its characters well.  The relationship between John and Sherlock is complex.  It’s become clear over the first six episodes of this series that, while Sherlock may not need John to solve his cases, he plainly needs him in a personal sense.  John is his focus and his constant, even if he may also be just another goldfish, as Mycroft so callously puts it.*

* And how great was Mark Gatiss in that scene?  I love that they’re hewing to the original version of Mycroft who is actually more intelligent than Sherlock if just without his brother’s sociopathy.  It adds a nice dimension to his character and I’d love to see the two work together more.

What makes the two characters’ reintroduction work so well is the deep affection they clearly have for each other.  Sherlock is not so eager to reveal his secret to John if he does not truly value their friendship.  Similarly, John’s reaction would not be so, well, punchy were it not for his deep feelings for Holmes.  That entire fight scene, in fact, between John and Sherlock was just marvelously executed, in writing, acting and editing.  “The Empty Hearse” spends a large chunk of its running time bringing these two back together because it is the most important piece of the foundation to lay for the coming episodes.  And while I may not have entirely bought Sherlock’s reasoning for keeping John in the dark, the reveal that this was all an elaborate setup to dismantle Moriarty’s network was at least satisfying. 

What was less satisfying was the explanation of how Sherlock faked his death.  I understand that it’s been two years since the episode first aired and that fans have had a long time to formulate and perfect their own theories of what happened.  I also appreciate the meta-treatment the show gave those theories during the episode.  But giving us three different possibilities for how the scenario played out and implying that none of them may have even been the truth seems to me to be a cop-out.  It isn’t easy to provide a resolution that fans will both enjoy and not pick at relentlessly, but you have to have a resolution of some sort.  By Clue-ifying the solution here, the show makes it seem like it doesn’t trust its own decisions.

Also underwhelming was this week’s mystery which basically boils down to finding a missing subway car.  That the mystery is slight is not surprising given how much time had to be dedicated to getting John and Sherlock working together again, but you can’t dedicate that little time to a story and then have it be an enormous, potentially world-changing terrorist plot.  The character work throughout is, as usual, fantastic.  It just feels like an awfully “important” story to get such short shrift in the time department.

Overall, Sherlock’s return was something of a mixed bag.  The character development was spectacular, as usual and expected.  But anything remotely resembling plot felt half-baked or like fan service.  Hopefully, with the reintroductions out of the way, the show can get back to spinning more of Steven Moffat’s marvelously twisted yarns. 

A couple of spare thoughts –

I immediately like John’s fiancée Mary.  But something seems a little bit off about her.  I really hope she doesn’t end up being a bad guy or otherwise betraying John.  I don’t think Sherlock is the type of show that would go down that road, but too many years of watching television have made me distrustful of immediately likeable new romances.

Again, more Mycroft.  I love the idea that Sherlock has an intellectual superior out there somewhere just being awesome.

There were a lot of gags in this episode that, while funny, felt out of place, most noticeably the Holmes brothers’ game of Operation and Molly’s fiancée bearing a remarkable similarity to a certain, emotionally stunted super-detective.

So thoughts?  Comments?  Just want to tell me my blog sucks?  Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

Downton Abbey Review: "Episode 3" - All This Has Happened Before, and all of It Will Happen Again

Lady Mary is set up on a blind date and goes about as well as you think

Downton Abbey is a show about change or at least a show about changing times.  And yet this episode seemed to be filled with nothing but stories we’ve seen before and will likely see again.  Once again, Lady Mary is being set up with a potential suitor because God forbid she be allowed to create her own life and personality in the wake of her husband’s death.  Edith and Michael are also stuck on a merry-go-round, circling the same story over and over.  And it’s really a shame because I’m enjoying all of these performances, I just wish they were in service of more interesting stories.

Throughout the episode, Lady Mary is clearly a woman torn between two worlds.  The bulk of the episode is framed around her trip to London where she, not Robert, will negotiate the estate’s death taxes.  It’s a remarkable turn for the woman who basically didn’t leave her room for sixth months after Matthew's death, as shown in the season premiere.  And if the entire show were about Mary and Branson operating Downton I would probably enjoy it quite a bit.  But, alas, Mary is a woman in the early 20th-century, which means that if she’s single for any reasonable length of time then something must be wrong with her.  So Robert, Cora, and Rosamund all conspire to have Lord Gillingham meet her once again for an evening of dinner and dancing.  It’s not that I dislike Gillingham, I really don’t.  I’m simply tired of watching men constantly throwing themselves at Mary.  I get it.  She’s a highly attractive potential spouse.  But the first and second seasons were largely focused on finding Mary a husband (by my count, Lord Gillingham is the sixth potential suitor we’ve been introduced to in some thirty episodes, not even counting Matthew).  I’d prefer the show not travel down this well-worn path yet again.  Let Mary figure out who she is as an individual before tying her up with another man.

On the other end of the love spectrum, Edith and Michael finally consummate their relationship on the eve of his journey to Germany.  I like these two as a couple, but their story has been spinning in circles for a year and a half now (about six or seven episodes).  With Michael gone for an extended period of time perhaps Edith, too, can develop a life of her own.  When Edith was first offered her newspaper column last season I thought it was an excellent way to open the world of Downton Abbey.  Instead, its main function has been to make yet another relationship the primary focus of a Crawley woman’s life.  Indeed, it seems like every line Edith has nowadays is either spoken to Michael or about him.  I really like the Downton women, but I wish Julian Fellowes could find more for them to do than dance at parties and be wooed by men.

Back at Downton, Edna’s finally played her hand too far, blackmailing Branson with their post-concert hookup and threatening him with the possibility of a pregnancy.  She’s yet another in Downton’s long line of mustache-twirling cartoon villains brought in solely to stir the pot and cause trouble.  The mark of a great show is the ability to generate drama out of its characters reacting to their everyday lives.  If you are only capable of creating dramatic moments by inserting new characters to cause trouble (see also Mr. Green, Bates’s wife, etc.), then the stories come off as manufactured and inauthentic.  Granted, Thomas seems to be behind most of the trouble-making, but his overt villainy has managed to put him squarely in the mustache-twirling category himself. 

Downton Abbey is a show about changing times and is itself occasionally willing to embrace change.  But it’s time for the show to make a foundational change.  Ditch the suitors, lords, and parties.  Let the women live their own lives and make their own decisions.  That was, after all, one of the most lasting changes of the Roaring Twenties. 

A couple of spare thoughts –

I know I’m supposed to be shocked and intrigued by Rose dancing with the “gallant bandleader” Jack Ross but I was too distracted by his terrible American accent and lackluster singing voice to care.

Lord Gillingham just about made me gag when he told Mary, “I’ll never love again as I love you in this moment.”  Please, dude, you’ve known her as an adult for like two months.

So thoughts?  Comments?  Just want to tell me my blog sucks?  Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Downton Abbey Review: “Episode 2” – Backlash

Branson didn't have much to do, but I like Branson, so he gets the picture.

I felt like this past summer was “The Summer of Backlash.”  First, there was the backlash against Man of Steel for its depiction of wonton city-level violence.  It’s not that the destruction of a good chunk of Metropolis was too gory or unsettling, it’s just that after Transformers, The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness and a host of other global destruction features from the past few years, people were just tired of seeing buildings fall and city blocks leveled.  Destroying a city just doesn’t carry the weight it used to especially when, ten minutes later, the hero and his posse are trading quips like nothing ever happened.  Say what you will about the third season of Homeland (and it was pretty terrible), but they never once let you forget about the people who had died in the CIA bombing.  Meanwhile, the deaths of thousands of people in The Avengers, Star Trek, and Man of Steel were typically forgotten before the credits rolled.

The second backlash of the summer came against a pair of middling-to-bad television shows that tried to tread the white male antihero ground that so many better shows had trod before: Ray Donovan and Low Winter Sun.  The shows weren’t terrible; it’s just that they offered viewers nothing new.  Rather, they recycled the same ideas and stories that we’ve seen for the last 15 years. 

I didn’t join in those first two backlashes*, so I guess it’s time for my own.  I’m done with violence towards women.  Just done.  It’s no longer shocking or affecting.  I’ve seen so many female characters stalked, attacked, raped, and killed that it just has no effect on me, even when it’s a character I like.  I don’t know why Julian Fellowes decided to have Lord Gillingham’s butler rape Anna, but it added nothing to the show.  It was a moment designed only to shock.  Granted, Downton Abbey is a soap opera filled with shocking moments but I’m no longer shocked by violent acts committed against women.  It’s now just another cliché that occurs far too often on television.

* I actually enjoyed Man of Steel, mostly for the fact that they finally made Superman more human and thus more interesting.  And while I didn’t particularly enjoy Ray Donovan or Low Winter Sun, I mostly just ignored them.

Really, the rape scene was the cherry on top of an episode I didn’t enjoy.  Fellowes is just far more interested in the protocol of the estates than I am.  I imagine him sitting at his computer saying, “Yes, and then Thomas will have to take Jimmy’s place and serve at the dinner.  Can you imagine?  An under-butler having to act as a footman for an evening?  How delightfully absurd.”  I mean, there’s an entirely storyline dedicated to whether the opera singer should eat with the family, with Robert insisting she would have nothing in common with them only to come around once again to discover that there’s nothing all that special about the gentry.  Perhaps it’s one of those things where I’m just not in on the joke, but however it’s supposed to play out, I just don’t enjoy it.

What I did enjoy was the continuing question of Mary and her place in this new world.  At this point in her life, having given birth to a son, Mary is essentially the Dowager Countess with 75 years of doddering left.  She could resign herself to a lifetime of leisure and let her father run Downton on his own.  Instead, she is thrusting herself into the conversation and taking ownership of her future and the future of the estate.  Introduced this week is Lord Gillingham, a childhood friend of Mary’s and I really hope he’s being brought in to further her development as an individual and not just as yet another romantic interest. 

Downton Abbey is a series that is splitting me.  What material there is that I like, I really like.  But the things I don’t like, I really hate.  There’s just no in-between when it comes to Downton Abbey, nothing of casual interest.  So far, that’s enough to keep me going.  I just hope the next few weeks bring in more that I like than hate.

A couple of spare thoughts –

Edith’s boyfriend Michael gets a nice moment in the episode, rescuing Robert and Gillingham from a poker cheat by employing his own, well-worn card skills.  I wish they would give him more personality like this because he’s a character I could enjoy pretty easily if his main story with Edith wasn’t just going around in circles.

Watching Branson fumble around with the Duchess was also a nice treat.  I kind of wish they would send him, Mary, and Rose off to London in their own spinoff.

“Sometimes I don’t know who I’m more in mourning for, Matthew or the person I was when I was with him.”

So thoughts?  Comments?  Just want to tell me my blog sucks?  Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.