As an American, I have often fallen into the trap of assuming that most of my country's pop culture isn't as refined or as important as that which comes from our relatives across the Atlantic in England. Your average American drama series is likely to involve one or more of the following elements: cops, doctors, or lawyers. The shows are almost laughably formulaic, but people love them because they are an escape. The vast majorities are solidly produced and ultimately inoffensive. When I think of British programming though, I think of period dramas featuring large ensemble casts, far superior cinematography, wonderful costumes, and intricate plotlines. The only place an American can get such programming is on a premium cable network or the occasional standout network series like "LOST" or "Twin Peaks" (I know I date myself with that last one, but I still consider it a high-water mark for network drama).
Surprisingly, "Lark Rise to Candleford" failed to meet my stereotypical expectations of British programming. I was stunned after sitting through nearly ten-hours of classical costume drama, but lacking the urge to tell my family and friends, "that's how you do drama." Instead, "Lark Rise to Candleford" reminds me of a long-past American, network costume drama, "Little House on the Prairie." Coincidentally, both series' main characters are named Laura.
In "Lark Rise to Candleford" Laura Timmins (Olivia Hallinan), our narrator, reflects back on her coming-of-age as she leaves home in the quiet, hardworking, village of Lark Rise, and travels eight-miles (a notable plot point) to the wealthier, town of Candleford, where she secures a position in the post office with her cousin Dorcas Lane. The simple narrative device which sends our heroine on her way sets up a tried and true British narrative theme: the class struggle. The big difference in "Lark Rise to Candleford" compared to, say the "Cranford" miniseries' is these themes, while present, don't carry over as consistently. Instead, while there is character development over the course of the first season, each episode of "Lark Rise to Candleford" is self-contained, resulting in some annoying formula storytelling.
The lack of ambition in the series largely stems from the episode lengths. Each episode comes in around the standard British runtime of approximately one-hour. If the writers had an hour's worth of solid material for each episode, this would be fine, but instead many episodes drag on, resulting in some lapses of logic by the characters. For instance, in the premiere episode, a major plot point results the Candleford post office deeming Lark Rise to be outside the eight-mile free delivery zone and begins to charge Lark Rise residents postage for delivering telegrams. Within minutes of the problem arising and many supporting characters getting involved and circular arguments springing up, I was almost on the verge of screaming at my TV, "MEASURE THE DISTANCE." Eventually, a character suggests this, but it's far too late and my emotional investment in the episode has been damaged.
As a result, I never make a firm connection with the lead character, Laura. Hallinan turns in an adequate performance, but through a combination of sloppy storytelling and uneven performance, I find myself being left mildly entertained. The majority of the performances from the supporting cast follow the same trend. They are all more than adequate, but never aspire to be truly great. The standouts include Julia Sawalha as Dorcas Lane, who is quite admirable at making more out of the cliché, independent woman working in a male-dominated society archetype.
Other supporting characters do their best to standout, with a particular favorite being Dawn French as the Caroline Arless. The ongoing references to her poverty, lack of husband and too many kids, actually get overshadowed by the amazement of French showing some serious acting skill. She never takes things to an over-the-top level one might expect from the famed comedienne; turning an initially one-note character into something more meaningful. Karl Johnson also manages to trump a plot line that reeks of absurdity. When he begins to see visions of his deceased sister, his emotional state begins to crumble. While the viewer know very well what the explanation is, we are actually able to resist the urge to scream out our TVs to wrap it up (as expected it lasts nearly the entire episode), because Johnson is so convincing as a man in doubt of his own sanity.
To the series' credit, it does manage to find a better footing as it approaches it's end. Their is obviously character development, but it often gets lost under the one-and done main plot that drives many of the episodes. I found myself struggling to recall what happened a few episodes back, while slogging through some of the current episode's narrative padding; again, my emotional connection to some characters ends up being jeopardized.
Some of the subjects examined did surprise me, when they deviated from the generic. Solid acting is featured in the ninth episode, which revolves around spousal abuse and alcoholism. Many expected themes arise, including the underlying class struggle. Fortunately, the actors stepped up to the plate here and realized that they needed to elevate the episode from the run-of-the-mill faire that came before and ultimately followed it.
On a completely positive note, I can say "Lark Rise to Candleford" continues the tradition of stellar production design. Sets and costumes are all top notch, especially admirable due to the late 1800s setting. The visuals at times are almost enough to pull me back into an episode, but ultimately not enough to make up for the overall average quality. While the season ends in a much more favorable light than it started off in, season two needs to really step-up things to another level. I'm willing to give it another chance, but I want more solid acting in logically written episodes.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is serviceable, featuring a subdued color palette. Some noticeable grain is present, while strong detail gets washed out by contrast levels appearing to overcompensate for low lighting on-set. While other British productions sometimes feature contrast issues, it's a little more prevalent here than normal.
The English 2.0 Dolby Digital track is more than adequate for a relatively quiet, character driven piece. Dialogue is well mixed and balanced from scene to scene, with even the thicket accent being easily distinguishable. English subtitles for the hearing impaired are included.
A lone, 30-minute featurette titled "The Making of Lark Rise to Candleford" covers the production of the season, interviewing cast and crew, gathering their thoughts on the production as well as storylines. It's a lighter affair, but does give a good look at the strong production design work.
There are far better British period dramas for viewers to spend their time with than "Lark Rise to Candleford," but in the end, the series fills that niche of entertainment, for entertainment's sake. Like "Little House on the Prairie" you won't be walking away thinking too much about the themes that pop up, but you will wish the continuing arcs were more tightly woven. As I stated above though, the series does show signs of wanting to step up it's game and I'll give it the benefit of the doubt, and give season two a chance to win me over. Rent It.