Friends of mine have been talking about Downton Abbey for a little while now, and when the opportunity to check out the show came up, I felt like giving into the urge. Normally I am not one for period pieces (and the show's touting of a Guinness World Record for 'highest critical review rating for a TV show' left me feeling a little dubious) but hey, if you are going to have horizons, why not try to broaden them occasionally, right?
The show is the brainchild of Julian Fellowes, and the show seems to have some general similarities to his Gosford Park story from several years back. The title of the show is derived from the fictitious British estate, in a drama that starts upon the recent news of the Titanic's sinking and concludes (at the end of its second season) at Christmas 1919. Downton's estate is owned by the Crawley family, and the head of the estate is Robert (Hugh Bonneville, Notting Hill), the Earl of Grantham, married to an American named Cora (Elizabeth McGovern, She's Having a Baby). The Crawleys have three daughters, the oldest, Mary (Michelle Dockery, Hanna) is apathetic of the family's attempts to marry her off and keep the estate within the family; the youngest, Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay, Albatross) is easily the most idealistic of the group; Edith (Laura Carmichael, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) is your typical middle sibling. Maggie Smith (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone) plays Robert's mother. The estate can't function without the services of its indispensable staff, including the butler Carson (Jim Carter, The Golden Compass), Robert's valet Bates (Brendan Coyle, Tomorrow Never Dies), who served with Robert in the war, and the housekeeper Ms. Hughes (Phyllis Logan, Secrets & Lies), to name but a few. Believe me when I say that though I've mentioned a few names, there are others that contribute in various ways to propel storylines down the avenue over the course of the show's two seasons and 16 episodes (including a 2010 Christmas special).
As I mentioned earlier, for those familiar with Gosford, you will recognize how the show lays itself out from a storytelling perspective. While the family in the estate has their various trials and tribulations on the 'upper floors of the house, in the lower levels, the wait staff is its own community of friendships, collaborations and antagonists. Siobhan Finneran plays Sarah, Cora's maid and one with a skewed eye towards the family and occasionally attempts to throw a monkey wrench into the workings of the house, with the assistance of Thomas (Rob James-Collier, Mercenaries). If there are proverbial 'heels' in the house, Sarah and Thomas would be the clubhouse leaders in that contest. Yet because of their place in the house, any sort of friction does not find its way into the family house. This is not to say the family does not have its own friction, because as the show goes on, the daughters tend to snipe at one another on occasion, and Smith bumps heads with Penelope Wilton (Shaun of the Dead), who plays Isobel Crawley, mother to the presumptive heir of the estate, as Robert only has daughters. Isobel is assertive and a little bossy, and tends to have an exaggerated sense of self in the house.
As far as the storytelling goes, it is not bad, though I will say the emotional moments tend to be on a soap opera level of shock at times. Guy who was thought said turns out not to be, guy who some thought couldn't walk can. They tend to dull from moments that would be effective if left to their own weight, but they tend to be glossed over. Don't get me wrong, some of the moments in the show that are supposed to be emotional are, and I found myself blubbering on an occasion or two (such as in the case of a wedding in the second season). But if there was a side to pick where all the dramatics were told effectively, I would point more towards the servants because if nothing else, the servants seem to still possess the ability to want to have a happier life, while the Crawleys just come off as boring people from time to time.
While Downton Abbey is a good show, I cannot say that I enjoyed it with the vigor and verve that others seem to. It is not that I did not like the show, I just did not see what all of the fuss was about. And for a show that touts this world record for critical praise, I would like to think that the material fit the label.
The Blu-ray Discs:
Five discs, sixteen episodes, all of which are presented in 1.78:1 1080i widescreen with the AVC codec. The series has two distinct looks; one where the family enjoys the furnishings of the house with bright static shots, and the servants' area where things are a little darker and shot with handheld cameras. Colors look natural and are not oversaturated, flesh tones are natural and image detail is abundant in the foreground and background, and the exterior shots of the Downton grounds look brilliant. The show is a (presumed) faithful reproduction of the show's original broadcasts and they look great.
DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 lossless sound for all of the episodes, and they are without noticeable complaint. If anything the second season with the sprinkled war scenes would have made a nice showcase for a six-channel surround track, but the two-channel one handles things nicely. Dialogue is consistent throughout and while the rear channels do not do much, they mirror the action in the front quietly and effectively. All in all solid listening material
Whether it's the first season or the second, the extras are the same, and are ultimately a little scant. Disc Two has the Season One extras, starting with the "Making Of" featurette (13:09) which explains the show and the genesis of the stories, and the look of the show is touched on, along with the production design. It is a slightly topical piece. Next is "A House In History" (9:40), where thoughts on the location are covered, along with the Countess of the actual home talking about living in such an expansive place. A tourism ad for Great Britain (:40) follows.
Season Two's extras are on Disc Five, and "Fashion & Uniforms" (11:12) is precisely that, examining the costumes needed for the season and the thoughts on said costumes from the cast and crew, and the urge to get things right. "Romance in a Time of War" (13:51) looks at the storylines in the second season and the character intentions/ramifications, and the introduction of new cast members are hit upon and said newbies talk about coming onto the production. "House to Hospital" (8:22) shows us the difficulties on adapting the house for a hospital setting, and the pros and cons of doing so. Another tourism ad (1:00) closes things out. It should be noted that the disc menus on Season Two presumably match those on the previous release, as Disc Three in the set is has a 'Disc One' menu, and so forth.
Seasons One and Two of Downton Abbey are entertaining at times, though the storytelling tends to mask some moments in the show that would serve as memorable beyond the reaches of it. Technically the show looks and sounds fine, though it tends to lack a bit on the supplemental side of things. With Season Three not due to air in America until 2013, now is a perfect time to catch up on the show with the rest of the world and see what the fuss is about.