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PBS’s Downton Abbey
Metacritic Score: 75
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 80%
Number of Nominations: 5
Major Nominations: Outstanding Drama Series, Supporting Actor Drama Series (Jim Carter), Supporting Actress Drama Series (Joanne Froggatt)
In the UK it was once a kind of generational thing from the earlier days of television for families to sit down and watch the classy, often lavish costume dramas. My mother loved them, the detective shows like Miss Marple or the seventies version of Poldark (the main actor of which Robin Ellis is the reason for my own name don’t you know). The stand-outs may well be The House of Eliott, Brideshead Revisited, and of course Upstairs, Downstairs, before more modern takes on classic literature brought the younger audiences flooding in – Colin Firth and Jennfier Ehle were instrumental to this in Pride and Prejudice. The transfer of costume drama to film has always been a little more accessible, so when Downton Abbey came to British television (and straight over to the States) I am sure there were many an age rubbing their hands together at the prospect of this.
Written and created by Julian Fellowes (whose immaculate, social class study screenplay for Robert Altman’s Gosford Park bagged him an Oscar), Downton Abbey is a rural Yorkshire set period drama, and has so far in its five seasons tracked dramatic events of a multitude of characters from 1912 to well into the 1920s. Extremely popular and well-received both in the UK and across the waters in America, Downton Abbey has had a warm reception with the Emmy voters too – totaling twenty-seven nominations for the first two seasons alone. Television audiences are a fickle bunch at the best of times, and given the genre, it is no real surprise that the show’s attention has waned over recent years. Some might even feel now (and with just five nominations this time around) the Emmys are now just following formalities.
As I have stipulated before though, Downton Abbey has hardly dipped in terms of dramatic levels, in fact you could argue season five was one of the most emotionally impacting in the show’s duration. Are people just getting bored? Is this remit of television simply not built to support our attention spans this long? Perhaps, but the truth is Downton Abbey remains one of the finest made shows out there, and clearly get’s its money’s worth in terms of the budget.
The first episode of the season successfully brought us up to speed with what we had perhaps forgotten in the nine months since the previous season (not including the Christmas special). In that and proceeding episodes, Edith became a much more central figure, her child dilemma affecting everyone around her eventually. Another marginalized character, or at least one not taken too seriously at first, is Rose. Her various encounters include the odd match-making, verbal sensibilities, before being rewarded with her own Jewish romance and eventual wedding.
There was respect paid to the First World War, with a proposed war memorial – which gave Robert and Mr. Carson a lot more to do outside of the large house. A local teacher with a sharp tongue, Miss Bunting, caused a few bellyaches, as well as a love story for Tom. In the kitchen, Daisy is studying, while Mrs. Patmore receives bad news. There’s Miss Baxter’s secret. Not to mention Mary, mercifully pinned down to juggling suitors Gillingham and Blake. And more seriously, the whole London / police investigation regarding Bates and Anna. On top of that, Downton Abbey‘s highlights may come from the humorous, sometimes emotional, retorts between Isobel and Violet. Richard E. Grant also guest stars as a smarmy fellow trying to woo Cora.
Downton Abbey relishes in flipping from one story strand to the next, it has the large cast of characters to do this, but the whole thing is executed remarkably well. It also manages to mix the tragic and the dramatic with the sometimes ponderous and amusing. There are heaps of lost opportunities of love aplenty too, in fact that seems to be one of the strongest themes of the season. Run through the characters and there will not be many that have not encountered some kind of romance or potential love, only to have it slip through their fingers or never quite reach them in the end. Even Robert, usually so droll and snobby, is given plenty of humorous and heart-felt moments. That poor dog Isis. Add to that a terrifically flowing narrative, carried by dialogue that is crisp and relevant, feeding us current affairs or reminding us of ones gone by, as well as engaging us always with the characters and their daily lives. Changing scenery from time to time too, Downton Abbey benefits from some truly lovely cinematography, set decoration, and dapper, gorgeous costumes galore. Saying this is just well-made does not do it justice.
With knowledge that Downton Abbey will soon close it’s doors to the general public, you have to start wondering if voters and audiences alike will start giving the show more time of day. This year’s mere five nominees only emphasizes the shrinking interest in the whole social affairs. Given the ongoing high drama of Anna’s story-line (which began before this season), and her Golden Globe win, Joanne Froggatt’s appearance on the Supporting Actress list is very worthy – she could be the dark horse to win too. Although predicted by many, Jim Carter’s nomination is welcomed as well as a little surprising. Not because it was not warranted, but when you look at the cast there are a spilling handful of performances that could / should have sneaked in.
Hugh Bonneville (Robert), Penelope Wilton (Isobel), and Phyllis Logan (Mrs. Hughes) have been consistently great, not just this season, but since Downton Abbey began. Regular nominee, and general legend, Maggie Smith (Violet) is absent this year, but given her strong, emotive moments with the old flame and her fear of loneliness, this might have been her best season. Lesley Nicol (Mrs. Patmore) also had some teary moments her character struggled with grief and the prospect of Daisy moving on. I’d also like to shout out to Lily James (Rose) who as character and actress really pulled the strings this season, and Rob James-Collier (Barrow) who tackled a memorable, if rather short story-line, when becoming extremely ill while trying to suppress homosexuality. Season five perhaps belongs predominantly though to Laura Carmichael (Edith), a long time too much of a background character, and treated so in character, this time around her juicy sub-plot and poignant portrayal of a woman in sheer turmoil really, finally, stood out. Her’s is the narrative that bookends the whole season, another memorable and accomplished piece of television indeed.