For pure Sunday night escapism, PBS’ Downton Abbey exceeds the previous champion of the Lord’s Day of Rest, HBO’s Game of Thrones. There was a grungy realism to Thrones’ sword and sorcery epic; by contrast, Abbey is, to American eyes, nearly fantastical. All the politeness that prevails, even during World War I! Mr. Carson articulated this quality early on in the second-season premiere as the downstairs help polished the silver and prepared meals for the upstairs grandees: “Keeping up standards is the only way to show the Germans that they will not beat us in the end.”
No, Mr. Carson, surely not the only way – tell that to Matthew and Thomas, all grimy at the 1916 Battle of the Somme, keeping the enemy at bay while immersing themselves in mud. But this was not Game of Thrones-dirtiness; it was impeccably applied, chocolate-pudding-looking mud – grime that would wash off easily when Matthew found he had a few days’ leave and was able to return to Downton Abbey, now the most magical Sunday-night place, and, no, I’m not forgetting about ABC’s Once Upon a Time.
Downton has enabled Masterpiece Classic to play with the big network and cable boys in creating pop-culture buzz. The first edition of Downton was such a surprise hit that it left people who normally don’t have PBS on their radar scrambling to watch the reruns and ogle the DVDs. Newbies had to perform frantic catch up, to discover who Mary (Michelle Dockery, as pale and sharp as a piece of fine stationery) and Matthew (the deft, clever Dan Stevens) were, and understand why they are more convincing lovers than anyone on, say, Grey’s Anatomy.
Creator Julian Fellowes has pulled and stretched his posh universe like Silly Putty, more than doubling the size of the first Downton. New characters were introduced this week, such as a nicely sniffy maid, Ethel, who helps to signal the new era the Abbey is entering by reading fan magazine articles about that hotsy Theda Bara. Brendan Coyle’s Bates and Joanne Froggatt’s Anna shared a kiss and their hopes for a united future, only to have his ex-wife appear to exert some blackmail. Upstairs, Mary has become involved with Richard Carlisle, a self-made man, a “hawker of newspaper scandal,” as Hugh Bonneville’s Robert Crawley described him with ill-disguised contempt. Matthew, too, has tried to move on, selecting a pretty little mouse in Zoe Boyle’s Lavinia Swire, a very Evelyn Waugh-ish moniker. Everyone watching the show and everyone within the show knows these people are not worthy of Mary and Matthew. Maggie Smith’s peerless peer, the Countess Dowager, came as close as she’s ever come to vulgarity in dismissing Lavinia as “that little blonde piece.”
It may have been an extra-long premiere, but you can’t say you didn’t get your pledge’s worth. (PBS newcomers: You do know you’re supposed to be helping to fund this pleasure, don’t you? No, of course you don’t – for some reason you haven’t been enticed by public television fund-raisers such as reruns of The Lawrence Welk Show (an inspiration for Fred Armisen) and baby-boomer oldies musical acts.) Little, important nuggets were strewn throughout the premiere. The good-luck charm toy Mary gave Matthew as he headed back to the front. Thomas lifting his hand to take a bullet so he’ll get sent back to do greater damage at the Abbey. Robert expressing his frustration, his ego-deflation, in not being able to do more for the war effort. Carlisle threatening to expose a skeleton in Lavinia’s mouse-closet. All of these will come into play as the weeks go by.
All this, plus Edith learning to drive a farm tractor! Enabling the Countess Dowager to snort the best line of the night: “Edith, you are a lady, not Toad of Toad Hall!”
I have my reservations about the new, super-sized Downton Abbey, but these quibbles will arise more in the coming weeks. “You’ll find there’s never a dull moment in this house,” said Maggie Smith; I will beg to differ at some points. The premiere, however, did a good job of ushering new characters in while reassuring us that our fond memories of the familiar cast were honest ones. The two hours had a sort of lurching pace – rushed in some spots, drawn out with obviousness in other scenes – but it certainly held interest, and exerted the narrative pull that first-rate soap opera must have.
So: What did you think of this dense, rich first bite of the new Downton Abbey? Too sweet, or just right?