January 5, 2015

SHOWBUZZDAILY Season Premiere Review: “Downton Abbey”



When it started airing 5 years ago, DOWNTON ABBEY was an artifact of nostalgia for a vanished era of British society, one Americans for all our proud egalitarianism have always eaten with a spoon.  Now it feels just as much like a time capsule into a different kind of television, one where “quality drama” meant, well, PBS:  men and women in evening dress and gowns, speaking whether drolly or combatively in exquisitely polished sentences, all elaborately courteous even when plotting some scheme or another.  It’s all a far distance from the meth dealers, ruthless criminals, spies, murderers and generally wrecked individuals that populate our new world of drama, and many viewers–even those who raptly watch the more contemporary shows–long for a bit of that bygone dramatic innocence.

The world of Downton has arrived at 1924 (a few months after last year’s Christmas special), and there are rumblings of societal unease–a Labor prime minister!–but the Season 5 premiere, written by series creator Julian Fellowes and directed by Catherine Morshead, follows upon the storylines of last season so comfortably that it might as well be the next week’s episode as the start of a new season.  Everything is almost exactly as we left it:  Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) is beginning the process of moving on from her widowhood, possibly with Lord Gillingham (Tom Cullen); her sister Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) is pining after her presumably dead lover and surreptitiously visiting the child she bore by him, who is taken care of by a couple in the village; brother-in-law Tom (Allen Leech) is emerging from his own grief over the death of his wife, and flirting not only with local teacher Sarah (Daisy Lewis) but with her fiery socialism; Bates (Brendan Coyle) and wife Anna (Joanne Froggatt) are hoping no one figures out that he killed her rapist, who happens to have been Lord Gillingham’s valet; and perpetually rotten Thomas (Rob James-Collier) is still (still!) scheming to find out Bates’s secret in order to use it against him.  Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) grumbles over every change in tradition but ultimately does the right thing, often with the quiet urging of wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern).  The Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) pronounces copious amounts of what in the 21st century would be called “snark” and has a not-quite-friendship with Isobel (Penelope Wilton).  And below stairs, Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) and Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) are exquisitely attuned to every variation in the wavelengths of their household, whether nobility or staff.

No one watches Downton Abbey to be jarred out of their comfort zone or receive shocks to their sensibilities.  As a world and as a TV show, it exists in a universe where a single unkind sentence–in the premiere, it was some high-spirited rudeness by Tom’s friend Sarah about the efficacy of World War I memorials–causes gasps and recriminations, where good manners are valued above all.  When Cora’s lady’s maid Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) confessed that she had served jail time for stealing from a former employer (for reasons still unexplained), which she had to do before Thomas finked on her, Cora took it with an upper lip that was admirably stiff–and Cora was born American!  Even the fire that struck the Abbey at the conclusion of the premiere caused no particular damage, apart from leading Lord Grantham to fire Jimmy (Ed Speleers) when he discovered the footman sleeping with one of the guests, and giving Lady Cora yet another excuse for not firing the nefarious Thomas, since he’d raised the fire alarm.  It’s all far from the most exciting hour on television, and truth be told, it no longer deserves the awards and nominations that come to it every year, apparently from critics and Academy members who can’t bear to acknowledge the more sharp-elbowed dramas of our own era.  On its own warm-blanket, breakfast-in-bed terms, though, Downton is still enormously entertaining, an expert piece of narrative craft and perfectly cast, with an absolutely solid sense of its own pace and parameters.  It caters to its fans with the same loving care that Mr. Carson insists upon for his charges.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."