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I've now seen the first season of Downton Abbey via Netflix, and have the second season on hold at my library.

Am not in love with it enough to buy it.

Visually, this is gorgeous television. Sets, costumes, hair, jewels, the house itself -- all beautiful and a delight to look at. The soundtrack is warm and lush. I've nothing to complain about in the acting, and a few scenes have blown me away.

And yet...

When I saw the first episode, I was blown away. Two pairs of men, each of which could be expected to be loyal; one pair was and the other pair wasn't. It was such a brilliant compare-and-contrast.

I was hoping the rest of the show would be just as striking, but overall I'm finding it to be a beautiful, Edwardian soap opera. The privileged rich, servants loyal or scheming, all the claustrophobia of a crowded, busy household, all the patriarchy. The main plotline centers around the succession of the Earl of Grantham's title. His American wife's fortune has been tied to the title by an entailment meant to ensure the support of the estate, but alas the Earl has no son. So both title and estate will pass to a distant cousin unless the Earl could manage to break the entailment. But if he succeeded in breaking it so that his eldest daughter could inherit her mother's money, that would ensure the support of his widow and daughters, but would also mean the ruin of the estate. It's all very Sense & Sensibility.

Can the eldest daughter bring herself to marry the distant cousin and keep both grounds and family together? Does the distant cousin even like the eldest daughter? Will the Earl's new valet, hired for his service in the last war, be able to fulfill his job description though disabled by a war wound? Will the scheming footman succeed in besmirching the valet's character so he can grab the coveted post? Will the dowager countess ever relinquish the yearly prize for best roses in the district?

None of this is badly done, and yet I keep feeling it could be so much more.

Some things the story does bring out very strongly:

The obliviousness of the privileged to the real thoughts and feelings of the un-. When your livelihood depends on the good will of someone who has total authority over you, you don't talk back. You smile, and smile, and hide your grievances, and tell yourself you're lucky to have a roof over your head. So Countess Grantham believes her lady's maid O'Brien is fond of her, when in reality O'Brien is full of contempt.

That being a little more progressive than the old guard doesn't mean you're all that evolved. The dowager Countess will come right out and say that her youngest granddaughter has no right to her own opinions: her father will tell her what to think until she is married, and then her husband will take over the job. And yet the Earl himself, much kinder and gentler, still expects to be able to direct the lives of his family and everyone who works for him.

The very real power of shunning. In a society where the loss of a good reputation can mean the loss of home and financial support and even a means of earning a living, rumors are weapons. Never mind a week's embarrassment on YouTube: in this environment, a public shaming can last forever, whether or not it is just or even based on fact. Paired with the slow pace of communications, this aspect of the story makes me feel as if most of the characters are living in front of a glacier, inexorably inching its way toward them.

First season ends with the announcement of the start of WWI. This will, of course, change everything for the characters. I'm going to keep watching -- for all my lukewarm reaction, I am still enjoying this show enough to follow it. (Also, I'm trying to add an evening treadmill session to my daily routine, so MOAR VIDEO is a good thing.)

Three stars.
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readerjane: Book Cat (Default)
readerjane

May 2014

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