Judge Clark Douglas avoids class struggles, yet struggles in class.
Our reviews of Downton Abbey: Season One (published January 11th, 2011), Downton Abbey: Season Three (published January 29th, 2013), and Downton Abbey: Seasons One & Two (Limited Edition) (published October 4th, 2012) are also available.
"You're not Toad of Toad Hall!"
Midway through the second season of Downton Abbey, there's a scene in which a disfigured war veteran arrives at the titular estate, declares that he survived the sinking of the Titanic, went off to fight in World War I, had his face blown off and is actually the supposedly long-deceased heir to Lord and Lady Grantham's fortune. Dum-dum-dum! It was at precisely this moment that I realized that I had been taking Downton Abbey far more seriously than it was ever meant to be taken. The first season of the show certainly had its share of soapy developments, but there was also a good deal of thoughtfulness regarding the shifting social climate of early 20th Century Great Britain. Season Two swiftly goes about the business of reminding us that Downton Abbey will not permit insightful social commentary to get in the way of deliciously melodramatic entertainment. Considering the show's slightly eyebrow-raising point-of-view on certain issues ("Wasn't it nice when everyone in society knew their place?"), perhaps that's for the best.
We're re-introduced to the show's sprawling cast of characters in the midst of the first World War. Noble heir Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens, Hilde) and former Evil Gay Footman Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier, Coronation Street) are off fighting the war (though the latter is attempting to find a way out of it). Back at Downton Abbey, Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville, Iris) dons his old uniform and supports the war effort at home, while Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern, Once Upon a Time in America) squabbles with Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton, Shaun of the Dead) over whether parts of the mansion should be used as hospital rooms. Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery, Hanna) has started a relationship with wealthy newspaper magnate Sir Richard Carlisle (Iain Glen, Game of Thrones), though she still holds feelings for Matthew. Lady Edith Crawley (Laura Carmichael, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) begins to develop a much warmer personality in the midst of the war, while Lady Sybil Crawley (Jessica Brown Findley, Albatross) attempts to ingratiate herself with the kitchen staff.
Meanwhile, in the lower portion of the house, John Bates (Brendan Coyle, The Jacket) finds his tender romance with young Anna (Joanne Froggatt, Robin Hood) interrupted by the wicked machinations of his villainous estranged wife (Maria Doyle Kennedy, Miss Julie). Miss Patmore (Lesley Nicol, East is East) continues serving as a mentor to the conflicted young Daisy (Sophie McShera, Waterloo Road), who is uncertain of her feelings for the sweet-natured William (Thomas Howes, United). In the midst of all these happenings, Mr. Carson (Jim Carter, Shakespeare in Love) and Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan, Wallander) attempt to keep the house running smoothly.
As you've undoubtedly gathered, Downton Abbey: Season Two is just as packed with busy subplots as the first season, but somehow the show feels a little more relaxed this time around. Not slower, mind you: the endless stream of romantic entanglements, unexpected deaths and loopy revelations certainly do a good job of keeping viewers hooked, but it feels like there's more time for the characters to just hang out and be themselves. For the most part, that's a good thing, particularly when it comes to characters like Maggie Smith's Dowager Countess (whose frequent pithy remarks are so much fun that I could probably sell you on the show just by giving you a list of them), though it does feel that the show is playing to the crowd a little more this season. You liked the melodrama and the occasional humor of the first season? How about a second season with even more of both?
I think part of what we're seeing in the second season is a show realizing that it's a massive hit, and doing everything it can to maintain the ratings without losing too much of the critical acclaim. Many of its basic qualities are still in place: Downton Abbey is well-acted, beautifully-produced, absorbing, entertaining and strangely addictive. Still, I'll confess a small amount of disappointment to witnessing the show curbing its ambitions in favor of maintaining its audience. The first season felt wildly ambitious (part of what made it so thrilling was how smoothly it juggled so many varied elements), but this season feels like more of an overstuffed hangout show that occasionally fires a lightning bolt of a plot development into the mix to give everyone something exciting to do (indeed, World War I is treated less as a significant historical event than as a catalyst for all sorts of new shenanigans).
From a purely critical perspective, I feel Downton Abbey: Season Two is a step down from season one. Even so, I have to confess that I enjoyed watching this season just as much as I did the first. Even as I rolled my eyes at the daytime soap silliness of the "dead heir who survived the Titanic" development, I was eager to move on to the next episode. I like these characters, I enjoy the playful wit of Julian Fellowes' writing and I've rarely found the plot less than absorbing. Odds are that a show like Downton Abbey isn't going to rewatch as well as something like Mad Men (which is so much more nuanced in its portrait of a major societal shift), but it's splendid water cooler television which serves as a terrific argument against the idea that sweeping Masterpiece Classic dramas are stuffy and dull. When was the last time PBS aired a show that lot of people got really excited about?
Anyway, Downton Abbey: Season Two arrives on DVD sporting a tremendous 1.78:1 Anamorphic transfer. At times, I was almost convinced I was watching a 1080i transfer. The level of detail is tremendous, blacks are deep and shading is impressive. You probably want to go with the Blu-ray set if you have the option, but it's nice to see such a terrific standard-def transfer. The Dolby 2.0 Stereo track gets the job done nicely, blending John Lunn's effective score with the busy dialogue satisfactorily. Supplements are limited to three behind-the-scene featurettes: "Fashion and Uniforms," "Romance in a Time of War" and "House to Hospital."
Note: The episodes included in this set are thankfully the unedited U.K. presentations, not the slightly leaner variations which aired on TV here in the states.
Season two of Downton Abbey may be a step down from the first, but it's still a rather entertaining way to pass nine hours. Carry on!
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