For a number of years, my friend JoJo and I have a habit/ritual of getting together on Sunday nights for pizza eating (unhealthy) and television watching (usually healthy) since our must-see TV shows have fallen on Sundays: SEX & THE CITY, SIX FEET UNDER, THE SOPRANOS, TRUE BLOOD, DEXTER, etc. Ah, the power of cable. And thanks to the prodding of JoJo and other friends (and a few afternoon marathons with my streaming Netflix to get caught up on previous seasons), I finally arrived at the Sunday night viewing parties for MAD MEN, BREAKING BAD, GAME OF THRONES, and HOMELAND. It’s been great to watch the latest seasons with JoJo as the shows were actually airing. Granted, I no longer have an office water cooler to stand around on Monday mornings to discuss the latest antics of Don Draper or Walter White, but I can expound on my predictions and theories with Lucy and Sophia as I pour myself water from my Brita pitcher.
Recently, however, it was *I* who got to introduce JoJo to an incredible TV series – and it’s one that’s not even on a cable network. It’s on <gasp!> public television. As a devotee of Merchant-Ivory films (REMAINS OF THE DAY is one of my all-time faves), I’m not sure why I didn’t jump on the DOWNTON ABBEY bandwagon sooner, especially given the diverse fan following the show has attracted. (Patton Oswalt? Cool!) I couldn’t ignore the buzz, though, so I once again turned to good ol’ Netflix and before I knew it the tea times, fox hunts, and unrequited romances took hold quickly and I blew through the first season in the course of a weekend. It’s been really interesting to revisit the initial season again with JoJo as she watches it for the first time. We’re five episodes in (only two more to go) and plan to follow it up with Season Two so that we’re set for the Season Three Premiere in January. (Yes, must-see TV can require some meticulous planning.)
For those of you who haven’t experienced the mannered pleasure yet, DOWNTOWN ABBEY is set in Britain in the early 1900s and showcases the lives of the wealthy-and-distinugished Crawley family as well as those that serve them. What strikes me about the show is not only its intelligence, quality, and wonderful flares of wry humor – the imperious Dowager Countess, played flawlessly by Maggie Smith, asking what a “week-end” is comes to mind – but its ability to service a large number of characters in a 50-60 minute episode. If you look on the PBS website for the series, the first season character list features twenty characters. TWENTY!!! And that’s not even everyone. But somehow creator Julian Fellowes and his writing team are able to create complex, three-dimensional people who all get the screen time necessary to make an emotional impact. I knew at the end of episode one that the valet Mister Bates was someone I would continue rooting for. And that the odious footman Thomas and calculating lady’s maid Miss O’Brien are not to be trusted. And that youngest Crawley daughter Lady Sybil is not just a pretty face but a revolutionary in the making. I really admire the precision displayed to make every moment of screen time count for each character – every line of dialogue, every furtive glance, every subtext-laden exchange. For me, it’s a master class in writing and character development. (And who can deny those fabulous costumes? Maggie Smith’s hats are particularly amazing.)