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Gwen photo

A show like “Downton Abbey,” which heavily emphasizes the differences between the classes, is bound to be political, but it isn’t always ideological.  Julian Fellowes, a Conservative Peer, really tips his hand in Sunday’s episode (Season 6, Episode 4) however.   I didn’t expect it, but he’s against big government, sympathetic to capitalism and in favor of upward mobility.  As Mary says, if you let enough monkeys type away they will eventually produce the bible, and if you let Baron Fellowes produce six seasons of television he will eventually deliver a good episode, and this is it.

Of course there’s a lot of inanity, starting with Mary whisking Anna off to London to get a stitch that will firm up her incompetent cervix and preserve her pregnancy, but for once the motivations of the characters seem to make sense.

The ideological underpinnings of the episode are stated plainly in the opening scenes, when the rematerialized Tom Branson explains that he returned from America because Downton was home, not because he disliked the Colonies. In fact, he admires American capitalism, where a man can start from nowhere and “go all the way to the top.”  Mary and the others acknowledge that such a thing is not possible in the UK (perhaps forgetting that Benjamin Disraeli, a middle class Jew became Prime Minister in the mid-19th century).

The ideological commentary continues, with Mrs. Patmore calling Daisy “Karl Marx” and “Madame DeFarge,” the fictional revolutionary and guillotine enthusiast  from “A Tale of Two Cities.”  With Sarah Bunting exiled because of her boorish table manners, the task of anti-aristocrat ranting has fallen to poor Daisy, who’s in a lather when she learns that the Crawleys want to manage the former Drewe farm (aka Yew Farm) themselves rather than give it to her father-in-law Mr. Mason.  She thinks – falsely – that Lady Grantham promised it to Mr. Mason and that this new decision is an example of the perfidy of the upper classes.

Daisy’s one of those revolutionaries who gets radicalized only when some perceived injustice affects her directly (unlike, say, Isobel Crawley, who’s a do-gooder even when she has no stake in the outcome.)  And like many revolutionaries, she concocts a narrative based on stray facts, weaving them together into a story that suits her ideological prejudices.  She had jumped to conclusions when Lady Grantham said she’d see what she could do for Mr. Mason, and when it turns out that she had jumped to the wrong conclusion, she blames Lady Grantham rather than herself.

In any event, Lady Grantham in fact does intervene on Mr. Mason’s behalf, convincing her husband and Tom to give him the farm even though they could make more money managing it themselves.  (What kills me about this scene is that after all the bold talk about female empowerment, this decision is made without any input from Mary, the actual agent.  Seems like her authority is in name only.)  Daisy knows none of this and, over the objections of her fellow servants, goes stalking upstairs to confront Lady Grantham even though she knows it might cost her her job.  However, thanks to one of those famous “Downton Abbey” coincidences the family has just that very minute decided to give the farm to Mr. Mason after all, and she has nothing to complain about.  She emerges from this near-confrontation is a daze; her certitude that Lady Grantham embodies the evils of the class system is upended and she doesn’t know what to think any more.  Don’t even try Daisy; cognition is just not working for you.

(By the way, the Crawley’s decision to let Mr. Mason take over the Drewe’s lease is decidedly NOT capitalistic.  Under a pure market economy, they would have maximized profits but out of a sense of noblesse oblige they decide to practice a form of social welfare.  This will not advance Mary’s campaign to leave a modern working estate to her son.)

Ideology turns out to be at the heart of the fight over control of the Downton Cottage Hospital.  All season long we’ve thought that the Dowager Countess’s objections to the takeover by the Royal Yorkshire Hospital were rooted in power dynamics but it turns out she has a deeper philosophical concern.  For months she’s been running around positioning this simply as a battle of personal will.  Finally she decides to turn a tea party into a Tea Party.  She sounds positively Thatcherite. Or Randian.  She’s practically a Goldwater Girl.

“For years,” Lady Grantham explains, “I’ve watched governments take control of our lives. And their argument is always the same. Lower costs and greater efficiency.  But the result is always the same.  Less control by the people. More control by the state until the individual’s own wishes count for nothing. … The point of a so-called ‘great family’ is to protect our freedoms. That is why the barons made King John sign the Magda Carta.”  Wow.  The Dowager Countess could be a commentator on Fox News.  Great Britain, of course, does have a national health service of the kind that Bernie Sanders supports and I’m sure the British viewers understood that this little diatribe was aimed at that particular government program, especially when the Dowager Countess concludes “Our great-grandchildren won’t thank us if we don’t fight.”

Even as the Dowager Countess is standing up to Big Government, we get another example of the virtues of American-style social mobility.  In what is perhaps the best scene in the entire six-season history of “Downton Abbey,” Gwen, the ambitious maid and Anna’s best friend from Season One, shows up at the house as the wife of the treasurer of a woman’s college (Rosamond is a Trustee at the school and wants Edith to also become a trustee there.)

All the servants recognize Gwen (as do “Game of Thrones” fans since Rose Leslie, the actress playing her is now better known as Ygritte on GOT) but none of the Crawleys know who she is since they never bothered to look at her face or learn her name when she was in their service.  She’s too embarrassed to tell the family she used to be their maid but Thomas Barrow, no stranger himself to outing, decides to expose her, asking her at lunch in front of the others if she remembers Mr. Carson.

ygritte

Here’s Rose Leslie (aka Gwen) as Ygritte on Game of Thrones

Thomas makes clear that his class resentment is based on envy.  Gwen has managed to rise above her station and achieve what he has desired for himself.  Rather than emulate her and learn a new skill, though, Thomas tries to take her down a notch and embarrass her in front of the luncheon guests.  But it explodes in his face, as Gwen is able to evoke the name of the now-dead, much beloved Sybil.

Gwen, you’ll recall, was Sybil’s maid; when she learned that Gwen had dreams and ambitions she helped her learn how to type and then got her a job at a telephone company.  No one but Tom knew that Sybil had done this but as Gwen rolled out the tale, they were all reminded again of Sybil’s many kindnesses and general saintliness.  The funny thing is that I was never really a fan of the goody-goody Sybil but found myself greatly affected by Gwen’s story of how she had been so kind and generous with her support.  For once, Baron Fellowes has written a genuinely moving scene.

Gwen’s story made all the Crawleys feel ashamed that they didn’t recognize her at first and that they don’t measure up to Sybil’s level of goodness.  It caused Lord Grantham to chew out Thomas for trying to embarrass Gwen and even made Mary reflect for a nano-second on whether her life of bitchiness is the best use of her talents.  In addition to a story of kindness it turned out to be a celebration of hard work, ambition and upward mobility – those American virtues which are generally not appreciated by the English aristocrats.

There’s even an element of self-made accomplishment in Mary’s putative new suitor, the race car driver Henry Talbot, who made his appearance at the end of last season.  Will everyone who was surprised to see him show up again please raise your hands?  I didn’t think so.  It turns out that he’s the nephew of Lady Shackleton, who was summoned to Downton by the Dowager Countess to lend some moral support in her hospital consolidation battle.  Given that Lady Shackleton has no opinion or knowledge of rural medical issues, it’s clear that her role in this episode is merely to provide a convenient vehicle to bring Henry Talbot back into the plot.

Alas, he’s a younger son and about 40 healthy men would have to drop dead before he’d inherit a title so he needs to support himself.  Which he does through car racing and automotive enthusiasm.  But is that enough for Mary? The Dowager Countess doesn’t think so.  “Mary needs more than a handsome smile and a hand on the gear stick,” she advises, and as we know from her dalliances with Prince Kuragin, she knows who a gear stick is used for.

I made this point last year, but you’d think that a woman who lost a husband to fast driving would run screaming from someone who earns a living from car racing, but no, Mary is apparently attracted to danger.  Anna’s near miscarriage is a good excuse to scoot to London, where she meets Talbot for dinner a few days later.  “I hope this means you’re boiling up to make a pass before we’re done,” she challenges him. “Probably,” he concedes. “But will you accept?” “No, but I shall enjoy the process immensely.” Ah, Mary, you tease.

So Edith had a suitor last week, and now Mary has her own suitor again, so we seem to be headed for at least one or two more weddings before the series ends, because we definitely can’t end the series without resolving the question presented to us in the very first episode of the series: who will Mary marry?  My real question is whatever happened to Mr. Blake, the very eligible suitor from Season 4 and 5.  He must be finished with that Polish post by now, can’t he?

One thing I am pretty certain about is that Mary will not marry Tom, even though they seem so suited to each other.  She calls him a “brother,” which would make their hook-up incestuous.  She also tells him at one point to “please yourself.”  So yes Tom, please yourself.

Some other thoughts:

  • With the soon series headed to that great rerun factory in the sky, I always assumed we’d have a few marriages and at least one death to wrap things up.  And I’d assumed that the Dowager Countess, who’s about 110 at this point, would be the one to pop off.  But we keep hearing about his Lordship’s indigestion — he can’t even drink Port any more so you know this is serious.  Can we please get to the point of this? Last year the same symptoms turned out to be an ulcer.  Let’s not drag this out.  And if he does die, that means that little George becomes Lord George, because he’s the heir to the earldom, which would put Mary in complete charge of the estate since she owns a third of it outright and would then have control of the other two-thirds until George reached his majority.  How that fits in with her getting married again I don’t know.
  • In any event, I’m beginning to think we should call this season Four Weddings and Funeral.  If the chest-clutching Lord Grantham does kick the bucket we’ve got our funeral.  We’ve already had the Carson wedding, and it looks like the Crawley girls will get married, so we only need one more to reach that goal.  Andy’s looking rather fetchingly at Daisy and declaring his intention to live in the country.  Maybe at Yew Ram with Daisy and Mr. Mason?
  • There seems to have been a general rethinking of the Robert Crawley character this year.  A few seasons ago he was blowing fortunes left and right and spewing anti-Catholic venom but now he’s a kindly gent, somewhat wiser – a sure sign that they’re setting him up for a premature send-off.
  • The Carsons are back from their honeymoon.  I hope his performance while on the road was better than his namesake, Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer, who finished the night with four interceptions and two fumbles.  By the smile on Mrs. Hughes’ face we have to assume that all of Mr. Carson’s attempts were completions.
  • But why must the new Mrs. Carson continue to be called Mrs. Hughes?  We are led to believe that the Crawleys are so dim and privileged that can’t get used to a different name, but I suspect that Julian Fellowes believes that it’s US, the loyal viewers, who can’t get adapt to a change at this late date.
  • Hillcroft School, where Gwen’s husband is the treasurer, is a real school for women.  According to their website  it was founded in 1920.
  • They should just give Sgt. Willis credit as a main character given how much he drops by. Now he’s after Baxter to testify against her seducer so they can put him away so he can’t ruin any other women, two of whom have already turned to a life of prostitution.  Mr. Bates is sardonically glad that for once Sgt. Willis is there for someone else.
  • But really, does Lady Grantham need to be dragged into every aspect of the servants lives?  For someone who supposedly doesn’t know the names of her own maids, she seems pretty preoccupied with their doings.  She’s involved in Mrs. Hughes’ wedding attire, Daisy’s in-law problems, the Bates’ legal issues and now she has to have an opinion on whether Baxter should testify? I thought servants were supposed to make your life easier.
  • “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Moseley’s hackneyed observation is attributed to Edmund Burke but was popularized around 1920 (see quoteinvestigator.com here) so this is not the anachronism that I first thought it was.
  • The dysfunction in the Bates marriage continues.  Anna continues to keep secrets from him, after once promising to have an honest marriage.  She refuses to tell him she’s pregnant until the London doctor puts in his baby-saving stitch.  He’s not a dope.  He can tell something’s going on. If the point of the secret is to save him from anxiety, it’s obviously not working.
  • Where are the staff layoffs that Lord G talked about at the beginning of the season?  It seems like Barrow’s job is the only one that’s on the line.  And Lord G isn’t even pretending to conceal it from him any more.
  • Will Mr. Mason become a pig farmer?  And if not, who will manage Mary’s fat stock empire?
  • This is a real question for any of readers who understand British idioms.  Why do the characters always talk about going “up” to London when York is north of London.  Wouldn’t it make sense to for the refer to London as “down”?
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the-grinder

The situation comedy is arguably the most ancient and lucrative genre of television programming.  “I Love Lucy” was the original “Must-See TV” show — and in the decades that followed, some of the biggest hits on TV (“The Andy Griffith Show,” “All In The Family,” “The Cosby Show,” and “Seinfeld”) have been sitcoms that went on to make hundreds of millions in syndication.

In recent years, though, the traditional network sitcom has fallen on hard times.  In 2014 Grantland’s Andy Greenwald proclaimed the “death” of the sitcom — and you could see where he was coming from.  There had been no recent sitcom hits (only the aging “Modern Family” and “The Big Bang Theory” were sitcom successes back then) and the sitcoms that networks were trotting out were unoriginal and formulaic.

Of course, excluding football and awards shows, all network genres have suffered as viewers have migrated to cable and streaming services. But the sitcom was hit particularly hard, since networks seemed unable to develop shows with broad comedic appeal.  Most of the comedic action had moved to darkly misanthropic shows like FX’s “Louie,” HBO’s “Girls” and Amazon’s “Catastrophe,” or to situations where there was plenty of swearing, as in HBO’s “Veep.”

In that regard, it was a sad day in 2012 when the formerly formidable NBC announced its determination to focus on series with “broader appeal” instead of idiosyncratic shows like “Parks and Recreation” and “Community.”  Not surprisingly, NBC then passed on the adorable “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” which ultimately became a hit on Netflix.

Also not surprisingly, I literally have no idea what NBC now offers on Thursdays nights. I had to go online to discover that the schedule is now full of forgettable dramas — so forgettable that even though I just looked them up, I can’t at the moment recall what they were.

So I was a little surprised when I recently looked at my DVR playlist and noticed I had somehow managed to cobble together a decent-sized list of network sitcoms that our family watches on a regular basis.  New shows  like “black-ish,” “The Grinder” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” are hilarious and would be suitable for my wife and me to watch with both my parents and my son.  Add old standbys like “Modern Family” and recent standbys like “The New Girl” and we can, through judicious recording and playback, watch at least one decent sitcom every night.

Granted, that is a very low bar: there was a time in the very recent past when NBC offered four classic shows (“The Office,” “30 Rock” etc.) on Thursday nights alone.

And granted, except for “Modern Family” none of the shows I watch are mega-hits.  Some of them are just hanging on, but they do demonstrate that network television can still provide a platform for solid content.

I’d like to think that the economics of network television will ultimately favor the perpetuation of quality television shows over those hack three-camera jokefests that seem to be churned out an assembly line.  For starters, given the costs of launching a new TV show, it doesn’t make sense to use a quick hook on a low-rated new program, since its replacement will be equally expensive and might perform just as poorly.  Once a network has sunk a fair amount of money in a pilot, a marketing campaign and a set amount of episodes, it’s better to see if it can build an audience eventually.  This works to the benefit of a series like “The Grinder,” which has a quirky sensibility that grows on you over time.

Another advantage of developing high-quality sitcoms is that they have a longer afterlife once the series has retired from network TV.  Although the syndication market is not as lucrative as it once was, a show with loyal viewers is more valuable than a show that people watch just because they can’t find anything better.  Good shows that stand out are even more valuable to streaming services, because viewers need to actively seek out a show on Netflix or Hulu.

I’m not naïve enough to imagine that the network sitcom will ever return to its glory days of the ‘80s and ‘90s, but I’m hoping that the recent arrival of a few good shows is the precursor to a “sitcom spring.”

I’m not asking for a lot — just a handful of funny shows that my wife and I can watch together before we head off to our respective computers every night.

Carson Hughes wedding

Any question that the Democratic National Committee wanted to discourage voters from watching its presidential debates was pretty much settled on Sunday when they scheduled one at 9:00 on Sunday, directly opposite the season’s third episode of “Downton Abbey.” The core audience for “Downton” – women of a certain age – are also Hillary Clinton’s strongest voting bloc so it must have been an agonizing choice for liberal households up and down the East Coast as they tried to decide whether to take their medicine and watch the debate, or just treat themselves to a well-deserved glass of wine and snuggle in to catch up on the Crawley shenanigans.

Regardless of which option they chose, they got a lesson in politics. Why, there’s Thomas Barrow on a job interview with Sir Michael Reresby, the dotty lord of the disused Dryden Park, who looks like Bernie Sanders on a good day. “Are you a Republican?” his Lordship asks in alarm. “I can’t risk a Republican in this household when anyone could call.”  I’m sure there’s many a “Downton” viewer who has said the same thing.

Of course being a Republican in Britain means almost exactly the opposite of what it does over here. A British Republican is someone who wants to dismantle the monarchy and the entire aristocratic rigmarole. We know that Baron Fellowes is not a Republican; if he were he wouldn’t have accepted that baronetcy. But more tellingly is the extreme sympathy we are meant to feel for this old coot.

Sir Michael is a figure of pity: his two sons dead in the war; his wife, a former lady-in-waiting to the Duchess of Cornwall, also dead; attended only by a single servant; living in squalor in a huge drafty house; and essentially losing his marbles. He’s got enough sanity for one Stephen Sondheim-like reverie though: “You know what I remember? The women going up to their rooms at the end of the evening. Their faces lit from the flame from their candle … their diamonds twinkling as they climbed up into the darkness.” You can imagine Baron Fellowes writing those lines with a quill as the tears streamed down his face.

There did used to be one real Republican on the show: Tom Branson, the former political firebrand. Remember how he spent two seasons moaning about how Downton could never be his home because of his low origin and then embarked on an extended farewell tour at the end of last year? Remember that? Well forget it. All it took was six months in Boston to convince him that Downton actually is his home. Branson has always suffered from a weakness of character (e.g., fleeing the police in Ireland and leaving his pregnant wife to deal with the authorities; letting Lord Grantham dictate the terms of Sibyl’s disastrous medical care; letting himself get seduced by a conniving house maid, etc.) This return from Boston is another example of that; he’s like a college freshman who doesn’t like his roommate and wants to quit and go to the local community college. His explanation channels Dorothy at the end of “The Wizard of Oz”: “I had to go all the way to Boston to learn that Downton is my home and that you are my family.”

So what was all that Branson angst about last year? I had assumed that the actor playing him – Allen Leech – had wanted out of the series like so many actors before him, but apparently the “Tom-wants-to-leave-Downton” plot was just a way to fill screen time. And what is Tom going to do now that he’s back? Mary’s got his old job as land agent (although you’d never know it given how much time she has to meddle in the servants affairs.) The coming attractions suggest that he will face an existential quandary as he tries to carve out a new role for himself. That’s something you think he’d have worked out before his impulsive return.

And that return is staged in exactly the kind of way that drives me the craziest about this show.   Without a word of advance warning – no telephone call, no telegram, nothing – he waltzes into the Carson/Hughes wedding at the exact moment that Carson is making a charming speech on behalf of his bride. He steals the limelight away from the happy couple – in the end, Mrs. Hughes’ bridal day is not about her after all. It was just like Bates materializing at last year’s Christmas party and Matthew returning from the war during a concert. No one ever thinks to call ahead.

Branson’s timing was particularly inopportune because the Carson/Hughes wedding (and we’ll call her Mrs. Hughes throughout this recap, even though she is now Mrs. Carson) was the highlight of the season so far.   The machinations it took to get us to this point were a bit wearisome, though, and demonstrated a degree of interest by the aristocrats in the lives of the downstairs staff that was probably historically inaccurate.

For three episodes now we have struggled over the question of where to hold the wedding reception. Mrs. Hughes wants a fun blow-out party with their friends but Lady Mary, as willful as ever, wants to honor Carson’s long service to the household by throwing him a ritzy do in the Downton great hall. Lady Mary appears to have the upper hand because Carson can’t/won’t say no to her.

But after Mrs. Patmore puts a bug in her ear, Lady Grantham decides to trump Mary’s meddling with meddling of her own. She summons Mrs. Hughes to a meeting of all the Crawley Pooh-Bahs and makes her admit to the whole group that the wedding in the hall is not what she wants at all. It’s nice that the housekeeper feels confident enough in her station to publicly contradict her fiancé and embarrass the eldest daughter, but again, I bet that’s not the kind of thing that happened very frequently back then (or even now). Still, we have to recognize Lady Grantham’s actions for what they were – a dangerous form of interference. Who knows what kind of rift might have been caused between Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson by that little stunt.

Having preoccupied themselves with the location of the wedding reception, the Crawleys are not prepared to rest there. There’s also the matter of what Mrs. Hughes is going to wear. Now it’s Anna who puts a bug in Mary’s ear that Mrs. Hughes’s dress is yuck, and not having learned her lesson with the whole reception imbroglio, her ladyship takes it upon herself to offer Mrs. Hughes one of Cora’s house coats, without informing Cora beforehand. Cora flips out when she returns from her hospital meeting and finds the servants pawing through her things. She has a bit of a case – Mary couldn’t rouse herself to follow Cora out of the drawing room and give her a heads-up when she poked her head in. Nope, she stays planted in that chair knowing that Cora would find the dress-up party in full swing when she gets upstairs – and then has the nerve afterward to say she hopes Cora wasn’t “rude” to Mrs. Hughes.

Once everything is explained, Lady Grantham does the right thing and apologizes to Mrs. Hughes and gives her the housecoat to keep. Problem created and problem solved.

One problem that remains unresolved is what to do about the offer from the Yorkshire Royal Hospital to take over the Downton Cottage Hospital. Lady Grantham goes to get a little unauthorized due diligence and find out more about the Yorkshire offer. This leads to an explosive meeting of the Board at which accusations about personal motives fly back and forth. The reason this plot is so irritating is that it’s positioned only as a test of wills and a symbol of the struggle between change and stasis instead of a real issue. We never see any of the actual pro and con arguments: it’s just a repetitive ping pong of “local control” vs. “progress.” What did Lady Grantham learn on her trip? What exactly would a loss of local control really mean? We never learn these things.

In any event, it looks like Dr. Clarkson might be softening after Isobel blasted him for opposing the merger in order to save his position as “king of the place.” Only on “Downton Abbey,” where no one except Lady Mary holds a grudge, would a male professional absorb such a nasty personal attack and not stubbornly double down on his position.

The traditional male ego is on prominent display in the Lady Edith subplot, though. Mr. Fitch, her fat and obnoxious editor, can’t stand reporting to a woman, or so we are supposed to infer from his loud objections to her questions. But who knows? Once again this is an argument without substance. When she finally dismisses him it’s because of incompetence, not a philosophical conflict. He hasn’t done a good job of getting the next issue ready. So out goes Mr. Fitch and there’s nothing to be done except for Edith to roll up her sleeves and do it herself. Fortunately she has the help of a secretary and Bertie Pelham the land agent we met last year when the Sinderbys were renting Brancaster  I guess there was no editorial staff in the building the night before publication. Because that’s how magazine publishing works.

Bertie seems intent on becoming Edith’s new love interest. He was apparently so smitten by her that he forwardly asks her out for drinks one minute after running into her on the streets of London. He volunteers to help put out the magazine, working with her until 4:00 a.m. and then telling her she “inspires” him.   You don’t need an Ph.D in Downton Abbey-ology to see where this is going.

Some other thoughts:

  • The scenes where Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson, on the eve of their wedding, anxiously go to bed alone for the last time were two of the most heart-felt and real scenes ever shown on Downton. And no dialogue was necessary. Please Baron Fellowes – more showing and less telling!
  • I love how Mary accused her (American) mother of being a snob for encouraging Mrs. Hughes to have the kind of wedding she wanted. It takes one to accuse one.
  • Mary’s not content with simply mucking around in the Hughes/Carson nuptials. No, she’s already scheming to get the already pregnant Anna back to the London doctor who will treat her incompetent cervix.   Kind of a funny thing where Mary’s closest friend is her servant.
  • With the Carsons are married the path is clear for Edith and Mary. We are already three episodes into this season and not one Lord has come a’courting for Mary. How long can that last?
  • Daisy, Daisy, why are you always so impetuous? When she gets word that the Drewes have been driven off their farm she naturally assumes, based on some pretty vague murmurings from Lady Grantham, that Mr. Mason will be offered the tenancy. Not only does she tell Mr. Mason that the place is his, she brings him to the wedding so he can thank Lady G in person. To be honest I also thought this was done deal last week but Cora’s look implies that it might be iffy. After all, she’s not the land agent, is she?
  • Another touching moment occurs when the schoolmaster tells the autodidact Molesly that he “missed his vocation” and he replies, “I missed everything.”
  • This is the second time that Barrow has told someone “I suppose you’ll be glad to see the back of me,” and the second time I smirked at the (probably unintended) innuendo, especially after Andy replied, “If that’s what you want.” Yeah Andy, he wants you to see the back of him. He wants you to have a really good look.
  • Speaking of Barrow, we all remember when he cowardly allowed himself to get shot in the hand to escape trench warfare at the Western Front.  It has been one of my pet peeves since then that despite having a couple of metacarpals blown to bits he’s had no impairment in his hand.  So why is he all of a sudden wearing a bandage when he goes on his job interview?  Has he had a sudden relapse ten years later?
  • Uh-oh. Lord Grantham has “indigestion.” Didn’t we just go through this at the end of last season when we thought he had a heart problem? No one on “Downton Abbey” even burps without it turning into a medical emergency. I suppose he’ll have to go to the Yorkshire hospital for treatment to learn the value of consolidation.
  • All of a sudden Denker is Miss Marple, sussing out that Sprat is hiding his fugitive nephew in the potting shed? (Yawn.)
  • As usual, The Dowager Countess gets all the funny lines. My favorite: “A peer in favor of reform is like a turkey in favor of Christmas.” And I actually laughed out loud when she explained why she didn’t want to stick around and say hello to Cora, while brandishing her umbrella like a light saber: “I have a feeling that we will be saying hello much less than en garde.”

Marigold and Drewes

Warning: major spoilers ahead regarding jarred horseradish and fat stock shows .

There are two great themes on “Downton Abbey”: gender conflict and the iniquities of the class system.  “Downton” started out as a meditation on class but with a an increasingly female-skewing audience it slowly morphed into a series about women asserting their rights in a changing world.  But the exploitation of the working class was back in full force in this second episode of the final season, perhaps even more vividly than Julian Fellowes intended.

Baron Fellowes is so enamored by the Crawleys that I wonder if he really understands how thoroughly he just exposed them as privileged, selfish monsters.  After what they’ve just done to the Drewes, how are we supposed to admire them or think of them as anything other than parasites?  And I’m not just reacting to the discovery that they are still requiring the servants to iron the newspapers before they read them.

Let’s review the sad story of the Drewes, who have been working the land at Downton since before Waterloo: Edith got herself knocked up, went to Switzerland to give birth in secret and left her daughter with a nice Swiss couple.  She changed her mind and stole the daughter back, convincing the very kind Mr. Drewe to adopt her and keep her close to Downton.  But that wasn’t not good enough, so she stole the child a second time and brought her to live at Downton itself. But no one is supposed to know it’s her actual daughter — especially not Mary.

All of that is bad enough, but now it transpires that Mrs. Drewe bonded with dear Marigold when she was in her care and became slightly unhinged when she was stolen away.  When the Downton children are brought round to see Mr. Drewe’s prize pigs, Mrs Drewe can’t help but scooping up Marigold into her arms and re-bonding with her.  Cora’s immediate response is that the Drewes will have to move out of the area before Mrs. Drewe spills the beans on Edith and Marigold, but Lord Grantham, in one of his periodic fits of decency, resists.

But even Lord Grantham can’t save the Drewes when there’s a second episode.  At a local agricultural fair, Edith lets Marigold wander off and Mrs. Drewe takes her home, stealing her back for a few moments of super-intense cuddling.  Well, that seals their fate.  After having done Edith the enormous favor of adopting Marigold in the first place and then having done the extra-special favor of not ratting her out when she came calling for the baby, the Drewes are sent packing without a second thought.  Edith and Cora coldly declare that it’s “for the best” and even Lord Grantham for all his supposed decency doesn’t intervene to suggest that maybe Edith and Marigold are the ones who should leave for London, as they plainly intend to do anyway.

It’s enough to make you think Daisy is right when she spouts some Sixties gibberish about Cora: “It’s the system’s fault and she’s part of it.”  Daisy, of course, is in a lather because her father-in-law Mr. Mason is about to be evicted from his tenant farming gig in the neighboring estate (we’re sure learning a lot more about tenant farming than we ever expected to on this show).  In the neat and tidy way that things work out in the “Downton” universe it seems like the Drewes loss will be Mr. Mason’s gain, since their departure occurs at the precise moment Mr. Mason needs a farm.  I have a feeling that Daisy’s outrage about the system won’t extend to the treatment of the Drewes since Mr. Mason will benefit from it.

But what’s most appalling about the Drewe’s situation is that Mr. Drewe will not fight for his family.  He’s such a caricature of the loyal yeoman farmer that he self-evicts himself before Lord Grantham has the chance to do the deed.  He seems not to realize he has a very significant card to play – he knows Lady Edith’s secret and could threaten to reveal it pushed.  It is possibly historically accurate that the tenants, servants, and townspeople would be so deferential to the Crawleys that they would sacrifice their own happiness to satisfy every whim from the big house, but Mr. Drewe’s extreme self-sacrifice seems a bit extreme.

Mr. Drewe is not the only one who cannot stand up to the Crawleys.  Mr. Carson is so in thrall to them that he can’t refuse their offer to host the Carson/Hughes wedding reception in the big hall.  And here we have another example of class conflict.  Mary Crawley, in her role as the grand lady benefactor, insists that the reception be at Downton even though Mrs. Hughes has declared that she wants to have a reception someplace where the happy couple, not the Crawleys, are the center of attention.

Hughes Carson

You don’t have to be a bridezilla to want to plan your own wedding and I suspect that Mrs. Hughes will get her way eventually, but I hope Julian Fellowes doesn’t drag this out too long because this is one of those low-consequence conflicts (like the squabbling between the Dowager Countess’ servants) that takes up too much time on “Downton.”

Lady Mary (“Your reception will be in the big hall if it’s the last thing I do”) sets in motion many of the plots this week.  It was her suggestion to bring George and Marigold down to the Drewes that started that row of dominoes tumbling, and of course her insistence on throwing the wedding reception is the source of conflict among Mr. Hughes and Mrs. Carson.  She’s just blithely going on her way causing chaos without knowing it.

Mary’s at the center of the Bates’s plot too.  She and Anna are like sorority sisters in Mary’s bed chamber, each confidentially exchanging their reproductive secrets.  When Anna pronounces that she can’t have children Mary agrees to spring for a free visit to her doctor on Harley Street.  After all, this guy miraculously cured Mary’s own infertility so certainly he can do the same for Anna.  I’m not sure it’s wise for Baron Fellowes to refer back to previous medical cases on this show because they involve some of the most ridiculous aspects of the whole series: Mrs. Patmore was blind until she wasn’t; Mathew was crippled and impotent until he wasn’t; Mrs. Hughes had breast cancer until she didn’t; Lord Grantham had a heart problem until he didn’t.  All it takes to solve a medical problem on this show is for Fellowes to wave his wand and it goes away.

In any event, off go Mary and Anna to the doctor, who diagnoses a case of “cervical incompetence,” which despite the absurd name turns out to be a real condition. Huh, one point for Baron Fellowes for identifying a real condition and a real treatment (read about it here).  Apparently all the doctor needs to do is put a stitch in the neck of the womb when Anna’s 12 weeks pregnant and that will do the trick.

What I don’t like about this plot is that Anna and Bates are supposed to have an ideal marriage but they still keep so many secrets from each other.    You’d think Anna would have learned to trust her own husband but she can’t help herself.  The visit to the doctor is secret, as were her first two miscarriages, her rape, her previous criminal record, etc., etc.  Of course Mr. Bates doesn’t help his case by spouting dialogue that would be cringe-worthy in even the sudsiest fem-weepie: “Being married means you don’t have to cry alone.”  For all the lovey-dovey talk, the Bateses have one of the most dysfunctional relationships on the show.  Each one jumps to conclusions about what the other wants and acts accordingly, and they’re at the point now where you can never be sure when one of them is actually telling the truth.  Witness that discussion about adoption: can we really believe what either of them is saying?

Marital secrets figure into the hospital consolidation plot too.  For some reason Lord Grantham decides he should not invite his wife to a rump meeting of the hospital board even though she’s a trustee.  I’m not even sure what was the point of that secret meeting other than to give Fellowes an opportunity to rehash the countervailing arguments for any dim viewers who might be in the audience.  Cora eventually finds out about the meeting, and is surprisingly not as pissed as she should be, but this only gives us a chance to hear the arguments repeated a second time during a tour of the hospital.

I barely have the energy to type these words since the hospital plot is so enervating. It’s obviously a ruse to create a conflict between Isobel and the Dowager Countess that will replicate some of their sparks from earlier conflicts in the series.  So far, at least, the logical arguments all seem to be in favor of consolidation.  They’ll get better medical equipment and access to the latest quack theories of the medical establishment.  At least that’s the theory of Isobel, Cora and Merty.  Merty himself makes the very good case that the Crawleys themselves would never be treated in that hospital so why should the people of the village be expected to live with such substandard care?

There may be a good fact-based argument for keeping local control of the hospital and the Dowager Countess and Dr. Clarkson advocate, but we haven’t hear it.  Instead we get this lame plea from Dr. C to Lady G: “I wish we could persuade you to help stem the tide of change.”   If Dr. Clarkson had his way, they’d still be using leeches to cure pneumonia.

I can’t imagine how this plot will continue any longer although I expect that it will.  Lord Grantham keeps dithering, hoping that the situation will sort itself out.  Little does he know that this conflict will not abate until Julian Fellowes himself decides that he’s had enough; and if the murder case against Anna taught us anything, it’s that he has enormous patience for protracted sluggish plots.

Some other thoughts:

  • I was surprised that the one funny line of the show was a semi-smutty one.  When Mr. Bates, unaware that Anna was headed to London to see a gynecologist, told her to rest and put her feet up, Anna responded, “I’ll put my feet up.”
  • Are we supposed to feel sorry for Thomas, who’s looking more vampiric as the series progresses?  After he’s wreaked havoc on the downstairs staff these past five seasons no one likes him except the saintly Baxter.  Well, what did he expect? All all, “whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.”  His crush on Andy is unreciprocated – not surprisingly Andy doesn’t want to get private lessons on how to wind the clocks, since he’s undoubtedly worried about exactly whose clock will get wound.  Mr. Carson doesn’t discourage him from looking for another position, but when he goes on a job interview the head butler has remarkable gay-dar and takes an instant dislike to him.   This is another plot that seems to be going nowhere.
  • Since when has Mrs. Hughes been jealous of Mr. Carson’s affection for Lady Mary?  Now all of a sudden it’s a thing.
  • The whole point of forcing the Drewes to leave is to keep Mary from learning about Marigold’s maternity, but what is she going to think when her prize-winning pigman disappears without a good explanation?  I wonder if they’ll take Golden Empress with them and really break Mary’s heart once and for all.
  • Mary doesn’t make a very credible agent.  Does she think the job consists exclusively of meeting tenants in the drawing room and approving livestock entries in local fairs?  If she were a true agent and really minding the store she wouldn’t be jaunting off to Haley Street with her lady’s maid every time there’s a case of cervical incompetence.
  • Edith’s not having much luck getting her way with the managing editor of her magazine.  The problem here is that we don’t know whether she is being unfairly dismissed because she’s a woman or if her ideas are actually lame.  Given the high number of female viewers of the show, I imagine we will see Edith’s vision vindicated as she emerges as a flapper Katherine Graham. I think it’s a bit lazy, though, for us not to be able to judge for ourselves whether her ideas are any good.
  • Merty is getting more obsequious every episode.  He’s even mailing his own letters in hopes of bumping into Isobel in the street so he can curry her favor.  What is that spell she casts?  The same spell that the Dowager Countess cast on Prince Kuragin or that Cora cast on Mr. Bricker.  They must all share some kind of special Downton pheromones.
  • I’m not sure of the ethics of Moseley obtaining the previous examination papers for Daisy so she can study for her test.  Morally I guess it’s the same as reviewing previous SAT tests, which is at the heart of SAT prep classes everywhere.  Sill if it were truly ethical, Moseley wouldn’t be skulking around with them.
  • Still no sign of any suitors for Mary and Edith, but there is a hint of that in next week’s coming attractions.

PS. Last week I questioned whether Mr. Mason had actually been a tenant farmer or an actual landowner.  Turns out that in Season Three he was introduced as a tenant of Downton — not at the neighboring estate.  So my memory on that was off, but not as off as Julian Fellowes, who, after all, wrote the thing.

downton abbey pic Barrow

The dawn of the so-called Golden Age of Television has brought many pleasures — but none as unexpected as the rise of “hate-watching.”

Hate-watching is that counterintuitive phenomenon in which viewers watch TV shows they mostly dislike for the sheer pleasure of criticizing them, either through Twitter, snarky comments, or just inward groaning.

You wouldn’t think that better TV would lead to more hate-watching — but with the industry offering more than 400 scripted shows this season, there are bound to be more than a few that hit that sweet spot of “good enough to be watchable but not good enough to be taken seriously.”

More important, the increase in quality programming has raised the bar for all shows that want to stand out. As recently as 20 years ago, a routine procedural like “Law and Order” could be nominated for an Emmy, but last year even shows as great as “The Americans” and “Justified” were left out. This increased pressure to develop outstanding television has some showrunners reaching for a level of sustained quality that exceeds their grasps.

Hate-watching is on my mind now because of the launch of the final season of “Downtown Abbey,” which I’ve been hate-watching and blogging about for several years. My wife, who bailed on the series after only three episodes into Season One, can’t understand why I would spend any time at all watching a show I find so objectionable. And yet there I was last night, going out of my way to watch it live and then complain about it all evening.

It’s important to note that hate-watching is different from watching a guilty pleasure. The latter is a show you actually enjoy even though you know you shouldn’t — one whose appeal you feel like you have to explain. You might, for example, think that “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” is a lot of fun, but feel like you’re slumming whenever it’s on. That’s a guilty pleasure. In contrast, by its very definition hate-watching is following a show you don’t really like.

The origins of hate-watching go back to Comedy Central’s “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” which ran for six seasons in the 1990s. This show, in which characters watched and made hilarious comments about cheesy sci-fi movies, showed how much fun it could be to watch bad content.

Hate-watching television is different from hate watching bad genre movies, though. The true hate-watching experience on TV usually involves a prestige show that has failed to live up to its early expectations. Like say, “Glee,” Smash,” “House of Cards,” or anything by Aaron Sorkin. I suspect that by the end of its most recent season, most of its remaining viewers were actually hate-watching “True Detective.” These are shows that are trying to produce quality TV, and maybe even think they’re succeeding. They’ would usually be better as outright spoofs because they are undone by their own seriousness and lack of self-awareness.

In other words, hate-watchable shows straddle that fine line between quality and parody. They are just good enough to watch — and are sometimes even weirdly compelling — but ultimately fail the test of creating true-to-life characters or believable plots.

Television is especially susceptible to hate-watching because of the unique challenges in creating a multi-episode, multi-season work of art. Sometimes the writers just doesn’t have enough original ideas or insights to sustain more than a few hours of content and have to resort to recycled or farfetched plots to keep the show going.

That was the fate of “Downton Abbey,” which had a decent first season and even made some interesting observations about class and gender roles in early 20th century Britain. But the show quickly devolved into a glossy soap opera, with storylines on amnesia, false murder accusations, convenient deaths — and worst of all, no serious consequences for any particular financial or health-related reverse.

And yet, as much as I like to complain about “Downton” (and about “Glee” before it), I still watch because I somehow became attached to the characters and want to see what happens to them. Nobody sets out to make a show that’s hate-watched, but developing decent characters is the key to sustaining a hate-watching audience even when an admiring audience has deserted a show. For example, a lack of affinity for the people in “House of Cards” explains why I went from “hate-watching” to “not watching” at the beginning of Season Three.

The reviews suggest that “Downton Abbey” is better this year. I hope so, because I’d rather “pleasure-watch” than “hate-watch.”  I’m not optimistic, though. If it suddenly became a serious drama, it would lose half its audience. No, I think I’m resigning myself to a final season of snark.

Downton fox hunt

Warning on spoilers:

From the very first scene of the very first episode – with the sinking of the Titanic – “Downton Abbey’s” great theme has been change and the coming collapse of the Downton way of life.  For five seasons we’ve heard Mr. Carson whining about eroding standards and it looks like Season Six will be no different – why they used to have six upstairs maids and five footmen but now they only have two of each!

Unsurprisingly. the first episode of this final season makes this theme explicit.  It begins with a fox hunt – the very embodiment of the power of the landed aristocracy – and ends with the sale of a neighboring great house and the auction of its contents.  An era is ending — will the Crawleys be able to avoid that fate?

While the world of “Downton Abbey” may be changing, “Downton Abbey” the TV show remains completely the same.  It’s the same mix of lame plots, snarky bon mots, beautiful costumes and set decoration as it’s always been.

I had half hoped that Julian Fellowes, finally freed from the constraints of keeping the series going indefinitely, would go for broke and try some something different – like an original story – but what we get instead are a bunch of regurgitated plots lines from previous seasons. Mary’s being blackmailed for a sexual tryst?  Edith’s trying to decide whether to move to London?  There’s a fight over the future of the local hospital?  A lower-class female agitator blasts a rich land owner? Anna and Bates are still suspected of killing Mr. Green the raping valet? The Dowager Countess’ servants are at each other’s throats? Been there done that.

I have a little bit of sympathy for Fellowes – there are so many characters who must be given their due in each episode and there are so many episode-specific plots and season-long narratives to keep track of that many of these stories are bound to be compressed into unsatisfactory sketches or stretched out far too long.  Worse, Fellowes doesn’t trust his audience to comprehend a major theme if he simply dramatizes it, so he has the characters repeatedly explain it.

So what are our themes this episode?  Well first, as noted, the show forecasts the impending end of the “Downton” way of life.  Not only do we have the specter of the neighboring house being auctioned, but we also have Lord Grantham speculating about cutbacks in the household staff, which makes every under-butler and chambermaid nervous.  As well it should. We all remember that when Mr. Mosley lost his job in the LAST wave of cutbacks he ended up as a day laborer on a road crew.  In any event, in case we miss the point, here’s what Fellowes has the nearly bankrupt landowner say: “This life is over for us. It won’t come back. … I’m afraid we held on for far too long, and now there’s nothing left. Learn from us!”  Good advice, but isn’t that exactly what Lord Grantham’s good friend “Shrimpie” told him last year when he sold off his Scottish estate?

Another major theme is squeamishness about sex.  I had always assumed that Mrs. Hughes and Mrs. Patmore were widows but apparently they are virgin spinsters who have taken the title of “Mrs.” in order to reflect their senior position in the household staff.  In any event, when Mrs. Hughes accepted Mr. Carson’s marriage proposal it seems she didn’t take into consideration that she’d be expected to consummate the marriage. So now she’s hedging on the date until she can enroll in a Jazzercise class.  What would be believable is to find out that she’s frigid or has an aversion to sex, but no, her problem is that she thinks Mrs. Carson will be “disappointed” in her because she’s not a Playboy bunny. As if Mr. Carson is such an Adonis himself. So she sends Mrs. Patmore as her emissary to find out what his intentions are in that department.  Yeah, he wants it!  This scene is actually very sweet because he tells Mrs. Patmore that he loves Mrs. Hughes and wants to be as “close” as two people can be. So no living together as brother and sister. All this gets worked out in the end, as it always does on “Downton.”  But Elsie, I wouldn’t worry too much about performing those conjugal responsibilities too often.  Between the port drinking, all those decades of celibacy and his advancing age, I think it’s Mr. Carson who should be worried about disappointing his bride.

Downton patmore carson

Meanwhile, Mary is being blackmailed by Miss Bevan, a hotel chambermaid who deduced that she and Tony Gillingham took that test drive at the Liverpudlian Hotel last season. Mary, who’s used to being blackmailed (remember the case of Mr. Pamuk, the Turkish diplomat who died in her room?) is disinclined to pay but Miss Bevan keeps showing at the house up and demanding a thousand pounds. I know this story is supposed to underscore the era’s archaic and hypocritical attitude toward sex, but the plot is still pretty ridiculous.  What evidence can Miss Bevan have to prove this?  Didn’t they register under assumed names and in any event didn’t they have separate rooms?  Second, is Mary Crawley so famous that the papers would really expose her and risk getting sued themselves?  And third, didn’t the blackmailer understand she was exposing herself to criminal prosecution by being so blatant in her efforts?  Even Lord Grantham figured that out and negotiated the price of blackmail down to fifty pounds.

The other sex-related plot involves the poor Bateses, who just move from one sad story to another.  Once again, the characters talk about sex through inference and innuendo.  I think we are supposed to assume that Anna just had a miscarriage – the most recent of several actually – but at first viewing I thought she was just telling Bates that she’d been late with her period.    Either way, I will bet you fifty pounds that she delivers a healthy baby before the series ends and that we’ll learn that those fertility problems resulted from her anxiety over being a murder suspect.  And if that doesn’t work out, the Bateses can just ask Edith how to steal a baby.

The other great theme in this episode was female empowerment and I don’t just mean Mary Crowley refusing to ride sidesaddle. (Yep, she spread her legs to mount that beast.)  I couldn’t help but notice that almost all of the plots on this episode were set in motion by or dominated by women.  Why, here’s Mary announcing that she’s going to assume Tom Branson’s job as agent for Downton Abbey.  Oh really?  I know she did roll around in the mud once with Charles Blake, but are we really supposed to believe that she’s going to manage the day-to-day affairs of the estate, negotiate with the tenant farmers, decide what crops to plant, etc.  She wasn’t even street-smart enough to put Miss Bevan in a box, which her father did in five minutes.

Then we’ve got Edith, who’s planning to take over more responsibilities at the newspaper.  I seem to recall that she spent about two days last year acting as the on-site publisher before returning to Downton with Marigold.  There’s a word for what she is and that’s “dilettante.”  She’s lucky she has any asset left given there’s no one minding the store.  But she seems determined now to bring Marigold back to London, where people ask fewer nosy questions, and the paper seems a good excuse to do so.

We also have the spectacle of two ladies of a certain age –Isobel Crawley and The Dowager Countess – wrestling over the future of the local hospital.  Should they combine it with a bigger hospital in York to get better service, but give up control of their local institution?  Isobel says yes, The Dowager Countess says no.   I’m not sure why those two are the ones fighting it out since Lord Grantham is probably the real power on the board, but he’s apparently abdicated his role to them.  It’s also pretty clear that Cora’s going to get involved too, presumably to create a season-long conflict to give her, Isobel and the Dowager Countess something to do.

Another sign of Fellowes’ proto-feminism?  There are no marriage plots.  At least not in this episode.  As befitting a soap opera, much of Downton Abbey’s history has been driven – Jane Austen-like –by the question of who’s going to marry the daughters of the house. The final episode of last season introduced some new suitors for Edith and Mary but they did not show their faces this episode.  This lack of romance for the Crawley women cannot last long.  Edith and Mary can take all the jobs they want but this season is not going to be over until their romantic lives are settled one way or another.

Some other observations:

  • The most shocking plot development of this episode is that the murder of Mr. Green was not resolved before the opening credits.  This has been the single most vexing and preposterous plot of the entire series.  To recap: there has never been any evidence that either Anna or Mr. Bates had anything to do with the murder.  At the end of last season, the police dropped their trumped up charges and that was that. Or so we thought.  Yet once again this season the cops show up in the Downton servants’ quarters to update the Bateses on the case’s progress because she’s still not in the clear.  And even when another mysterious unidentified woman comes forward and confesses, that’s not good enough because she could have been making a false confession (well, to be fair, Mr. Bates did falsely confess himself so there’s a precedent).  So Anna spent all of last season in jail based on no evidence, but an actual confession by someone else is not good enough to close the case?  In any event, eventually another mysterious and unidentified witness  corroborates the story, which elicits the funniest (although probably the most unintentionally funny) line of the episode in this toast by Lord G:  “To British justice, the envy of the world.” Ha.  Tell it to the Irish.
  • That opening fox hunting scene is designed to show the aristocracy at play in all their glory, and it’s a fine scene considering the limitations of TV budgets.  For a much more exciting hunting depiction check out this clip from the movie “Tom Jones,” which is set about 150 years before the events in “Downton Abbey,” but does a better job of showing the blood lust and thrill of these rural romps.

  • Am I the only one who was under the impression that Mr. Mason, Daisy’s father-in-law, owned his own farm?  I thought the whole point of her being a minor heiress was that she’d inherit the place after he died.  But now it turns out that he’s a tenant farmer, working the land on the whim of the local Lord.  Some inheritance.
  • Speaking of Daisy, she almost never fails to do and say the wrong thing.   Having been radicalized last year by Miss Sarah Bunting, she is clearly going to be this season’s mouthpiece for the disgruntled underclass.  That’s fine, but what did she think she was accomplishing by mouthing off to the new landowner before he’d even made any decisions about whether to keep renting to existing tenants?  She’s not much smarter than Miss Bevan, the blackmailing chamber maid who’s also full of class resentment. The way these two woman are depicted shows that Julian Fellowes is stacking the deck against the underclasses by making them so unsympathetic.
  • Best throwaway line: “This is the room where I met Virginia Woolf.”  Well, I never knew that Michael Gregson hobnobbed in such literary circles.
  • Miss Bevan threatens to expose Mary’s scandalous past by going to News of the World, a real newspaper that was closed down during the Murdoch phone hacking scandals of 2011.  The threat to go to News of the World would have had a lot more meaning to British viewers than American, since it was a hugely read scandal sheet even when it closed.
  • What is Lord Merton doing on the hospital board?  Does he even live in the Downtown Cottage Hospital coverage area?  Last year at this time he’d never met Isobel Crawley, but now as her rejected suitor they’re serving on the same board and he’s trying to curry her favor by agreeing with everything she says.
  • Speaking of this hospital conflict, one thing that definitely rings true-to-life is the opposition to the merger by Dr. Clarkson.  If the hospital is swallowed up he’d have a diminished role in its operation and no medical bureaucrat likes that.
  • Tom and Sybbie are supposedly happily settled in Boston. But then why is Allen Leech, the actor who plays Tom, appearing in all the publicity roll-out that has assaulted us here in the U.S.?  We can only assume he’ll be back at some point.
  • I wasn’t exactly sure what role Isobel had at the hospital but I think she said “Almoner,” which Google tells me is the official who decides whether the poor should get free care.  That sure sounds like a staff position to me, so I don’t understand why she’s on her high horse at not getting advance warning about the impending takeover.  In any event, her high dungeon about the whole thing inspires the Dowager Countess’ best line: “Does it ever get cold on the moral high ground?”
  • Finally, it appears that Mrs. Hughes is a bit of a history scholar after all.  She correctly cites Oliver Cromwell as the originator of the phrase “warts and all.”

Crowd watching movie in theatre

Last year was a decent year for movies, with a nice mix of arty serious cinema, a few serviceable blockbusters and a good comedy or two. There was nothing as groundbreaking as last year’s “About a Boy,” but there were still quite a few good films, all of which seemed to premiere after Thanksgiving.

Some trends: this was a big year for “based on a true story” movies (Spotlight, The Big Short, Joy, etc.) and also a good year for rebooting old franchises (Star Wars, Jurassic World, Mission Impossible and Creed.) What’s next, Indiana Jones?

I avoided obviously violent movies, so once again: no Quentin Tarrantino. Also, no Revenant. I also avoided any movie based on a comic book character and movies where sexual confusion is an obvious theme. So this is an incomplete list.

In the end, I felt fortunate that I never saw any outright terrible movies. So again, this is an incomplete list.

With that as preamble, here are my rankings for the year.

1. Spotlight

I love movies about how people do their jobs and “Spotlight” is a nuts-and-bolts depiction about news reporting. The Boston Globe’s expose about child-abusing priests is probably the most consequential newspaper story of the past twenty years and although we know how it turns out “Spotlight” is surprisingly gripping. Great acting all the way around as we see the personal toll taken on anyone who loves his or her job a little too much.

2. Inside Out

Wildly inventive, if a little over-praised. I was bored in the middle as Joy had to overcome one obstacle after another (after all, in “The Hero’s Journey” there’s only one obstacle). However, the beginning and – especially – the end were deeply moving. I wish I’d seen this before becoming a parent because of all the wisdom it dispenses.

3. The Big Short

Certainly not a conventional movie since there’s no real plot, and it’s weird to root for the economy to collapse so some short-sellers can reap millions in profits. Yet this is the best take on the 2008 financial crisis and scary as crap. I can’t remember concentrating as hard to understand what’s actually going on in a movie as I did in The Big Short but the payoff is that I now know what a Collateralized Debt Obligation is.

4. Joy

This is the third movie made together by Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Robert DeNiro and David O Russell, and if it’s not quite as good as “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle,” it’s still pretty great. Joy sure has a lot of obstacles to overcome, starting with her soul-destroying family, but she’s got gumption, dagnabit, and she invents the Miracle Mop and becomes the queen of QVC.

5. The Martian

Matt Damon is a quintessential American hero – laconic, brave, resourceful. A actual space cowboy. This is another nuts-and-bolts “how to” movie, except this time the focus is how to stay alive on Mars when you’ve been left behind by your crew. As in “Inside Out,” there’s a little dragging in the middle but it has a thrilling start and finish.

6. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I’m not ashamed to admit I had a lump in my throat when that Star Wars title, the narrative crawl and the swelling of music first boomed forth. The good news is that it’s vastly superior to the prequels, but it doesn’t quite measure up to the original three. Great action, but too much of it. Love all the new cast and it’s fantastic to see the return of LukeLeiaHan. Unfortunately I don’t understand any of the geopolitical landscape. There’s a republic, a rebellion AND a First Order? I thought we settled all that in “The Return of the Jedi”?

7. Pitch Perfect 2

Actually funnier and more enjoyable than the original. We learn that real heroism can be demonstrated simply by plugging on after experiencing extreme humiliation. I’m happy to report that this is a female empowerment movie that didn’t feel that it had to be raunchy. Congratulations to Elizabeth Banks who appeared in three movies on this list but made a bazillion dollars producing and directing PP2.

8. Jurassic World

This is about all you can ask for in a summer blockbuster – excitement, awesomeness, an understandable and somewhat memorable plot. And Chris Pratt, who is suddenly and unexpectedly a major movie star. It is not as exciting as the Stephen Spielberg original but it does deliver a few chills. I don’t know if the movie’s retro gender politics are intentional or put in to build an audience but I can’t believe Sheryl Sandberg can be very happy about what happens to the female executive in this movie when she decides to lean in.

9. Brooklyn

It’s the late 1940s and a young Irish woman emigrates to Brooklyn, where she experiences loneliness, career satisfaction and ultimately love. A nice reminder that we’re a stronger nation because immigrants came here, found opportunity and worked hard to make their own contributions.

10. Love and Mercy

Better-than-usual musical biopic about Brian Wilson, in which Paul Dano and John Cusack play the younger and older version of the greatest Beach Boy. Terrific songs of course and a fascinating back story to the dynamics of the band and of Brian’s mental illness. Here we have the second of three co-starring roles for Elizabeth Banks this year.

11. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2

The darkest and most philosophically deep of all the major blockbusters this year, and not exactly fun. This series has been a prolonged meditation on terrorism, propaganda, tyranny and the evils of war. I don’t really understand Katniss’ taste in men, but I assume that’s a political statement by the (female) author. This is the hat trick for Elizabeth Banks.

12. Creed

Like “The Force Awakens” this is essentially a remake of a monster hit from the mid-1970s in which father issues are at the center of the conflict. Adonis Creed is Apollo’s son, who he goes to get trained by Rocky Balboa and you can imagine the rest. Another warm bath of nostalgia.

13. A Most Violent Year

The year in question is 1981. This is a little-heralded but excellent drama about a guy who wants to run a clean and legitimate trash hauling business but has to overcome the mob without resorting to violence himself. Oscar Issac, who went on to fame as the Han Solo-like pilot in “The Force Awakens,” is the brave and honest businessman and Jessica Chastain is the skeptical wife who wonders if he’s tough enough.

14. Bridge of Spies

Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and the Berlin Wall get together to produce an extremely old-fashioned drama about a lawyer who defends a spy and then negotiates a prisoner swap that gets two Americans sprung from the clutches of the communists. If Jimmy Stewart were alive he’d play the lawyer but Tom Hanks does a pretty good job too.

15. Amy

A harrowing documentary about the life of Amy Winehouse. Before this, I never knew anything about her except that Dave Letterman used to make jokes about her relapses. But what a talent and what a waste.

16. Trainwreck

Amy Schumer became the flavor of the month this year. She’s obviously extraordinarily talented, but I’ve reached the age where the crudeness of the comedy makes me cringe. Any you have to wonder if there’s self-loathing underneath all those fat and wasted jokes. The movie was pretty funny and LeBron was surprisingly good. Don’t look for a plot that makes sense, though.

17. Mr. Turner

Really should be on last year’s list but didn’t see it until this year. I never thought I’d be interested in seeing a biopic on the eccentric British painter J.M.W. Turner, but this was impressively evocative of life in the mid-19th Century.

18. Listen To Me Marlon

Absorbing documentary about Marlon Brando that relies heavily on audio tapes he’d made for an autobiography. The documentary convincingly makes the case that Brando was the most influential actor of all time.  He was also psychologically damaged as a child, which explains his extreme personal selfishness and support for a hodgepodge of left-wing political causes.

19. Mr. Holmes

I like the conceit – that Sherlock Holmes was a real person who retired for mysterious reasons and who is now forced to confront his past. There’s a nice mystery or two, and Ian McKellen is fine as Holmes but overall it’s a bit dry.

20.  Cinderella

A perfectly respectable live-action rendering of the old tale. Lily James, better known as Lady Rose on Downton Abbey, is nearly perfect as the title character and Cate Blanchett brings unexpected depth and pathos as the evil stepmother.

21.  71

Set during “The Troubles” of Northern Ireland in 1971, a British soldier gets separated from his unit in Belfast and needs to be rescued with the help of competing IRA gangs. I think. The action is a tense but it’s tough navigating the politics.

22. Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

Tom Cruise used to be a great actor, but unlike that other Tom (Tom Hanks), he’s refused to let himself age. He looks good in this movie, but weird, like he’s a cyborg. The movie itself has all the strengths and weaknesses of a big-budget blockbuster. It’s mildly diverting while it’s on the screen and completely forgettable when it’s over.

23.  Spy

Melissa McCarthy is funny as an under-appreciated CIA analyst who is awesome when she gets a chance to go into the field, but the movie is disconcertingly violent for a comedy. And crude too. Congratulations Paul Feig for getting an erect penis into a mainstream movie. Your mother must be so proud.

24. The Peanuts Movie

I’m a big Peanuts fan and this movie was big-hearted, but it was a little too low-key for a full-length feature film. Perfectly fine for kids – small kids.

25. Paddington

Another kids movie. Again, perfectly fine but a little too tame for my taste.