I recently joked with my wife that if 'Seinfeld' were less funny and more British it would be 'Downton Abbey'. At times it was commendable how much nothing they were able to fit into every episode. As season four drew to a close, forgetting its silly season three finale-wannabe-cliffhanger, we watched as the Carson (Jim Carter) and Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) frolicked on the beach with the rest of the help, fade to black.
After reflecting on the final episode of season four, the waves lapping at the feet of Carson and Mrs. Hughes, I couldn't help but think it's a perfect metaphor for how I feel about this show. It's there. It does its thing. People walk around a house, have breakfast, attend dinner parties, walk around some more, attend socials, retire to drawing rooms, etc. And all I do is just stand there, letting it wash over me. Most of the time I feel ambivalent toward it. Sometimes a big wave comes in and splashes my legs a little, however, most of the time I'm just there. In the sand. Just watching the residents of Downton Abbey exist.
I have to admit though, season five dives right back into all the 'Downton Abbey' tropes I love to hate. Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) is becoming more and more aware of his obsolescence. An old-world aristocrat hanging on for dear life, as the world around him changes. He bemoans the new Labour government. He sulks around the house after being informed that the villagers would rather have Carson head one of their committees instead of him. His usefulness is disappearing, and he wears it on his face as much as he possibly can. Edith (Laura Carmichael) does the most Edith thing she possibly can and almost burns down the abbey while wallowing in her grief that she is indeed, Edith. Her bastard baby is being cared for by some townsfolk and Edith simply walks around with a glazed look just begging for the Edith Googly Eyes website to work its magic. Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and her general stiffness are still around, although she's now warming to the idea of 20th century ideas of sex before marriage and trying to get to know someone before you actually say yes to marriage. Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) is still skulking around in the shadows, gathering secrets, threatening to use them, getting stymied at every turn, then miraculously doing something that garners him enough goodwill that he sticks around longer than necessary. Carson's feathers are continuously ruffled. Mrs. Hughes has an uncanny ability to walk in on secret conversations, and taking that as an invitation to meddle. Molesley (Kevin Doyle) is still, generally, the most pitiful character ever created for TV. We first see him trying to dye his hair with what appears to be shoe polish. After he asks someone how old he looks. They respond that he looks 52. He sighs, dejected, he's only 51. Oh, Molesley. Is there no end to you're the terrible hand you've been dealt?
At this point I feel like I know each character of 'Downton Abbey' personally. Not because I like them, but because I spend so much time watching them do mundane things. Much like I know many people at work without really knowing them.
Yet, in all seriousness, there's something about the show that keeps me watching. I don't even hate-watch it either like I did with 'The Killing'. With so many shows out there that require long attention spans over vast seasons, 'Downton Abbey' allows me to slow down. To sit on the couch, curl up under a blanket, and watch other people live their lives. It doesn't rely – much – on cliffhangers to keep its audience interested. Instead we're drawn to the time period, the way it influenced people, the way things change slowly, but surely. I don't think I've ever encountered another show like it. That's fine though, watching more than one show about essentially nothing could very well become – gasp – boring.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Here we have a three-disc set, all discs are 50GB Blu-rays. The episodes vary in length from 49 minutes to 97 minutes for the season finale. Disc one contains three episodes, disc two has four, and the third disc has two. The discs are packaged into a standard keepcase with three disc hubs, one for each disc. The release comes with a slipcover.
As is common with 'Downton Abbey', the presentation is mostly great, but with some noticeable room for improvement. We're five seasons into 'Downton Abbey's Blu-ray releases, so I'm suspecting that this is just what it'll look like no matter what. That makes the presentation sound like it's all bad. It really isn't. For the most part, season five is packed with stunning detail, lush visuals, and a cinematic look.
Let's get the bad out of the way up front. The most noticeable distraction in the presentation is that many darker areas appear to have visible noise in them. This has been a problem that has plagued these discs as long as they've been coming out. This creates blacks that aren't completely black. Instead the noise is just noticeable enough that many shadows and black areas sometimes appear as really dark gray. This has just been something I've come to expect from these releases, even though every time a new one comes out I find myself hoping they've corrected the problem.
With that out of the way, most everything else looks tip-top. Fine detail is exquisite throughout. From the varied lace and velvet worn by the family, pressed whites of the servants, all fabric texture appears tangible. Outdoor scenes are marvelous too. There are scenes out in the village, or on the moors, with fog hanging in the air, which are breathtakingly beautiful. The detail in the grass, plants, trees, and flowers is perfectly lifelike. Colors pop too. Reds, purples, greens are all vividly shown. Even earthier tones are strong and resolute. Besides the black areas not being what they could be, the rest of the presentation is spot-on.
While season five's DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track may not be as one-dimensional as season four, it still has its issues. The biggest problem with the 2.0 track is that it doesn't have enough room for all of the important sound. This show is full of sound. The house is constantly busy, and all that sound is packed into two channels.
Once again, sound effects like clanging plates, people walking up and down stairs, and even the booming recognizable soundtrack, overshadow dialogue in many parts. There's just too much going on and not enough room for it all to come out true to life.
When there are little to no sound effects, or ambient sound going on around the characters, dialogue is solid. Once stuff starts moving around, plates start clanging, and footsteps start clomping then all bets are off. There are many times where voices are drowned out by sounds that would be much better served in a surround sound environment. If it's impossible to make 'Downton Abbey' a surround sound capable release, then prioritization of the show's varied sound needs to be looked at much more carefully.
'Downton Abbey's high-budget soap opera tactics have once or twice stimulated me as a viewer. Much of the time is spent watching rich people have various dinners and parties with each other. Many of the characters are so predictable in their actions that it's almost laughable. However, I can't stop myself from watching. There's something comforting about the show. I can't pin it down, but there you have it. The video is fine, except for a few rough patches. Again, the audio leaves much to be desired. Overall, I think season five is for fans only.