Just because something is acclaimed, it doesn't mean it's good. I believe that the accolades 'Downton Abbey' receives are made by comparison. Is it a great series? Not at all. But compared to other PBS Masterpiece Theatre programs, it's bloody brilliant.
It takes a lot for me to get into melodramatic period pieces like those made notorious by the BBC. Because of well-made ones like 'The Young Victoria' and 'Jane Eyre,' I've been a lot more open to them. But watching 'Downton Abbey' was a serious step backwards.
Please note that before sitting down (for nine hours) to watch the second season of 'Downton Abbey,' I was excited to jump into it. Mrs. Hickman loved the first season and I've heard so many great things about it that I was really looking forward to diving into season two feet first. But it didn't take long for me realize that 'Downton Abbey' is not one of the great ones, but one of those period piece dramas that I dread.
Season two picks up three years after season one ends. It's surprising how little you need to know about season one in order to watch two. I was prepared to frequently have to pause the show and have Mrs. Hickman explain the backstory, but that really wasn't the case. I only needed to do that three times during the first episode, and even then it was more to understand the relationships of the characters more than anything. Everything else is spelled out for you.
As my wife began laughing at unfunny jokes, I thought that I simply needed a monocle, a snifter of brandy, and peasant to belittle in order to find its jokes worth laughing at. But then I connected the dots and realized that 'Downton Abbey' is nothing more than the British equivalent of a soap opera, a 90-year hybrid prequel of 'Desperate Housewives' and 'Days of Our Lives.' The only laugh that the series drew from me came from the first episode when I pictured a montage of the characters singing the slow version "I Got Hurt Feelings" from 'Flight of the Conchords.' Based on how bad that first episode was, I thought I was getting into 'I Got Hurt Feeling: The Series.' That's all it seemed to be about. But then the soap opera elements kicked in: someone is going through a bad divorce; people are mean to each other; someone is blackmailed; someone is going to war; someone is missing in war; someone is killed in war; someone is disfigured in war; so-and-so is sleeping with so-and-so; so-and-so is engaged to so-and-so, which hurts so-and-so's feelings; nobody can talk about or do a scandalous thing without someone else overhearing or witnessing it; a few people commit suicide; a few people cheat on their spouses; someone gets illegitimately pregnant; someone is impotent; there's backstabbing, plotting, stealing, cheating, lying, spying, threats, confrontation, anger, rage, fistfights, sickness, poisoning, a murder, a trail, a wedding, a honeymoon, a missing dog, a runaway, ghosts, a Ouija board and a miracle. 'Downton Abbey' even has it's own "Rachel and Ross" relationship. Is this the season that they'll finally get together? Who cares. Even if this isn't that season, you know the series will surely take it that way.
The first half of season two is all about the effects of World War I on Downton Abbey – the relationships are changed and characters are sent to war. Even the mansion is changed. When the Downton hospital is overrun with injured soldiers back from the war, Downton Abbey is converted into a convalescent home for officers. Out of all this melodrama, the one thing that inspired hope for entertainment was the trench warfare scenes – but 'Downton Abbey' couldn't even get those right. Out of the handfuls of war scenes, only the last one carries any intensity.
The second half of the season is all about post-war life. If you're looking to kill yourself via alcohol poisoning, there's a drinking game you can play with the first half of season two that's sure to do it for you. Any time someone says, "The world is going to be such a different place after the war," take a drink. As much as they made this claim during the first half - "the world is going to be such a different place after the war" – not much changes after the war. The patients all leave Downton Abbey and it is re-converted into its normal pretentious high-society stasis. The only change from the post-war episodes is the root of the drama. Instead of the war creating drama, we go back to purely emotional relationship drama and a lame murder investigation.
As many popular BBC series do, following the season two episode eight finale, there's a special episode titled 'Christmas at Downton Abbey.' Ironically, only the first few minutes take place on Christmas. The rest of the episode takes place in the week(s) that follow. If you're following the series, the Christmas special is a must. Several of the one-dimensional characters' stories drastically change in that hour-and-a-half.
The level of predictability that 'Downton Abbey' carries is pathetic. For example, the supposedly huge cliffhanger that the series leaves us with can easily be foreseen from the first time we meet the character (in season two) that it revolves around. He's got a problem and it quickly becomes evident that it can only be resolved in one scandalous way. When that scandal occurs mid-season, it's immediately obvious that something else will result from it. Lo and behold, the result of that one thing is the supposed-to-be shocking cliffhanger of season two. Every single action has a predictable outcome. It's a sign of poor writing when each of those pans out exactly as you predicted it would.
The only story left as a cliffhanger after the Christmas special is one involving second-tier characters. The series could have ended right then, yet a third season of 'Downton Abbey' is in the works, this time following our nearly two-dozen characters through the Roaring Twenties. Let us hope that the show follows the British mold of fewer seasons so that this pretentious soap opera isn't strung along forever. Considering that season two spans more than four years and nobody seems to age, it will be interesting to see if that's another problem with season three. If so, it will be the least of them.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
PBS has placed season two of 'Downton Abbey' on three Region A BD-50s in a three-disc blue keepcase with a swiveling two-disc arm in the middle. For the fourth purchase in a row with the three-disc arm, the tiny piece of plastic that holds the arm was broken upon opening it. Disc one features episodes one through three, disc two features four through seven and disc three features episode eight, 'Christmas at Downton Abbey' and four featurettes. The cover art is plain and simple and nothing more than a PBS vanity reel and an FBI warning play before the main menu.
'Downton Abbey' is presented with a sharp 1080i/AVC MPEG-4 encode in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The presentation is pretty good, but not great.
Each time you start a new disc, a Masterpiece Classics vanity reel with Laura Linney runs before the first episode. "I'm Laura Linney and this is Masterpiece Theatre." The colors in this short promo are vibrant and alive. This is the vibrancy that the whole series carries. The vivid colors never falter; however, the color palette of life on the front is different. Colors are washed out and everything carries a sepia hue. The contrast of the two – going from the greens of the abbey hillside to the less-than-attractive earthtones of the war – is drastic.
The image is always sharp and clear, but the richness of details is gobbled up by overpowering blacks. Dark heads of hair disappear into dark backgrounds. You can't tell where the head ends and the background begins. Black fur coats appear as solid black masses. No texture is visible aside from the outlines. During the first episode, it appears as if they never shot any scenes without fill lighting because sides of faces and shadows from hats are overpowering – even during bright daytime scenes. But that problem is only during the first episode.
Fleshtones are almost always fair and milky, but that's by design. Only three characters feature natural fleshtones and they are the three noble male leads. Everyone else is a pale victim of the indoors.
Aliasing is frequent but not full-time house guest, nor is it a major distraction. Bands appears a few times during fading shots, but you really need to be looking for them in order to see them. All nine episodes are noise-free, artifact-free, DNR-free and edge enhancement-free.
There's only one really noticeable nuisance and it's located in the Christmas special. During one specific scene with Mary her and father, the contrast of the two shots bouncing back and forth between the characters isn't matched. Shots of her in front of a red background are vibrant and alive, full of inky blacks. Shots of him are washed out and blacks appear as gray.
Only one sub-par listening option is available – a lackluster English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track. The only thing flatter than the characters is the audio.
As you might expect, there's a fatal lack of dynamics in the audio. During the slow dry scenes at the abbey, the mix is as bland as you would expect. But the wartime scenes are the ones that could really use some the help. It's hard to get wrapped up in the war sequences because of how they're shot, but they're even less effective due to the 2.0 track. The lack of bass also hurts it. The sub-woofer is rarely engaged and the explosions carry no weight.
What else can you say about a 2.0 mix? There's no imaging, no dynamics, no surround – nothing that makes a lossless audio track worth listening to.
Considering how much hype 'Downton Abbey' carries, I was sorely shocked and surprised by how generic and poorly formulaic the series seems to me. The cover art contains a quote by The Guardian saying, "'Downton Abbey' just got even better." If that's the case, then I'd hate to see how bad season one is. Based on season two, the series is nothing more than a predictable soap opera period piece. We're expected to care for 18 one-dimensional central characters – some of them wealthy heirs and heiresses, some of them poor servants and maids. In reality, none of them is worth caring for. The conflicts are melodramatic and no characters have any inner flaws to overcome. Any drama stems from contrived blown-out-of-proportion superficial sources, disconnecting all characters from the audience. While the video quality is just fine - no flaw too distracting – the lossless 2.0 audio mix is a joke. I have DVDs that sound better than this. Never using the surround channels and rarely engaging the sub-woofer, the audio is so flat and lifeless that you might consider saving energy and listening to it through your television instead. Aside from tourist commercial, the few short special features are presented in lousy 480p and do little more than describe to you what you just watched in season two. For fans only.