TV’s Sunday Best

Black and white photo of three women watching a small television, probably 1950 - 1960.Sunday is my favorite night for TV watching. That’s in part because I prep for it. I am generally well-rested and relaxed on Sunday evenings, after two days off work. I’ve spent time outdoors. To do’s like laundry, housecleaning and meal prep are checked off, and I can sit with a cup of tea or glass of wine in my hand, feeling accomplished and caught-up.

Really, though, it is quality programming that keeps me a Sunday night shut-in. Sunday has, at different points, been home to Mad Men, Homeland and NBC Sunday Night Football. And for the past few months, it has offered a buffet of anglophiliac delights on PBS.

Two favorites had their season finales last night: The Great British Baking Show, and Downton Abbey (Season Five).

A set photo from the Great British Baking ShowThe Great British Baking Show is exactly what it sounds like: a reality show in which 12 amateur British bakers compete by whipping up (pun intended) exotic creations, such as Kouign Amann, Schichttorte and Povitica, as well as standards like tea scones. Timing is always tight, and the judges are always uncompromising.

I scoffed initially, and ignored the first few episodes. What could be more boring than watching a bunch of people baking things – especially for someone like me, who is more partial to savory than to sweet? But the desserts were beautiful, and the contestants were so supportive of one another — if they were any nicer, it would have been called The Great CANADIAN Baking Show. One of the bakers, Martha, was just 17 years old and preparing for her A level exams while competing. When she fell behind during one of her final bakes, competitor Richard helped her finish in time.

So Shark Tank, it was not. It has been such a hit in the U.S., I expect we’ve not seen the last of The Great British Baking Show. Until then, bakers… ready, set, bake!

Next up: Downton Abbey. I’ve watched the show from the first episode, thus witnessing trials and tribulations of the Crawley family spanning decades. (For the past few seasons, those have felt like some long decades.) The plot often drives me nutty, but… I AM NOT A QUITTER. I know I should cut my losses and walk away, but just can’t shake the hope that the next episode will be better. (I blame Mad Men for this possibly false hope.)

Creator Julian Fellows is well-known for his adherence to historical details. Formal table settings and hemlines at the fictional Downton match the rigid requirements of the day, but social mores are all over the place. Lord Grantham freaks out if his tie is the wrong color at dinner, yet when daughter Edith has a baby out-of-wedlock, then “adopts” her from her foster family, he greets the news with a shrug better suited to Parenthood.

edith-marigold-downton-abbeyPoor Lady Edith. She was left at the altar by fiancé number one, then impregnated by fiancé number two, who was killed by Nazis before he could make an honest woman of her. Also, Poor Edith is sad because she has the meanest sister in all of England.

What is there to say about Lady Mary? This season, she cut her hair short, and took up the same cold, opportunistic ruthlessness she abandoned when she married Matthew. She juggled two suitors, tearing one (Lord Tony Gillingham) away from his betrothed, and sleeping with him… then deciding he was boring. What’s-her-name could keep him after all.

Mary even invited herself to their wedding!

And, she was mean to Poor Edith, who is a better mother to her fake foundling than Lady Mary will ever be to her legitimate, little…um… baby boy Crawley. (Just kidding, I know his name is George but that has a lot less panache than “Marigold”.)

Yes, Tony Gillingham was boring, but so was the other guy courting Mary, whose name really DOES escape me. He resembled Tony so much that I couldn’t keep the two straight. He went from potential second husband material, to a sidekick in Mary’s schemes to dump Tony, to… just… gone. Mary is not one to hang on the vine, though, and last night we were introduced to a third charming, dark-haired (naturally) man at a fancy shooting party. He likes Mary, and driving fast cars. I smell trouble.

This is all standard stuff at Downton. Hapless, mundane storylines run on and on, but they don’t resolve themselves in a satisfying way. They fizzle out, long after the audience ceases to care.

Lady Edith is pining for Marigold!

The village is building a war memorial!

Daisy likes reading!

Let’s just hope we’ve seen the last of the Bates family’s legal woes. Neither of them murdered anyone, OK? That storyline was the biggest, smelliest rotten tomato (or should I say toe-MAH-toe) of them all.

Downton returns in 2016, and despite my misgivings I’m sure I’ll be watching, if only to enjoy the sight of Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson flirting! Score one for the old folks!

For now, I’ll get my Sunday night “Masterpiece” fix from the much-hyped Grantchester. James Norton plays a dreamy country vicar named Sidney Chambers, who spends far too much time loitering at the local police station. He solves approximately one crime per week… but his sermons are usually crap, because he doesn’t have time to write a good one.

Also, he has the meanest housekeeper in all of England.


What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and Downton Abbey?

Downton Abbey's Lady Mary Crawley,  Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham and Lady Edith Crawley
Lady Mary Crawley, Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham and Lady Edith Crawley


The answer is… nothing. Nothing is funny about Downton Abbey — or compelling, or even mildly entertaining for that matter. Not anymore, and not for a long time.

Last night, American viewers flocked to season four’s finale with hope in our hearts — despite all that has come before — and we were let down. It was sad, like Lady Edith. So today I’m one of many bloggers bemoaning what Downton Abbey has become, thanks to Julian Fellows and his writing staff. (At least I assume he has a writing staff; finding a group of people who can collectively churn out such awful storylines and dreadful dialogue must take some doing.)

Like anyone who appreciates smart, imaginative television, I go nuts when a series that once captivated me starts to implode. It’s even worse when the season ends without an enticing twist to make me nostalgic: “Well, maaaaybe I’ll give that show one more chance.” Think Homeland, which deteriorated over time, with a plot so frenetic and characters so deliriously overwrought my head is still spinning. Yet a fourth season approaches, and Brody is DEAD, Carrie is about to GIVE BIRTH, Saul is ON A MEDITERRANEAN CRUISE and Dana is STILL VERY RESENTFUL. Anything can happen, right? I’m not ready to let go!

Meanwhile back at Downton, Julian Fellows appears completely out of ideas. Lady Mary Crawley has emerged from mourning her late husband (and cousin) Matthew Crawley, and make no bones about it — her shingle is OUT and she’s open for business. She is dangling not one, not two, but three suitors with the chilly efficiency of… Lady Mary Crawley, the season one version. Aside from her elusive baby George, and her sudden interest in profitable pig farming, Mary has not evolved one bit.

Her hangdog sister Lady Edith is still the unluckiest character England’s fictional aristocracy has ever seen. In the first three seasons, Edith was dumped twice by Anthony – the second time at the altar. She also fell hard for a mysterious World War I veteran, wrapped in more bandages than an Egyptian mummy. He too flew the coop, as NPR’s Linda Holmes blogged, “as quickly as a writer who suddenly realizes he has no idea where this plotline is going.”

At the start of season four, Edith falls in love with Michael Gregson, a London newspaper editor. He’s married but his wife is mad. (Julian Fellows, meet Charlotte Brontë.) While he’s planning a trip to Germany – sure to be a romantic paradise for generations to come! — for a quickie divorce, he and Edith enjoy a quickie of a different sort, and she ends up in a family way.

Of course she does, because she’s Lady Edith.

Alas, Michael disappears on his first night in Berlin after a run in with a band of Nazis(!), forcing Edith to flee to Switzerland for nine months with Aunt Rosalind to (a-HEM), “learn French”. She has her baby there – a girl she puts up for adoption — then returns to Downton, her absence having scarcely registered.

Nearly every other plotline on Downton Abbey is now superfluous. Tom the ex-chauffer remains in a limbo state, wrestling with his socialist conscience while enjoying port and cigars in the Downton drawing room. He flirts with a suffragette and considers moving to America. (I’d offer to help him pack.)

Thomas still schemes, engineering the hiring of lady’s maid Baxter, who he is blackmailing – with what, after nine episodes, we still don’t know. And there’s Bates and Anna, Molesley, James the pretty boy footman, Alfred and Ivy and, um… ZZZZZZ.

And so it is after four seasons: I’m through with the Crawleys and everyone who works below stairs at Downton Abbey. Sunday night simply must have more to offer.

Come to think of it, Baseball — America’s pastime — resumes in April and there’s always a Sunday night game on Fox Sports.

Blimey, enough with the manor born. It’s time to put down the Pimms cups, strap on your athletic cups (not you, ladies) and PLAY BALL!

"Old Baseballs On Folk Art Flag" by Gary Gay.
“Old Baseballs On Folk Art Flag” by Gary Gay.

An Off Season For Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey -- Mary, Matthew and babySeason three of Downton Abbey is finished, and I’m sad.  Oh not to worry, I’ll find another way to spend my Sunday evenings until Mad Men resumes on April 7 and Homeland returns… whenever.  Actually, I’ve got the blues because the show I once loved to dish about at the water cooler on Mondays has gone so decidedly downhill.

Downton’s season one was fantastic.  The writing was clever and there was some significance to the plot.  It was historical fiction on par with films like The Other Boleyn Girl or Chariots of Fire. When enjoyed with a big glass of wine, it allowed us to close out the weekend by learning a little something about post-Edwardian Britain, without trying too hard.

By midway through season two, though, Downton began to lose its way.  World War I was over and it seemed the writers didn’t have a clue where these characters were going.  Some plotlines rushed by so fast, if you blinked you might have missed them. (Spanish Flu Hits Downton!)  Others – like Daisy wearing a hair shirt over misleading William about her feelings for him — dragged on at a glacial pace.  If I close my eyes I can still hear her whine in her Yorkshire accent, protesting for the hundredth time a visit to William’s father at his farm:  “But I didn’t love him!  It would be dishonest!”

I hoped for better things from season three, but was disappointed.  It felt as if writers wrote each episode on the fly.  They killed off Lady Sybil, seemingly without a plan for her heartbroken husband Tom Branson.  He got a new set of tails and forged a warmer relationship with the family, but he remained not-of-the-manor-born.  There was so much they could have done with the former chauffeur, but in each episode Tom always felt like an afterthought.

In season three, we once again had laborious plotlines like Bates in prison.  Fans of the show knew he’d be released.  He wasn’t about to be shived at the hands of his mumbling, wacked-out cellmate – whose hatred of Bates was never adequately explained.   When Bates was finally sprung, the rationale was so flimsy we viewers collectively rolled our eyes.  Disgusted?  Yes, but also grateful to say good-bye to watching him wait in the chow line for his bowl of gruel.

I can see another such storyline on the horizon, with Lady Edith and her besotted editor.  He’s married.  His wife is in an asylum, and he can’t divorce her.  Resolving this could take some time.  Of course, that could be a good thing for Edith.  Once the Grantham girls get married, they usually get pregnant… and then somebody has to die.

In the last two seasons of Downton, writers introduced random maids and footmen, as if these grand old houses had a revolving staff.  OK, it made some sense pre- and post-WWI when young men were either leaving for, or returning from, battle.  But over time it seemed more like a lazy plot device.

Hey, we need more sex in this show.  Let’s introduce a pretty young housemaid for Lord Grantham to make clumsy passes at!

Hey, now that Sybil is dead we need to do something about mopey Tom Branson.  Let’s introduce an over-sexed new housemaid no one has ever seen before, to make not-so-clumsy passes at him!

What’s more, this was pre-organized labor right?  Weren’t servants a dime a dozen back then, as big estates like Downton toppled like dominoes?  Last night Edna purred and pranced around Tom, within spitting distance of Mrs. Hughes, and I wondered why on earth it was so hard to sack a useless housemaid?  It took nearly the entire two-hour episode, until at last Edna claimed she couldn’t complete her chores for the day because she had a lunch date with Branson in the local pub.  That did it.  I thought Carson would have a stroke.

Breathe deeply, Mr. Carson.  In through the nose and out through the mouth.

Writers also took to inexplicably introducing annual family traditions that viewers who had watched the show for more than 10 years (Downton years, that is) had never heard mentioned.  I am of course referring to the annual town vs. manor cricket match, which came out of NOWHERE.   An enormous fuss was made, yet we never even learned which team won.

Likewise, there was the heretofore unmentioned yearly journey to Duneagle Castle in Scotland, to visit “Shrimpy” and his shrew-wife Susan MacClare, Marchioness of Flintshire.  FLINTshire, I kid you not.  The name fits; she is a cross between Miss Havisham of Great Expectations, and Mrs. Danvers from the film Rebecca.

During so much of Downton Abbey’s season three, I was left asking myself… what was the point of all that?  Why do I care if Shrimpy and his wife — who I had never heard of until last night — don’t get along?  They are moving to India soon anyway.  If a justification for daughter Rose’s relocating to Downton was needed, wouldn’t that have been good enough?

I can’t say I’m sorry that Matthew’s character died last night.  He’s one of the better actors on the show, but his story was going nowhere — and his role as peacemaker between Edith and Mary, and Lord Grantham and Tom, would eventually have worn thin.  It wasn’t a surprise – we’d all read that Dan Stevens did not sign on for Season Four.  But I thought the final scene, with Mary holding her baby while waiting for Matthew to return to the hospital, was pretty poignant.

I’m also intrigued by the potential for mature romance between Matthew’s mother Isobel Crawley, and Dr. Clarkson.  Isobel gave Clarkson the brush off last night, but I get a whiff of perseverance from the good doctor – and she’ll need consolation over the loss of her only child.

Hopefully Downton Abbey’s writers will use this hiatus to breathe new life into a once-entertaining show.  I’m skeptical, but still there’s enough left to bring me back for season four.  Until then, nothing else to do but hope… and prepare for Mad Men.

Zou Bisou Bisou to you!