I caught up with the first season of Downton Abbey one night a few weeks before the second premiered. I enjoyed it quite thoroughly. It’s soapy, gorgeous and features some great one-liners. I thought it’s it’s use of historical moments to kick off momentous moments was smart; the sinking of the Titanic introduced at the beginning of the series, to the way the First World War was announced at the end makes me smirk in and of itself. It’s exciting and fun to see how these lavish people, both upstairs and downstairs in Downton, can live in the same world as the rest. The second season proves quite conclusively that other than passing mention – they can’t.
The fun of Downton Abbey is disregard any important matters, and believe these otherwise trivial events are the most important in the world. An engagement falling through? That’s the Hellmouth opening. Buying a telephone? Death of a mother. By introducing a war, and cutting away to the war makes the Lords, Ladies and their staff far less sympathetic and, in all honestly, less essential, to their own show.
There is still frothy fun to be found in the second season – which I wouldn’t say anyone who enjoyed the first shouldn’t watch – but it’s just not as rhythmically told. The war setting introduces elements the series is uncomfortable with and manages to make the low points of the series “song” really off-kilter. John Lunn’s “Did I Make the Most of Loving You” works wonders to fill in the holes that when the story and character beats aren’t exactly fulfilling, it can still often feel like a decent album. Not a great one. Not one worth all the hubbub, but a solid 8-track collection. (With a significantly better Christmas No. 1, actually!)
I’m not a huge advocate for the show, not in the slightest, but think it can be exceptional when working as a silly soap with little to no social commentary (Julian Fellowes’ script manages class thematics relatively well, however, even in this season where it takes significantly less precedent). The amount of time that is given to the war means that a lot of narrative threads feel undercooked, with only a couple (Bates, Countess’ of Grantham’s zingers and something about Matthew) of stories feeling fully formed. The show needs to flow, and when it doesn’t, it technically fails. This season isn’t as strong as the first and any newcomers to the series would think they are sorely missing something if this is the show that raided the awards and has momentous hype. Thankfully, there’s a reason for the storm so if you’re even teetering with the idea of checking it out, you should, but please for the love of God begin at the start.