The period drama juggernaut “Downton Abbey” rolls on in Season 5, and creator Julian Fellowes has programmed in some minor course corrections addressing the several disappointments of Season 4.
Don’t worry, the changes are more of focus rather than tone or substance. The settings are still stately and/or scenic, the hats still a milliner’s wet dream, and Maggie Smith’s delivery of barbed epigrams still colorful and flawless like an emerald.
The new series picks up in 1924, early in the post-war period but far enough into the Roaring that there’s a different vibe in the air from Season 4, not quite as grief-stricken or ponderous. Juggling a high density of plot has been one of this series’ hallmarks from the beginning, and again, it’s a mixed bag of fresh and foul, though the percentage of fresh is way up from last season.
Among the more successful oranges in the air this season are Edith’s motherhood and her struggles to bring her secret child into the world of Downton, servant Thomas’ scheming and his conflicted feelings about his own sexuality, and the darkening skies of justice that hover over Mr. and Mrs. Bates as the police investigate the death of the man who we know raped her in the past season. We get a look into the romantic past of the Dowager Countess, and there’s even a charming storyline for the stern head butler Carson and the housemistress Mrs. Hughes, as their repressed feelings finally blossom into something more.
After four seasons, Fellowes has finally found something of substance for Lord Grantham to do, besides bluster and grumble about progress and hemlines, as guest star Richard E. Grant plays a visiting art historian who comes between the Lord and a neglected Lady Grantham. And more gratifyingly, after taking an irritating central role last season with her mystifyingly large coterie of suitors, Lady Mary recedes into the periphery where she belongs, spending much of the time breaking yet another suitor’s heart, sniping at poor sister Edith, and getting her hair cut.
It is, of course, much too late to hope that “Downton Abbey” will ever be ‘about’ anything more than its basic theme of tradition vs. progress. The historical touchstones that pepper the narrative — the arrival of radio, the fall-out from the Russian Revolution, the rise of the Labour Party government — are deftly woven at times, but also often trivialized as glancing asides. And the fetishization of the visual splendor of wealth undercuts much of the moral authority earned by the more ‘meaningful’ plotlines about class or justice.
As if that matters. Really, moral authority? Pish posh. No one watches this show to be edified, and if you are, you’re putting your salad fork on the right, if you know what I mean. But a strong cast continues to sell the hell out of this, and the show still works as a smart, engaging peacock parade of swishing, fancy-boy fashion, slick and fine-tuned storytelling, and a keen ear and eye for crowd-pleasing emotional highpoints. You may ring the gong now, Carson.
The Blu-ray set of “Downton Abbey, Season 5” is presented in a three-disc set, in the original form that aired in Britain, where the show is just as popular as in the States, if not more so. The ravishing costumes, settings and finery are given excellent treatment in the High-Def 1080i transfer, with equally crisp and opulent visuals indoors and out. The format is the standard widescreen of previous releases in the series, and there is an option for English SDH subtitles.
The audio track is a fine stereo 2.0. The balance of background and foreground sound, so vital to making the crowd scenes realistic, is handled with subtlety and care.
- Behind The Scenes – Day 100: a chatty and enjoyable making-of filmed on the 100th day of shooting Season Five, following actresses Phyllis Logan ( Mrs. Hughes), Lesley Nicol (Mrs. Patmore), and Sophie McShera (Daisy) on their filming day, from make-up chair to final shot of the day.
- The Roaring Twenties – background info and interviews with the creators about the historical period, its fashions and timeline.
- A Day With Lady Rose – follows actress Lily James (Rose) on a big shooting day for her character. James seems a sweetie, but this is of interest really only to completists.
A distinct improvement over Season Four, “Downton Abbey” continues to play enjoyable variations on a theme, with an emphasis on the more interesting characters and storylines that pay off in higher percentages.