The downside of any great TV series is that, at some point, it will run out of creative gas. You’re not likely to hear anyone proclaim: “I just watched season six of The West Wing, and the show just keeps getting better and better!”
Eventually, actors leave series for other roles, writers run out of fresh ideas, and shows decline. Although there are some exceptions, generally the first two or three years of classic series are the best. My point is this: Now is the best time to catch Downton Abbey, entering its second year on PBS, and Homeland, which just wrapped its inaugural season on Showtime.
Claire Danes is a trip in this psychological thriller about an Iraq war hero who, after eight years as a prisoner of war, returns home to glory and fanfare. Danes, as a pill-popping, manic-depressive CIA agent, suspects that Sgt. Brody (Damian Lewis) has been “turned” by al-Qaeda and might be involved in a terrorist plot on American soil.
There are some trite elements in Homeland: an obstinate, preening boss who places obstacles in the heroine’s path; her loyal but ineffectual sidekick, mostly on hand for comic relief. But Danes’s wild-eyed intelligence operative, Carrie Mathison, is endlessly watchable, and Homeland’s plot has multiple hooks — it’s a whodunit (is Brody a turncoat and, if not, then who is?), a thriller (agents race to prevent an unknown attack on an unknown date), and a romance. It’s also an effective reminder of how terrorism affects the people who actually fight it.
Homeland resolves its whodunit about two-thirds into the season, and as a result the show is drained of some suspense. But the cat-and-mouse relationship between borderline-psychotic Carrie and the intense, enigmatic Brody is riveting. Carrie is no traditional heroine; self-absorbed, high-strung, often annoying, she’s not above using sex to get what she wants. Brody is prickly, paranoid, sexually screwed up, and quite possibly dangerous. In other words, these two are made for each other — right? Grade: A-
Cast: Claire Danes, Damian Lewis, Morena Baccarin, David Harewood, Diego Klattenhoff, Morgan Saylor, Mandy Patinkin, Amy Hargreaves, Brianna Brown, Melissa Benoist Premiere: 2011
The term “soap opera” gets a bad rap. You could describe much of Shakespeare as “soap opera,” considering all of The Bard’s melodramatic musings on young love, family strife, jealousies, and societal oppression. Romeo and Juliet, Gone with the Wind, War and Peace, Casablanca — they all have ingredients of soap opera. Good soap opera. Which brings me to Downton Abbey, which is superb, polished soap.
As an unpolished Yank, my initial reaction to this world of British aristocrats and their servants was a strong desire to see the various maids and butlers creep upstairs in the middle of the night to slaughter their upper-crust “superiors,” and then serve their hoity-toity kidneys on silver platters in the elegant dining room. But the genius of series creator Julian Fellowes is a knack for sucking viewers into this stodgy universe. I wound up caring as much about a pampered rich girl’s marital prospects as I did about a young soldier’s ordeal in the trenches of World War I.
Fellowes overpowered my inner populist by illustrating that all of us — rich and poor — are to some extent powerless in the face of the larger society in which we live. Or, as a renowned soap-opera writer put it a long time ago, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”
For the inhabitants of Downton Abbey, both upstairs and downstairs, appearances are everything. Says the indomitable Maggie Smith, who plays the indomitable Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham: “The truth is neither here nor there; it’s the look of the thing that matters.” Packed with wit, subtlety, and soap, Downton Abbey does more than look fabulous. It is fabulous. Grade: A
Cast: Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Maggie Smith, Jim Carter, Brendan Coyle, Michelle Dockery, Joanne Froggatt, Phyllis Logan, Laura Carmichael, Dan Stevens Premiere: 2010
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