Earlier this year, American actress Elizabeth McGovern – the chin-down, eyes-up Lady Cora of Downton Abbey – implied in the Los Angeles Times that season two of Channel 7’s hit import was not quite up to scratch. "It's kind of a taste thing,” said McGovern, “and the show in the first season was more to my taste than the show in the second season.” Statements were immediately issued softening the blow, but McGovern’s words seemed to sum up the thoughts of many of those in the UK and the states who have seen the second series. Something is off at Downton.
The problem, if you read around, is that the second series, which spans the five years of World War One, moves far too quickly: soldiers go missing in battle in one episode’s opening only to limp back into frame in time for the credits; the Spanish flu zooms by in twenty odd minutes; poor Mr Bates, the loveable limping valet, and Anna, his doting fiancé, are thrown at least three curveballs an hour thanks to the cartoonishly villainous introduction of Mrs Bates (Maria Doyle Kennedy, also starring in Downton creator Julian Fellowes’ Titanic). And while Time Out agrees that season two can at times feel like Mrs Patmore over-seasoned the broth, there’s such joy in coming back into the Grantham fold that most is forgiven. We devoured our review copies in a weekend.
There is a lot of incident at Downton these days – the manor is turned into a convalescence home for returned soldiers, putting more than one upturned nose out of joint – but Fellowes uses all the action to bring light and shade to characters that previously teetered on caricature. Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) is softening, and it doesn’t feel forced; kitchen-made Daisy (Sophie McShera) is suddenly a richer being, struggling with whether to marry William, whom she does not love, before he goes to war; O’Brien oscillates convincingly between evil and (gasp!), remorse. Even the Dowager Countess (repeat after us: “What’s a weekend?”) is changing with the times, somewhat. And really, Fellowes could condense two wars into half an hour and be forgiven if he kept feeding Maggie Smith her tasty lines: in response to cousin Isobel’s “I take that as a compliment,” she retorts, “I must have said it wrong.”
With all those plummy mouths, fancy threads and now, all those shiny awards, it can be easy to forget that Downton is, at its core, a soap opera – with lovers and villains and overheard conversations and yes, lots and lots of things happening. And, forgetting that, you can just as easily criticise it for being what it is. We won’t. Downton may be a tarted up soapy, but its one of the most splendidly written, performed and relishable you’re likely to see.