Posted in Television

Farewell Downton Abbey

A Well-Deserved Round of Applause

After six seasons and an hour-and-a-half grand finale, it’s over.

“Downton Abbey” rode off into the sunset last night to join other beloved British imports—“Upstairs, Downstairs,” the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, all the “Prime Suspect” shows, and a host of other series that have graced PBS. Much was crammed into that “Downton” Christmas episode; in fact all the loose ends were tied up with the speed and thoroughness of a NASA launch checklist.

I’m surprised “Downton Abbey” lasted as long as it did. While the first season was superb, soap opera tropes began to appear with some regularity in Season 2: Matthew’s miraculously regaining his ability to walk; the fortuitous death of his fiancée, leaving him free for Lady Mary (I have to confess I flipped the channel from the Super Bowl to “Downton Abbey” just to see the season ender in which he finally proposed. I almost had to turn in my New York Giants hoodie over that move). With Matthew’s death we lost that important outsider’s viewpoint. He was the character we identified with—the unexpected heir, the middle class stranger suddenly in the midst of all that wealth. It might have made for a stronger, less predictable “Downton Abbey” had his portrayer, Dan Stevens, not left the show. However, what remained was still entertaining if perhaps not quite as engrossing as before.

During the previous months I made it a point to avoid spoilers since I really did want to be surprised by the final events of the show. But little seemed startling, with the exception of Carson’s forced retirement (if anyone seemed able to go on forever, it was he), and the return of Lady Rose and Atticus for Edith’s wedding. Other developments, if not surprising, were still satisfying—Mary’s pregnancy, Moseley’s promotion to full-time schoolteacher (and his broadly hinted-at courtship of Miss Baxter), Miss Edmunds’ catch of Edith’s wedding bouquet (with Tom as the sure-to-be groom), Barrow’s appointment as the new butler of Downton Abbey. Other events were just plain delicious: Spratt’s skill as Edith’s “agony aunt” and Isabel’s out-muscling that nasty daughter-in-law, the former Miss Cruikshank, with Violet’s help, in order to marry Lord Merton (who, for someone first diagnosed as suffering from pernicious anemia, looked suspiciously more robust than he had in a long time).

You may recall that several weeks ago I predicted the final outcome of “Downton Abbey,” so let’s see how my unspoiled guesses match up to reality:

  1. Robert’s belly pain turns out to be serious but is cured by the superior medical technology afforded by the county, thus ending the interminable hospital debate. Bingo–I get 1 point!
  2. Anna carries the baby to term and gives birth to a healthy child. Another point.
  3. Edith marries Bertie Pelham, the guy who stayed up all night to get that issue of the magazine to press. Ditto. Kudos to Mary for setting this up, though Edith may have a tough row to hoe with that gorgon of a mother-in-law (I wouldn’t have left Marigold with her on a bet). Here’s hoping a “Downton Abbey” movie really happens, just to see Edith’s story continued.
  4. Daisy marries the new footman who wants to go back to the land (and who’s been avoiding Thomas like the plague), and they move in with Mr. Mason, eventually assuming the leasehold.  Half a point since the only thing settled was Daisy’s move to the farm, though she was certainly ogling Andy plenty by the end of the finale.
  5. Isabel and Dr. Clarkson finally end up with each other. Wrong! Minus one point.
  6. Marigold’s identity is revealed but Mary knew it all along. Half a point since Mary didn’t intuit—she only learned the truth by eavesdropping.
  7. Mary ends up with Henry Talbot, race car driver, though I’m still hoping Charles Blake, the agriculture expert who previously joined her in pig slop, stages a last-minute intervention. He’s such a better match for her. Another point, but these two have zero chemistry. I still say Charles would have been much better for her.
  8. Tom becomes an auto magnate and eventually stands for Parliament. Right church, wrong pew. He’s not a magnate yet. Score a quarter point.
  9. Violet, as always, has the last word. And she did!
Posted in Brain Bits, Television

Brain Bits for a (Melting) Winter Wonderland

Only three days after a two-foot snowfall the temperature turned a balmy 45 degrees. Hallelujah! Now the melting snow is creating new waterways over roads, at curbs and in cracked sidewalks. Let’s just hope the temperature doesn’t drop below freezing tonight—we’re not ready to go ice skating without skates again any time soon.

Regina King, André Benjamin: “American Crime”

Too many quality TV shows, too little time.

Commuting into New York is absolutely killing my ability to keep up with some great shows. Early to bed, (too) early to rise eliminates watching shows that air at 10:00 pm, so I’m scrambling to get acquainted with PBS’ “Mercy Street.” Showtime’s “Billions” is opposite “Downton Abbey” on Sunday nights, and as much as I think the “Masterpiece Theater” import will ultimately just collapse across the finish line, I’m still interested in how it’ll turn out (more about that later). I’ve only seen the first episodes each of “Mozart in the Jungle” (shame on this classical music fanatic), “The Man in the High Castle” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” though I’ve actually gotten through the first two episodes of “Jessica Jones.” But no “Sense8” or “Angie Tribeca” yet for me, sad to say.

My work schedule was also behind my losing track of one of the better shows last year, though thankfully I’m able to become engrossed in its second season courtesy of the “On Demand” button on my remote. ABC’s “American Crime” (not to be confused with the soon-to-be premiering, O.J. Simpson-centric “American Crime Story”) is repertory theater at its best. Each season covers a different crime, with the same starring actors in different roles: Felicity Huffman, Timothy Hutton, Regina King, Lili Taylor, Elvis Nolasco, with key recurring appearances this season by Hope Davis and André Benjamin. That’s some potent talent.

The current run of “American Crime” outdoes “Law & Order: SVU” in being ripped from the headlines. It’s a timely mix of high school sports, male rape and internet shaming, all of which are even more timely in light of reports of the latest hazing atrocity. This season of “American Crime” focuses on a tony private school with a championship basketball team (Headmistress: Felicity Huffman, Head Coach: Timothy Hutton). Going viral are lewd images of a male scholarship student from the other side of the tracks at a party hosted by the basketball captains. The student has no clear memory of what happened, though he senses “something was done to [me]” (Connor Jessup gives a beautifully modulated performance as the victim). His mother (the superb Lili Taylor), having been refused a meaningful investigation by the school, reports the incident as a rape and contacts a local reporter. Naturally various parents, administrators, students and basketball team members have their own interests at stake and a list of issues to hide, but it’s their reactions and interactions with respect to the crime that prove fascinating.

It’s an unusual show. There’s no razzle-dazzle; it builds incrementally. It’s as far removed from the fevered pitch of “Law & Order:SVU” as you can get; the contrast in tone is easily seen, given that “American Crime” airs in the time slot immediately following “SVU” (Just for the record, I’m still a huge fan of Olivia Benson, Fin, Rollins and Carisi). “American Crime” is an exceptionally well-observed show. The writing reflects a very adult sensibility in how the characters are drawn; the audience is encouraged to consider their strengths and inconsistencies at some length. The result affords the actors a key opportunity to be expansive without having to overplay. Regina King, as the mother of one of the basketball captains, is a sophisticated corporate executive with extensive political and law enforcement connections. She lectures her son day and night about society’s expectations of young black men and vetoes the girls who aren’t good enough for him, yet her response to news of the crime is clueless: “Boys can’t be raped.” Yet somehow the gifted Ms. King presents this as just one more layer in a very complicated character.

“American Crime” makes you look forward to seeing what will be unveiled next. I’m glad it’s back.

Damian Lewis, Paul Giamatti: "Billions"
Damian Lewis, Paul Giamatti: “Billions”

A few notes are in order before I hurry off to catch up on those shows I’ve missed:

Even if “Billions” featured only Damian Lewis as Bobby Axelrod, I’d be riveted. Fortunately it’s got so much more going for it: Paul Giamatti as one kink-chasing U.S. Attorney, Maggie Siff as his wife who supplies the kink in 5-inch heels and who works for billionaire Bobby, and Jeffrey DeMunn, Malin Ackerman and a slew of wonderful actors. There’s money, shady dealings, the S.E.C., zingy one-liners and secrets with a capital “S” (What’s the deal with Bobby Axelrod’s whereabouts on the morning of 9/11?). Thank you, Showtime, for one heady brew.

Before there was Discovery Channel, ID, History Channel and the 1000 other channels that grace your cable bill every month, there was PBS. And one of its best shows has always been “American Experience.” I was reminded of this last week when I managed to find an hour to watch its “Bonnie and Clyde” episode, which told as much about the Depression as it did about the two people it featured. On “American Experience” context is all, which is why its episodes linger in memory. PBS’ terrific website features “American Experience” episodes in full along with a wealth of related material. No need to pay for Hulu or Amazon Prime—PBS is all free, all the time.

After four episodes into its final season, does anyone doubt how “Downton Abbey” will end? Odds are, in no particular order:

  1. Robert’s belly pain turns out to be serious but is cured by the superior medical technology afforded by the county, thus ending the interminable hospital debate.
  2. Anna carries the baby to term and gives birth to a healthy child.
  3. Edith marries Bertie Pelham, the guy who stayed up all night to get that issue of the magazine to press.
  4. Daisy marries the new footman who wants to go back to the land (and who’s been avoiding Thomas like the plague), and they move in with Mr. Mason, eventually assuming the leasehold.
  5. Isabel and Dr. Clarkson finally end up with each other.
  6. Marigold’s identity is revealed but Mary knew it all along.
  7. Mary ends up with Henry Talbot, race car driver, though I’m still hoping Charles Blake, the agriculture expert who previously joined her in pig slop, stages a last-minute intervention. He’s such a better match for her.
  8. Tom becomes an auto magnate and eventually stands for Parliament.
  9. Violet, as always, has the last word.

Remember, you saw it here first. And if you do know what happens, don’t spoil.


Posted in Baseball, Brain Bits, Cats, Opera, Television

Brain Bits for an Endless Winter

As I write this the New York metropolitan area is gearing up for yet another wave of snow, sleet and freezing rain. How much of the above we’re going to be socked with this time is still up in the air (no pun intended). We only know that the weather forecasters have been predicting doom for the last five days. Well, my refrigerator is stocked, my car’s gas tank is full and my boots and snow shovel are once more at the ready. I saw a robin on my front lawn yesterday afternoon, and while I refrained from asking “You lost, buddy?,” I still took heart. Spring will arrive—sometime.


No gown was ever better wrecked
No gown was ever better wrecked

“Downton Abbey” just completed its fourth season here. My opinion? Kind of meh.

I’m not saying the show was without its charms: I’ll be interested in Lady Mary’s doings until the cows (or perhaps I should say, the pigs) come home. I’ve always liked the character, even at her bitchiest, and she’s got the type of self-awareness that’s enormously refreshing—she cuts to the heart of things, no matter whose feelings may be hurt. Tom Branson is still fun to watch, as are Carson and Mrs. Hughes, and I’d like Paul Giamatti to make a return visit as Harold Levenson, Cora’s brother. But the show now seems stuffy and predictable, especially if you’re a fan of “Last Tango in Halifax,” whose characters in no way have consistency in their lexicon. At this point you’re assured of the following in every “Downton Abbey” episode: a cutting quip and a snark at Isobel Crawley by the Dowager Countess, a Lady Edith misfortune, a block-headed remark by the Earl, a blackmail attempt by Barrow and an ambiguously sinister shot of Bates. The pattern has yet to change.

Despite all this, I’ll continue to watch “Downton Abbey” until its end. I just wish it had a little more zest in its storytelling and a little more oxygen in its atmosphere.


MetThat sound you hear is the rattling of sabres as management and labor gear up for contract talks at the Metropolitan Opera. Words are already being exchanged, what with General Manger Peter Gelb leading negotiations for the first time and Tino Gagliardi, head of the musicians’ union, vowing to seek oversight of the Met’s spending in order to prevent salary cuts and other givebacks.

There’s been a distressing pattern of musicians’ unions blinding themselves to significant changes in both the prevailing culture and the economy. This is no longer 1960, when arts programming was a regular feature on the handful of television channels in existence, Leonard Bernstein won Emmys for his “Young People’s Concerts” and most importantly, visual and musical arts were mandatory courses in public schools. Is it any wonder that audiences for classical music and opera have dwindled over the years, to the extent that box office receipts make up only one third of the Met’s income? Outreach programs are great, but nothing creates a lifelong interest in the arts like a thorough education such as my boomer generation received. Sadly, those times are gone.

I know very few people who weren’t impacted by the financial collapse of 2008 and its lingering aftermath. There’s a trickle-down effect on the arts after such disasters: over time contributions are curtailed if not eliminated, and patrons find themselves with less disposable income for ticket purchases. To put it bluntly, we’ve all had to suck it up during the last several years, and performers are not exempt from the new reality. If, as the Met claims, two-thirds of its expenses are labor costs, that’s the pool from which reductions should come first.

I would hate to see a strike or a lock-out at the Met. But the unions would better serve both their membership and the ticket-buying public by dealing in the real world.


Gary Carter, N.Y. Mets
Gary Carter, N.Y. Mets

Once upon a time there was a future Hall of Fame catcher named Gary Carter. For five delirious years he was a New York Met, and a mainstay of that 1986 championship team. As a lifelong, diehard Mets fan, I loved watching him play.

Flash forward to a few days ago. I’ve been wanting to adopt another cat for several months, ever since poor Roger departed to the great litter box in the sky. I needed a mellow boy past kitten stage who could get along with Miss Teddi, a somewhat crotchety 16 year-old, and Gregory, a laid back 7 year-old built like a pro football linebacker.

Gary Carter, Cat
Gary Carter, Cat

Is there a better name for a polydactyl cat whose front paws resemble catcher’s mitts? I can’t claim credit for his name: it said “Gary Carter” on his cat cubby at the shelter. Under the circumstances I couldn’t not take him, so now Mr. Carter is comfortably ensconced in his new surroundings. This young man blended in immediately with the other feline residents, and is simply one terrific cat.

Now if I could just get him to wear a baseball cap……

Posted in Television

Downton Abbey: The End or the Beginning?

Downton Abbey Christmas Special

All cried out? Me, too. Now let’s take a deep breath and talk about what’s happened.

The last minute of “Downton Abbey”‘s season finale was devastating. But with Dan Stevens leaving the show, I think Julian Fellowes, the creator of “Downton Abbey,” did the right thing by killing off Matthew Crawley. There was no war to send the character off to, no plausible secret mission or business proposition that would detain him overseas, and with the history that he and Mary shared, there was no logical way to have their marriage fall apart, especially with her being pregnant. And with the actor’s intention to depart, Mr. Fellowes took a better course than recasting the role. It would be very difficult to duplicate what Dan Stevens brought to the character—the charm and intelligence (not to mention the most amazing eyes on TV)—and the comparisons between Matthews v.1 and v.2 would be endless and distracting.

So for better or worse, our hero is gone. Aside from his role in modernizing Downton’s methods, Matthew seemed to be the glue of the show this season, serving as Tom’s ally, striking up a friendship with Edith and in general, being the “go-to” character in the story lines involving Rose and Michael Gregson. So his loss will be felt by all, but the impact will be greatest on the two women closest to him—Mary, of course, but also Isobel, who will have to cope with the death of her only child. Speaking of Isobel, I loved her scenes in the finale with Dr. Clarkson, and how oblivious she was as to why he would raise the issue of remarriage. Somehow I think this subject will be revisited when “Downton Abbey” returns.

What about Mary? What does the future hold for her? Others may disagree, but I liked seeing Executive Producer Gareth Neame refer to her “the heart of the show”. I’m looking forward to seeing the direction she takes following Matthew’s death. Will she assume an active role in managing the estate to carry out his grand plan? Money won’t be a problem for her, so there’s no need to rush into another marriage, though I expect she won’t be idle in that department for too long. And Edith? I really hope she doesn’t get stuck in a Back Street life, waiting for the mad Mrs. Gregson to die. I’d like to see more of her in the working world, tweaking the upper class with her pen.

Tom Branson and Rose will obviously be major players next season, though I’m praying that Mr. Fellowes and Co. don’t put these two together. She’s an irritating twit, though I really enjoyed the scenes she shared with Anna in the season finale, teaching her how to dance the reel. And Tom’s status in the household, as an outsider to both upstairs and downstairs, was beautifully portrayed. Mrs. Hughes’s heart-to-heart with him near the end of the episode couldn’t have been better written or acted.

And what about the servants? I thought the Thomas storyline was a waste of time from start to finish, though it served its purpose if only to end in O’Brien getting hers with “Milady’s soap.” Having encountered an uber-O’Brien in the form of Wilkens, maid to Lady Flintshire, perhaps the original has started down the road of character rehab (don’t hold your breath). Mrs. Hughes has earned a larger role in Season 4, and deserves a far better storyline than the trite “suspected cancer” bit she was recently saddled with. Carson will no doubt remain the rock of the household, and the younger servants will go on as they have, though I’d enjoy seeing Daisy run the farm that was promised to her. And we need to keep an eye on Bates—no matter what exculpatory evidence was produced, I still think he murdered his wife. I really believe there’s something very shady about this man that has yet to surface.

So now we’ve got a long wait until “Downton Abbey” returns. Hopefully next season will be televised on PBS in concert with its airing in the U.K., as has been proposed—some people actually think it might make it easier to avoid spoilers. Wanna bet? The ‘net became infested with rumors about actors being cast as Lady Mary’s new love interest before the image of dead Matthew even left the screen.

Frankly I think we all need to chill out, give “Downton Abbey” a rest, enjoy the coming warm weather, and reconvene for discussion in the fall. Don’t you?

Posted in Brain Bits, Opera, Television

Brain Bits for a Snowy Saturday

We’re one day past the Ides of February, and snow flakes the size of quarters are falling outside my window. Pitchers and catchers have reported to spring training, Punxsutawney Phil did not see his shadow, yet we’re still stuck in neutrals of brown, gray and above all, white. Where are you, warm weather?


Fans of the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD broadcasts are definitely in for a treat today when the new production of”Rigoletto” gets beamed ’round the world. Director Michael Mayer has set the opera in Rat Pack-era Las Vegas, 1960, and amazingly, it works. That being said, I think the HD audience will enjoy it even more than I did when I saw the production live in the house this past Tuesday. The problem is this: while the setting is a great deal of fun, it’s enormously distracting when the curtain goes up and you’re looking at a neon-lit casino, with wall-to-wall roulette and blackjack tables, men in leopard print dinner jackets and Countess Ceprano swanning about as Marilyn Monroe. My eyes felt like pinwheels trying to take all this in, to the extent that Piotr Bezcala’s “Questa o quella” barely registered (though he does rock a mean mic). With the HD cameras directing the view, this busy-ness should be lessened considerably.

Tragedy in a Cadillac
Tragedy in a Cadillac

Nitpickers will carp that depicting Monterone as an Arab Sheik is ridiculous, and that even Sinatra didn’t have an entourage the size of the army that hangs around the Duke (no wonder Gilda is terrified). It didn’t bother me because the game was worth the candle. As Peter Sellars did with his “Nozze di Figaro,” set in the Trump Tower (one of the best opera productions I ever saw), Mayer gets the soul of the work. In “Rigoletto,” Verdi forces us to examine a milieu that’s enticing but corrupt to the core, that grinds out innocence and destroys love. I always thought setting this in Studio 54 during the cocaine ’70’s would be a great idea, but I like Mayer’s idea so much more.

As to the music, Diana Damrau, a wonderful Gilda, sang perhaps the best “Caro nome” I’ve ever heard. Piotr Beczala had a few pinched high notes at the outset, which really surprised me, but Conductor Michele Mariotti did him no favors. Fortunately Beczala soon sounded like his normal self, ultimately delivering a tremendous “La donne è mobile.” Željiko Lucic broke my heart when he confronted the Duke’s courtiers, Stefan Kocan was an amusingly suave Sparafucile, and the last act quartet, featuring mezzo Oksana Volkova as one hot-to-trot Maddalena, was outstanding.

If you can’t make it to today’s HD, there’s always an encore presentation to look forward to, as well as the PBS telecast during the summer. Enjoy!


While I was tempted to hold my comments until after tomorrow night’s season finale, I have to say “Downton Abbey” has made a terrific comeback from the doldrums of Sybil’s death, its impact on Robert and Cora’s marriage and the wrangling over a Catholic baptism for baby Sybil. Nearly everyone, both above and below stairs, has either returned to form or even better.

The best show in town, hands down, was the Dowager Countess and Isabel Crawley singing that old duet, “Anything You Can Snark, I Can Snark Better.” Talk about moxie—Violet places an ad to get poor Ethel hired out-of-town? Without talking to Isabel, her employer, first? I know rank has its privilege, but come on. It seemed even she finally realized that her meddling better go the whole route and come down on the side of the angels. So voila—the Dowager works her magic to smooth the way for Ethel to take a post near her son’s grandparents where she’ll be able to see her boy again. Violet 1, Nasty Grandpa 0.

Of course karma paid a visit by saddling her with Rose, that 18 year-old wild child of a grandniece. Is having a (distantly) related Bright Young Thing suddenly appearing out of the blue somehow mandatory in British period drama? This started with Georgianna in the original “Upstairs, Downstairs,” only to recur with that naughty Nazi sympathizer, Lady Persephone, in the show’s recent incarnation. We know it’s now 1920-something in “Downton Abbey”-land, which gives Julian Fellows license to feature basement jazz joints and aristocrats gone wild, but how clichéd can you get? Rose is already a major pain, but her scenes were worth enduring just to see Matthew burst her bubble: “Married men always have horrid wives.”

Speaking of Matthew and the Department of Fecundity, we all knew that his spinal cord injury had nothing to do with the absence of a Matthew or Mary Jr. Now that Mary has set things right, gynecologically speaking (nice bit of continuity that she used her American grandma’s name for a cover—at least she was good for something) we can get on with the next generation. And finally we had some teasing and flirting between the two of them, what with all the sturm und drang of a nearly bankrupt Downton. I’ve gone back to really liking Mary in the last two episodes—siding with Tom over the baby’s baptism and finally hopping on the Matthew Express Train of Success, because her old man’s ideas about how to run an estate seem to be even stodgier than himself.

Truly allies at last
Truly allies at last

I’m of two minds about Edith’s storyline. On the one hand, I love seeing her all modern and out and about in the world (the clothes are fabulous). Her editor is an engaging sort, but why is she being forced into playing Jane Eyre, what with his crazy wife in an asylum? On the Tom front, I’m glad I was wrong about his fate—it’ll be great to see him run Downton as the estate’s agent, and I’m enjoying his closeness to Cora. His confrontation with his drunken brother below stairs was so impressive that he finally (and rightly) won Carson over at long last.

I don’t understand the hubbub about Thomas and the confusion over who was egging James on. Aren’t these people wise to what an intriguer O’Brien is, especially now that she’s obviously looking after her nephew’s interests? Everyone from Lord Grantham to Daisy was aware Thomas was gay, so big deal. Nevertheless, it was worth following all the twists and turns of the story just to hear the Earl’s crack about being kissed at Eton and seeing O’Brien blanch after Bates whispered Thomas’s magic words in her ear.

Finally, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say I don’t think Bates’s release from prison is the end of the story. See, I thought all along he killed his wife, and I sense there’s a lot more in his past that’s going to come out. To me there’s something not quite right about the man. We’ll see what the future holds on that score.

Posted in Television

Downton Derailed


It’s jumped the shark.

Not because “Downton Abbey” killed off youngest daughter, Sybil Branson, last night in an eclampsia-induced, postpartum convulsion. And not because the show has been so locked up in drawing rooms this season that when Mary and Matthew were actually outdoors surveying the estate you could almost breathe in the fresh air along with them.

It’s that old soap opera staple that’s done it—character assassination. By the end of last night’s episode there really should have two corpses laid out next to Sybil’s—her father’s and Mary’s.

Lord Grantham’s insistence that Sybil be attended by the prestigious physician, Sir Philip Tapsell, instead of Downton’s old reliable Dr. Clarkson, was the most bizarre turn I’ve seen a TV show take in years. This was beyond weird—it was Guy Woodhouse revisited, refusing to let poor Rosemary, looking like death warmed over, check back with dreamy Dr. Hill (I half expected Robert, in the face of Cora’s outrage, to insist, “But Sir Philip was on Open End!”). What was the point of this? Was Robert attempting to make up for his earlier cold-shouldering of Sybil and Tom by providing this so-called prized expert? Why anoint yourself sole decision maker and be so adamant about it when your other daughters and especially your wife, who actually knows something about labor and childbirth, are screaming at you that you’re wrong?

This ludicrous development was totally at odds with the Robert of Seasons One and Two. Yes, I know he got handy with one of the parlormaids last season, but that was somewhat organic—at least there was foreshadowing. Robert’s idiocy concerning Sybil’s giving birth, though, was totally out of left field. But there’s another problem with this storyline. Sybil’s condition and especially the baby’s small size beg the question of how closely she had been attended by any doctor at all prior to going into labor, especially when she and Tom were still living in Ireland. I suspect there were earlier warning signs that went unheeded while the two of them were on the run, so maybe there will be more finger-pointing to come.

And Mary. Ever since the wedding she’s been acting like she’s got a monumental case of buyer’s remorse. If this is not what’s intended (and you could have fooled me), we need to see some of Season Two Mary and Matthew romance again. Hell, I’d settle for the two of them just enjoying each other’s company without arguing or seeming to be at loggerheads, whether over Robert, the management of the estate or starting a family. I’ve always liked Mary, even with her faults, but Lord, she’s been a pill since the season premiere.

Despite all the illogical twists, this episode was among the best “Downton Abbey” has shown us thus far. The acting was uniformly excellent, even when the plot made no sense. Dame Maggie Smith broke my heart when she arrived at Downton the morning after Sybil’s death, and Michele Dockery and Laura Carmichael made me tear up in their mutual pledge as sisters (though we’ll see how long this lasts). And it was a treat to see Tim Pigott-Smith as Sir Philip—he who played one of the most twisted characters ever to appear in a TV series, namely Ronald Merrick in the superb “The Jewel in the Crown.” 

I think it’s fairly simple to see where we’re headed, post-Sybil (I’m not spoiled, so this is just supposition): Tom, new father or not, will go back to Ireland despite the official ban on his return. He’ll promptly be blown up or shot in some IRA action. The baby, who will probably be named Sybil Cora (and baptized in the Catholic Church), will be raised by her grandparents. Only then will Cora relent and let Robert share her bed once more.

Soap opera to the nth degree, but I’m really hoping for better from “Downton Abbey.”

Posted in Brain Bits, Television

Brain Bits in Gray Winter

We’ve had a really mild winter so far, but the party’s over. The Deep Freeze arrived last night, with wind chills below zero—the coldest it’s been in two years. Time to cook some stew, bundle up and consider some tube.

Is it just me, or is Downton Abbey the new Southfork? Don’t these kids ever want to move out for good?Matthew-Crawley-downton-abbey-15932584-570-364

I was really looking forward to Matthew and Mary’s buying and settling into an estate of their own—at least that was the game plan in the season opener. Now Matthew’s an investor in Downton Abbey, courtesy of Reggie Swire, and he’s appalled by how slipshod the place is run. At least he’s got something to work on now after being so disappointingly domesticated. I so miss the dashing Matthew in uniform, the romance of his on-again off-again relationship with Mary.

Despite all that, I’m still enjoying the show, even if Sunday’s episode wasn’t a barn burner. It was great to see Lady Edith pull herself together, buck her father and get her views into print. On the other hand, I’m beyond bored with the Bates-in-prison storyline. It amazes me that this fills up so much airtime, since the downstairs crowd is getting very interesting, especially with the new arrivals (“I’ve always been Jimmy!”). Sybil and Tom don’t do all that much for me, but the New Daisy, who stands up for herself, and Isobel Crawley, who’s so gung-ho to rehabilitate ladies of the evening, more than compensate. We need a fly in the ointment, though, to keep things off-balance—another Sir Richard, perhaps, or an all-out war between Thomas and O’Brien, or a Pamuk-like disaster. Don’t want things to get too complacent.


I miss “Homeland.” Not just the acting, which is uniformly superb, or the tension, or Brody’s will-he-or-won’t he. It’s the level of intelligence in the writing that makes so many other shows pale by comparison. The mosaic nature of “Homeland” is what sets it apart—and what makes the show so difficult to blog about until the season is over, when the entirety is known, at least to that stopping point. Storytelling at its finest.


Richard and Julia

I haven’t given up on “Boardwalk Empire,” but I am disappointed. It’s turned into exactly what I feared, namely a Jazz Age “Gangster of the Week” bloodbath. As last season went on it became more and more apparent just how big a mistake it was to kill off Jimmy Darmody (not to mention Angela), and attempt to replace him with a psychopath like Gyp Rossetti.

The show runners should have realized that Jimmy and Nucky shared an emotional connection that would endure, no matter how vengeful Jimmy appeared to be. Without him, it’s just a game of Gangster Chess—with guns. The only characters I really care about at this point are Richard Harrow, Julia and young Tommy Darmody. Yes, I’m still interested in Eli Thompson and Chalky White, and I’m curious as to how Gillian survived her own heroin injection (has she been a junkie all along, now possessing the tolerance to survive a shot designed to kill Gyp?). But “Boardwalk Empire” is almost a jukebox—put in a quarter and press the button for the bootlegger of your choice.

I hope the Powers That Be can turn this around and make me care more. Otherwise I may be gone, too.


I was a latecomer to “Game of Thrones,” but I finally caught up last spring. Needless to say, I’m really looking forward to the Season Three premiere, which HBO endlessly reminds us will happen on—drumroll—3.31.13. I bought the first three books in the series, but so far I’ve only dipped into the first two volumes a la Cliff’s Notes—just to fill in a few blanks. It’s tough to resist the temptation to skip ahead and read “A Storm of Swords” before Season Three begins, but I’m hanging on. Barely.

Posted in Television

The Return of Downton Abbey

Mary-and-Matthew-Crawley-Wedding-downton-abbey-32428302-3000-2000Last night was definitely worth waiting for.

“Downton Abbey” returned to PBS in all its aristocratic splendor, with Mary and Matthew tying the knot at long last. It took them 2+ seasons to get to the altar, but the trip was an intriguing one, made enjoyable by watching the performances of Michelle Dockery and Dan Stevens. It’s to their credit that these actors made every twist of this relationship plausible, because at times they had to jump through some incredible hoops (miraculous recovery from paralysis, anyone?).

On the plus side of the ledger, we had the Dowager Countess in rare form, littering her path with bon mots, but stepping up when it was most needed by sending Sybil and Tom the fare to attend the wedding. I liked her collaboration with Isabel Crawley to get Tom into a cutaway, and Maggie Smith played the “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” sing along to perfection. It’s too bad the show’s creator, Julian Fellows, didn’t write an equally realized character for Shirley MacLaine to play. I would have expected more for Cora’s mother—instead we got Fellows’ wildly off-key conception of a dotty American. If memory serves, Mrs. Levinson (under her first husband’s name) made the match between Cora and Robert, which shows title shopping at its best. If she were that ambitious, there’s no way she’d be putting down the British aristocracy for being fuddy-duddy, no matter what changes the war brought.

It seems upstairs will be preoccupied with money in the weeks to come, and I’m already tired of it. Though I must say it was a great coup for show continuity by having Lord Grantham lose his fortune by investing in the Canadian Grand Trunk Railway, formerly run by Charles Hays. Mr. Hays died in the sinking of the Titanic, so that makes Downton Abbey a three-time loser with this disaster, the body count consisting of two heirs and one investment property. But Matthew’s reluctance to accept that sizable inheritance left by Lavinia’s father is somewhat ridiculous. Yes, she was a sweet girl and he’s apparently still guilt-ridden over kissing Mary while his erstwhile fiancée lay dying of Spanish influenza, but let’s get real. Don’t you wish Mary would scream at him “She was only a plot device! Get over it”?

As far as downstairs goes, we’re now in double overtime as far as Bates’ murder conviction is concerned. This is a plot that desperately needs resolution, because Anna is being wasted in its service. On the other hand, it was great to see O’Brien turn on Thomas in order to advance her nephew in the household, though I still think she’s a snake (She’ll never live down that strategically placed cake of soap that caused Cora’s miscarriage).  Mrs. Hughes unfortunately ended up with the obligatory illness storyline, which I hope sorts itself out sooner rather than later, otherwise O’Brien will have the opportunity she’s been waiting for (and doesn’t deserve).

I’m looking forward to seeing where the Lady Edith/Lord Anthony story goes, because that girl needs a break. She’s got her bitchy side, but let’s face it—it must have been tough growing up in Lady Mary’s shadow. What’s going to be even tougher in the weeks to come is avoiding more spoilers. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve got to know Dan Stevens is leaving the show (sob!) and that Matthew’s fate was revealed in the UK on Christmas Day (cue screaming).

Definitely looking forward to more of the Crawleys in the post-war world in the weeks to come.

Posted in Movie Reviews, Opera

No-Winter Notes

As I’m writing this, all forecasts say we’re going to hit 62 degrees this afternoon. It’s baseball weather. The last time we had a winter this mild (about 15 years ago if fading memory serves), the trees were blooming in late February. Despite the nay-sayers, yes Virginia, there is indeed global warming.

Does an actor or performer ever use up their ability to engage us? Is there ever a time when they reach into their bag of tricks and just can’t find the technique, the gesture or the intonation that surprises us and makes us remember how gifted they really are? Unfortunately, yes.

The Suave Mr. Morris

This past Saturday I heard the Met broadcast of Tosca, which featured Patricia Racette, Marcelo Alvarez and James Morris. It’s hard to believe, but Mr. Morris has 40 years at the Met under his belt, having made his debut at the tender age of 23 (he was a baby Don Giovanni four years later). I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him perform an incredible range of roles—Philip II in Verdi’s Don Carlo, Iago, Wotan in Die Walkure, and Dr. Schoen, fatally caught in the web of Berg’s Lulu. Flipping the coin, he was all that you could want as Mozart’s Figaro. When Margaret Juntwait, announcer for the Met broadcasts, mentioned that Morris would soon be singing Claggart in Britten’s Billy Budd again, I thought “My God, what will the Met do when he retires?” I’ve seen him twice in the role, and can’t imagine anyone else bringing to the part what he does. On Saturday he was a wonderfully suave and menacing Scarpia who never let you forget he was an aristocrat, which is something most baritones overlook—it’s Baron Scarpia after all. Yes, his voice is showing some age, and as a bass-baritone some of Scarpia’s high notes were fudged or non-existent. But who cares when you hear an artist who never fails to surprise?

The next day I saw Albert Nobbs with Glenn Close in false nose and Charlie Chaplin pants and bowler. Albert may have been 19th century Irish, but when I see him, all I see is Patty Hewes from Damages. Somewhere along the line I became clued into her as an actor—her moves are predictable. It’s not shtik, which is a term I’d attach to Susan Sarandon, whose performances became very one-note for me as long ago as The Client, though she did a bang-up job in ‘Cradle’ Will Rock (And while I’m on the subject, I’ve got a long-standing bone to pick: Anne Bancroft was the image of Reggie as described in John Grisham’s novel, and should have gotten the movie role, no questions asked). On the other hand, Janet McTeer, who matches Albert Nobbs’s m.o. by disguising herself as a man, is tremendous. There’s one scene she steals (among several) that puts all this into perspective—when she, as Hubert, and Albert don dresses to walk along the beach. Glenn Close walks as Glenn Close, i.e., a woman. Janet McTeer manages to pull off a true Victor/Victoria—a woman playing a man playing a woman—displaying all guises simultaneously. It has to be seen to be believed. I think she’s a long shot to win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, but I’d love for her to do it.

Super Bowl Sunday is looming, but I’ve got a confession to make: even though I’m a Giants fan, I’m switching to PBS at 9:00 p.m. Nothing gets between me and Downton Abbey, especially now with the Spanish influenza epidemic on the horizon, Lady Mary facing perpetual blackmail from her sleaze of a fiance, Matthew–er–indisposed for marriage and Lavinia vowing that she can’t live without him. I don’t remember the last time I saw two characters as engaging or as right for each other as Lady Mary and Matthew, and if they’re not back together by the end of this season, I’ll be fuming for a year.

Tomorrow is Groundhog Day. Bet Punxsutawney Phil shows up wearing shades with a beer in his paw.