Forget fall; winter TV is what matters

Jonny Sweet, Brit Marling and James Nesbitt, right, in the Sundance original series "Babylon"
Jonny Sweet, Brit Marling and James Nesbitt, right, in the Sundance original series "Babylon" (Dean Rogers,)

Lady Mary, Violet Crawley, Frank and Claire Underwood — the new year brings the return of some old friends to winter TV starting tonight.

There are also a couple of classy newcomers arriving in coming days in Liz Garvey (Brit Marling), a social-media spin doctor created by Danny Boyle ("Slumdog Millionaire") in the Sundance drama "Babylon," and the Rev. Sidney Chambers (James Norton), a jazz-loving, crime-solving clergyman in "Grantchester" on PBS.


Forget the networks and their wretched-excess-of-junk new fall seasons with 30 or more sitcoms and dramas that virtually all disappear by Christmas. I'll take the cable, streamed, best-of-PBS winter lineup any day. This is mark-your-calendar television — even "Downton Abbey," with which I have some serious issues.

"Downton Abbey," Season 5


9 tonight on PBS

I have wrestled critically with this series for four seasons. And I have done serious self-reflection to try and figure out what it is I dislike about this saga that so many viewers love.

It's not that I totally hate it. After watching the screeners for Season 5, I am reminded of how skillfully crafted this production is. Scenes are staged and characters are moved through them with such rhythm and precision that "Downton" looks and feels more like a stage musical than a TV series at times. This is choreography more than TV direction — and you cannot help but impressed.

And how could anyone not be enthralled by the performance of Maggie Smith as Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham?

Good news for Smith fans: The dowager's screen time, which has grown steadily through the run of the series, is even greater in Season 5. And as sublime an actress as Smith is, her Violet Crawley would not be nearly as singularly delightful a character without the writing of creator Julian Fellowes.

But that's only looking at the entertainment aspect of "Downton Abbey." And let's not kid ourselves, this is mainly escapist entertainment fare. "Downton" is textbook melodrama with improbable swings of fortune — and deaths and marriages shamelessly milked to the high heavens for tears of sadness and joy.

But TV series are also ideological in the set of ideas they present as to how the world is or should be. And it's the ideology of this series that keeps me from embracing it.

I'm sorry, but I cannot feel good about watching a drama that celebrates — yes, celebrates — one class of people oppressing another. And that's what these upstairs/downstairs productions are ultimately about.

If I sound like an academic Marxist here, forgive me — or not. But the Crawleys, a family not known for the financial acumen of its patriarch, live in such high style largely by exploiting the labor of its downstairs staff and the various people who live on and work its land. That, and whatever windfall bequeaths come their way.

Do you really think Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt) has a great life as Lady Mary's (Michelle Dockery) maid — combing her hair, taking off her stockings, shining her shoes, carrying her dresses around like they were the Shroud of Turin, while making sure her feelings and moods are always in tune with those of the lady she serves?

Not me. I'm sure it has something to do with my own social class history and issues, but I cannot get past such feelings when I watch the show.

Set in 1924, Season 5 does have some talk about Britain under a prime minister from the Labor Party — talk intended to make progressive viewers feel like the politics of "Downton" are actually enlightened. But it's just talk.


Fellowes' treatment of the downstairs staff allows the audience to feel superior in a patronizing way — and yet not feel guilty about it. The American audience of today is deftly made to identify with the Crawleys — at least, the female members of that clan.

That's my other issue with the series — the simplistic, even stereotypical level to which it reduces gender identity. In a nutshell, men have the land and power, but women have the brains, grace, decency, common sense, beauty, grit and wisdom. (The list of good things that women have could go on and on — with Lady Mary as the epitome.)

And that's OK. But if you are male and you don't like seeing your gender primarily represented by the one-dimensional, bumbling, pompous gasbag Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) or the various found-to-be-wanting suitors of Lady Mary, I think It's OK to say that, too.

Allow me one last complaint about "Downton Abbey."

Every time I hear an upper-class English accent in a big-budget drama on PBS, I am reminded of how little public television does with great American drama.

You have to go to cable channels like HBO with "Olive Kitteridge" or Showtime with "The Affair" to see American life explored with this level of financial commitment. I think that's a wrongheaded orientation by PBS, and this series defines that wrongheadedness.

"Babylon" premiere

10 p.m. Thursday on Sundance

My year-end column last week focused on the way technology is radically changing the media ecosystem — and, as a result, the way we see the world.

Cable and network newscasts, front pages and even homepages are all being left in the dust as news now comes to us unfiltered via raw video shot on smartphones and bits and bytes of images and words on Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook.

"Babylon" smartly dramatizes that revolutionary change with the story of a young American public-relations operative brought to the U.K. to lead an image makeover for the London police.

Those who have seen the feature film "In the Loop" from Armando Iannucci, the creator of HBO's "Veep," are going to be struck by the similarities. Each had a young aide introduced into a mad, angry, crazed, incredibly political world and trying to make sense of it.

"In the Loop" dealt with media and London politics, while "Babylon" deals with police, media and London politics. Like Iannucci, Boyle also uses an infinite number of variations on a certain four-letter word to communicate what it feels like to be in the middle of such tumultuous change, with 24/7 news channels, citizens with smartphones and spin doctors battling tooth and nail to control the national agenda.

The big question for me with "Babylon" is how viewers are going to react to Brit Marling ("The East") as PR whiz Liz Garvey. As smart as this series is about the media world in which we live, viewers need a character they can care about to become emotionally invested. I wonder if Garvey's inner life is accessible enough to interest and engage the audience.

I do like her in the scenes with James Nesbitt, the hard-bitten head of the police force, Chief Constable Richard Miller. His anger and profanity are unlike anything I have seen since Peter Capaldi's performance in Iannucci's "Loop." And I like Nesbitt's work here almost as much.

Thursday's opening episode throws the viewer smack into the tumult with a prison riot and a bounty put on an officer's head after Garvey releases a video of him shooting a crime suspect.


Yes, video of a police shooting. Sound familiar? The resonance of this drama with our lives today alone makes it worth a look.


"Grantchester" debuts

10 p.m. Jan. 18 on PBS

I sat down planning to screen just one episode of this murder-mystery series about a young, super-good-looking, jazz-loving, whiskey-drinking clergyman who solves crimes in a community near Cambridge in the U.K.

Instead, I watched back-to-back-to-back the three episodes that PBS sent— and wanted more.

I know the series sounds calculated to the point of making you laugh at the description of Reverend Chambers. But if you like Brit mysteries, this one set in the post-World War II era is easy to fall for.

James Norton, who plays Chambers, looks like a young Robert Redford and is a good enough to actor to make you forget how preposterous his character seems when you stop to think about it.

The real delight is the middle-class detective, Inspector Geordie Keating, who befriends Chambers and uses some real police training to help him solve murders. Keating is played with an easygoing grace and down-to-earth charm by Robson Green ("Reckless").

Airing Sundays after "Downton Abbey," "Grantchester," which is adapted from the detective fiction of James Runcie, is going to have no trouble finding an audience and keeping it.

Other noteworthy winter TV dates:

•On Feb. 8, AMC debuts "Better Call Saul," with Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman in this eagerly awaited spinoff of "Breaking Bad."

•On Feb. 27, Netflix drops a new season of "House of Cards," the Maryland-made political thriller starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright.


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