It’s starting to feel very autumnal and both ITV and BBC have presented us with their dramas which they hope will win Sunday night audiences. ITV have backed a known commodity in Downton Abbey, which returned for its fourth series this week. Things aren’t exactly rosy in the nation’s stately home, with the Grantham and Crawley families still mourning the loss of Matthew in the Christmas Special. His widow Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) is looking especially glum and spends the majority of the episode staring off into space. Mary’s brother-in-law Tom (Allen Leech), desperately attempts to distract her with business meetings, but her father Robert (Hugh Bonneville) wants to allow her to wallow. With debate running rampant about how to deal with Mary, it’s up to butler Carson (Jim Carter) and Mary’s grandmother Violet (Maggie Smith), to talk some sense into her. Meanwhile, Mary’s sister Edith (Laura Carmicheal) is being proposed to in London by her publisher Gregson (Charles Edwards), who is considering moving to Germany just so he can divorce his wife. Below stairs, Carson is haunted by his past when Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) goes to visit one of his old music hall companions who is now living in a workhouse. When Carson doesn’t want anything to do with the hapless Grigg, Mrs Hughes convinces Isobel (Penelope Wilton) to take him in. Finally, Thomas (Rob-James Collier) continues to get revenge against people who rub him up the wrong way, when he butts heads with Downton’s newest nanny. After treating him like dirt one too many times, Thomas tells Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) that the nanny has been leaving the children unattended. While this was a lie, it appears as if the nanny has been talking down to Sybbie, calling her a half-breed and a chauffeur’s daughter.
I’ve personally never really understood the appeal of Downton Abbey or at least why people love it as much as they do. While there’s no denying that it’s a well-produced drama with some great performances, it’s never really blown me away. This opening episode felt particularly unremarkable due to the majority of it focusing on Lady Mary’s grief, which involved a lot of quiet scenes and not a lot of action. In fact, each series opener of Downton Abbey has some sort of memorable moment whether it be Thomas’ shot in series two or Matthew and Mary’s wedding last year. Though there are some continuing stories, such as Edith and Gregson’s courtship and the return of the maid who has a thing for Tom, most of what happened here felt like more of a bridging episode than anything else. Another issue I had was that the programme really didn’t feel it was set in the early 1920s and the theme of modernisation certainly wasn’t present here. In fact, if it hadn’t have been for Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nicol) struggling with her electric whisk, I would swear we were still in the 19th century. One thing Downton does have going for it is its engaging performances with Michelle Dockery excelling as the grieving Mary while the always brilliant Maggie Smtih was great once again. I do think Downton Abbey does work as an hour of costume drama once a week, so I do question why the opening instalment was ninety minutes long. It’s not as if any of the stories needed that long to develop and I really could’ve done without the subplot involving the servants trying to work out who’d sent a Valentine’s Day card to whom. As ever Donwnton Abbey is enjoyable bit of escapism, but it seems to me that it’s lost a little bit of the fun that made it so great to watch in the first place. But I feel that Downton Abbey is one of those programmes that will get nine million viewers regardless of what’s going on on screen. However, the casual viewer wants more from their Sunday evening dramas and I’m hoping that Downton does something to keep me interested as, judging by this week’s episode, it’s getting a little bit dull.
Over on BBC1 meanwhile, they were counter programming against the sedate Downton Abbey with quick-paced crime drama By Any Means. The drama, from Hustle creator Tony Jordan, focuses on a trio who try to catch the criminals that the police can’t. Their leader is wise-cracking Jack Quinn (Warren Brown), whose jokes hide some sort of dark secret in his past. Jack’s joined by sexy femme fatale Jess (Shelley Conn), who is adept at lock-breaking and pretending to be frightened of doors. Finally there’s Tom-Tom (Andrew-Lee Potts), the gang’s computer expert who is able to disarm safes and tap into government databases. The gang, or at least Jack, takes orders from the mysterious Helen Barlow (Gina McKee), who is able to access anything they need to bring down the criminal of the week. This week’s main target is Nick Mason (Keith Allen), a career criminal who the police have failed to arrest on numerous occasions. In comparison Jack’s team takes very little time to get inside his head, especially after they break into his house and find out that he’s having therapy for his anger management. They then decide they only have to get him angry and he’ll fall right into their trap, I wonder why the police didn’t think of that? By Any Means had twists in the final ten minutes, both of which I saw coming a mile off. That alone sums up By Any Means, which is a programme that thinks it’s a lot cleverer than it is. Tony Jordan fails to actually explain anything about our characters and instead the phrase ‘it’s kind of a grey area’ is constantly used. Having said that Jordan’s script is at least well-paced and he especially at writing banter for the three lead characters. By Any Means was a fairly satisfactory way to spend an hour, but I don’t think it’ll be a programme I’ll be returning to it. Warren Brown is woefully miscast as the wise-cracking Jack, mainly because he’s far too likeable, while Andrew-Lee Potts is playing a carbon copy of his Primeval boffin. By Any Means is ultimately a show that feels quite hollow in that it’s enjoyable enough when you’re watching, but nothing sticks with you long after the credits have rolled.
Something incredibly odd happened this week, we finally got some decent sitcoms on the television. First up was The Wrong Mans, a comedy thriller delivered to us by writers and stars James Corden and Matthew Baynton. The programme focuses on loveable Berkshire County Council employee Sam Pinkett (Baynton), who one morning inadvertently causes a car accident and ends up answering a phone left on the road. Upon answering the phone, a voice informs him that his wife will be dead at 5pm unless he turns up with the money. Unsure of what to do next he confides in the energetic mail room assistant Phil Bourne (Corden) who tells him that it was his destiny to pick up the phone. The two then have to evade the police and get to the hospital where Sam almost gets his leg amputated after a mix up with some gurneys. The thriller elements of the plot are counterbalanced with the more mundane look at Sam’s life as he attempts to work on a slogan to entice people to come to Bracknell. In addition he’s hoping to convince his ex-girlfriend and now boss Lizzie (Sarah Solemani) to reunite with him, as he’s recently moved out of the house they once shared. The Wrong Mans sets itself apart from other sitcoms almost instantly, as Sam’s flashback to a heavy night of drinking is incredibly artistically shot. Indeed, The Wrong Mans does benefit from having a director, Jim Field Smith, who has worked on numerous Hollywood movies. More importantly than the style, The Wrong Mans is incredibly funny with simple gags combined with incredibly embarrassing moments of humour. Baynton and Corden make a superb double act with the latter acting as the bemused straight man and the latter playing his enthusiastic larger-than-life companion. As they’ve worked together several times before, they share a winning chemistry which adds a likeable aspect to both of their characters. Overall, The Wrong Mans has a genuinely intriguing story while its coupled with great performances and realistic characters. I’m hoping that the show doesn’t descend into farce as it progresses, but I have faith that The Wrong Mans could definitely be the comedy of 2013.
Though not as slick as The Wrong Mans, this week’s other big new sitcom London Irish also had a certain charm to it. It has a much more basic premise as it simply follows four young Irish friends as they try their best to integrate into London life. The quartet is headed up by Packy (Peter Campion), the sanest of the bunch who is often chastising his friends for their crude language and awful behaviour. He’s joined by siblings Bronagh (Sinead Keenan) and Conor (Kerr Logan), she’s incredibly tight and cynical while he’s a lot more innocent. Finally there’s man-mad Niamh (Kat Reagan), an unashamed extrovert who is occasionally ruthless especially when it comes to finishing relationships. The first episode centred around Packy’s guilt over a former friend getting shot at the petrol station in which they both worked. Though Packy had nothing to do with the accident, it was his shift the friend was covering and his friends constantly remind him that it’s his fault. To make amends Packy hosts a quiz at the local pub with the proceeds going to helping Ryan get a mechanical hand. However, his friends really aren’t up for the quiz, until they find out that there’s a three litre bottle of vodka to play for. From there the plot takes a farcical tone as Niamh’s criminal boyfriend joins the team and Bronagh believes that she and Ryan may have once hooked up at a party. I really shouldn’t like London Irish as it contains plenty of elements that I detest in other sitcoms. I think what makes it come alive are the likeable cast and I find it really helps that all four are relative unknowns. The script is very funny and, as someone who’s spent a lot of time with Irish people, I know that they often act the way they do in the show. Though this might not be a programme to watch with your nan, I found London Irish to be oddly charming in a smutty sort of way.
Finally, as two new comedies arrive on our screens, one favourite is sadly departing. I’m talking about The IT Crowd, which aired its final episode this past Friday. When we rejoin our basement-based trio they are still struggling to adjust to normal life. Roy (Chris O’Dowd), finally has a girlfriend who knows as much as comic books as he does, however she considers him to be emotionally autistic. Moss (Richard Ayoyde) is struggling with his confidence but finds he is able to express himself when he wears ladies slacks. Meanwhile, a new coffee shop throws up problems for our gang when Jen (Katherine Parkinson) accidentally throws a rubbish cup of coffee at a homeless woman while Roy berates a diminutive barista. When the incident is filmed, both are given tonnes of online abuse while Douglas (Matt Berry) is forced to appear on The Secret Millionaire to improve the company’s image. Any worries that The IT Crowd would lose some of its charm now two of its cast members have made major Hollywood films were quickly allayed. The three central actors easily slipped back into the hapless characters for which they are best known for playing. Graham Linehan’s script perfectly spoofs modern culture from virtual terrorist group Anonymous to the perils of Twitter, sorry Jitter. As this is the final instalment, at least for now, Linehan also presented a few nods to the past including the reintroduction of Noel Fielding’s goth Richmond and the reference to a past gag involving Jen’s naivety. In addition, Roy briefly breaks the fourth wall to wonder why abnormal things are constantly happening to the gang. The show ends with a gloriously surreal twist which is befitting of a programme such as The IT Crowd which has been both funny and charming throughout its run. I’m glad Linehan got a chance to say goodbye to these characters and there wasn’t one thing about this final episode that bothered me in the slightest.
Next Time: Strictly Come Dancing, Atlantis and Citizen Khan