Downton Abbey season 5: The triumph of period drama

Period dramas such as Downton Abbey, which returns to North American TV screens for Season 5 on Sunday night, can foster unique and sometimes strange alliances between the past they portray and the present-day lives surrounding their viewers.

British melodrama returns to North American screens Sunday for season 5

Allen Leech as Tom Branson and Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary in Downton Abbey. (Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2014 for Masterpiece)

Downton Abbey spoiler alert: Isis the beloved yellow Labrador is taken ill. But the uncertain future for Lord Grantham's dog during the upcoming season 5 of the British period TV melodrama has nothing to do with producers wanting to cleanse scripts of references to Middle East jihadists.

Isis was actually named for an Egyptian goddess, and Hugh Bonneville, the actor who plays her doting on-screen master, went to some online pains to point out the Egyptian reference after U.K. newspapers went into a tizzy a couple of months ago.

Still, the fact that Bonneville felt obliged to correct the record reflects the strange confluence that can develop between the past and the present for those caught up in a period drama such as Downton Abbey, which returns for a new season Sunday night on PBS's Masterpiece. (British viewers watched season 5 last fall.)

Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, and his Labrador, Isis, are seen in this tumblr image of the popular ITV series Downton Abbey. (ITV)
"All historical fiction is a mixture of things we know about the past, or things we think we know about the past, and things we're thinking about the present," says Rohan Maitzen, an associate professor in the department of English at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

Although anyone seeing references to Islamic militants was likely projecting a bit too much of the modern world into a show set in 1920s England, suggests Bill Brioux, a long-time television columnist for Toronto newspapers,.

"This really isn't a show that's trying to make political headlines that I can see," he says. "It's embraced by fans who like period drama," which is huge on TV right now. 

"It really is the hot genre," says Brioux, rattling off shows like Game of Thrones and Murdoch Mysteries.

Make the modern world go away

Brioux, for one, sees a number of reasons for the current popularity of period drama.

"It takes us back to a time and place before cellphones and social media. Just in terms of storytelling, I think it's a richer time."

But the show also has its own very modern way of merging the periods.

"We're at a time when computers can generate entire armies and villages and castles and just a look of a show," says Brioux.

Jim Carter as Mr. Carson and Sophie McShera as Daisy are returning in Season 5 of Downton Abbey, which has been compared to series such as Upstairs, Downstairs. (Nick Briggs/Carnival)
"Even something like Downton Abbey, you've got to make hydro wires and towers that are erected for cellphone transmissions, you've got to make all that stuff disappear."

(Yet even Downton Abbey, a much-awarded show well-known for stunning production values, can have the occasional hiccup. Much online attention was focused last summer on a promotional photo that had a plastic water bottle sitting on the mantelpiece.)

Brioux sees another technical nod to modern times in Downton Abbey: the way the episodes are put together.

"It's set 100 years ago and it's reminiscent of old miniseries like Upstairs Downstairs, but it's shot like a cutting-edge drama. There are more cuts to this show than The Walking Dead."

It looks like "your mom and dad's show," he adds, "but it's shot for a short attention span generation."

Removed from everyday life

The whole Isis episode notwithstanding, Brioux does see ways in which modern viewers project their lives into period drama, just "as much as if it was Star Trek.

"It's exotic and removes us from our lives today, and it's romantic."

Speaking of which, there's plenty of romance in Downtown Abbey — above and below stairs — and more is promised this season, for the buttoned-up Lady Mary among others.

"I liked Downton Abbey because it's a soap essentially, it's a good soap," says Laurie Finstad Knizhnik, creator of the considerably less soapy period drama, Strange Empire, which debuted on CBC-TV in October.

Finstad Knizhnik doesn't want Strange Empire, a sweeping and non-traditional western set in southern Alberta in 1869, to get as frothy as Downton Abbey.

But she sees virtue in drawing insight from the past, and in exploring larger questions "of how capitalist structures .... changed everything for aboriginals over the course of 300 years."

Cara Gee plays a gun-toting Métis cowgirl seeking justice on the Western frontier in 1869 in the CBC-TV series Strange Empire. (Kharen Hill/CBC)
"It's really interesting to attach that kind of history to the present moment because we tend to wear blinders. We don't tend to look around.

"We don't tend to go, 'Oh I need to read about the fur trade in 1770. I need to understand what was going on then.' And I just find when I do that kind of reading, it just gives so much perspective on the present."

To succeed as a period drama, Finstad Knizhnik says a series has to engage with its audience. And how best to do that?

"I think it's the Downton Abbey way. People develop an affection and an interest, and they begin to care for these characters," she says. 

Getting through the day

Still, if Strange Empire, which features three very strong-willed and un-Edwardian female characters, comes back for a second season, Finstad Knizhnik says it will be a little more soapy.

"You can't really sustain television, I don't think, otherwise. I mean, in The Sopranos, yes there were larger thematic concerns, but ultimately it got down to how Tony was getting through the day. I think that's what links an audience to a show on TV."

On Downton Abbey, there are characters — and actors — who do that in spades.

"Maggie Smith — she's awesome," says Brioux of the legendary stage and screen actor who has gained renown as the Dowager Countess of Grantham.

"It's that basic. People just love watching great actors let it rip."


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