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The more the Mary-er (or “marry her?”), says Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery

- January 3rd, 2013

Maggie Smith (left) and Michelle Dockery

Michelle Dockery was asked why, seemingly against all odds, Britain’s Downton Abbey has become a pop-culture phenomenon in North America.

“It’s really difficult to pinpoint why,” said Dockery, who plays Lady Mary Crawley. “You tell me.”

Well, I’m not sure I have a better answer than you do, Ms. Dockery. But it’s a good thing for both of us, don’t you think?

Downton Abbey returns to North American TV with its third season, starting Sunday, Jan. 6 on most PBS stations. Set early in the 20th century, the lush period drama follows an aristocratic British family and the servants in their massive house, known as Downton Abbey.

As season three begins, it’s the spring of 1920. What later would become known as World War I finally is over and the long-awaited wedding of Lady Mary and Matthew (Dan Stevens) is nearing.

But as one would expect, all is not tranquil at Downton Abbey, as world-altering social changes, romantic intrigues and personal crises pulsate through the majestic English country estate.

What of poor, wrongly imprisoned Mr. Bates, played by Brendan Coyle? Will the scheming Thomas (Robert James-Collier) be rewarded or punished for his continued malevolence? And how will a visit by Lady Mary’s American grandmother, played by Shirley MacLaine, shake things up?

It certainly isn’t usual for North American audiences to get caught up in a British series such as this. But Downton Abbey somehow has hit upon the right mix of eye candy, class tension, romance and quality story-telling to grab the attention of a continent otherwise obsessed with the likes of Lindsay Lohan and Honey Boo Boo.

“But it feels like kind of a steady process,” said Dockery, who was nominated for an Emmy Award in 2012 and is pictured at right in the above photo, with Maggie Smith at left. “The first (season), people were just kind of catching on. It was the second (season) that seemed to really take off over here.

“So it feels like it has been a steady progression. At home (in Britain) it was quite an explosion right away, millions of people tuned in for the very first episode. And it has just grown from there, it’s wonderful.”

In many ways the fate of Lady Mary has been at the centre of Downton Abbey‘s story. So from the vantage point of the 21st century, does Dockery view Lady Mary as a sympathetic character, or as something of a brat?

“I think Mary started out as a bit of a brat,” Dockery said. “I mean, she was certainly far colder in the beginning.

“Initially I thought she would be the Kristin Scott Thomas type of character in Gosford Park, when I read those first few scripts. And then, you know, I realized she actually becomes far more sympathetic and sensitive, and I’ve really enjoyed that journey, which I wasn’t expecting.”

Not that Lady Mary becomes Mother Teresa or anything. Lady Mary certainly is not interested in anything resembling a diminished lifestyle, even as significant factors threaten the Crawley family’s stature in season three (watch for a Canadian connection in that regard!).

“Every year it gets better, actually,” Dockery said of Downton Abbey. “This year is even better than the last.”

Literally, the world is watching.

bill.harris@sunmedia.ca

@billharris_tv

REVIEW: Dexter, episode 1, season 7. How does Dexter Morgan spell relief?

- September 30th, 2012

Jennifer Carpenter, Michael C

Relief.

That’s what Dexter Morgan was feeling. He closed his eyes. He exhaled. He was relieved. That sounds bizarre. But I’m sure of it.

That’s how the first episode of the seventh season of Dexter ended on Sunday night.

SPOILER ALERT: This is a review of the episode and is meant for people who saw it. If you don’t want to know what happened, now’s the time to bail.

Okay, so the previous season ended with Dexter (played by Michael C. Hall, pictured above right) and his foster sister Deb (Jennifer Carpenter, pictured above left) having reached a crossroads in their relationship. Deb had walked in on Dexter just as he was completing one of his patented kills.

So for the entire first episode of the new season, Dexter was trying to limit the damage. Or contain the damage. Yes, Deb knew the truth. But she didn’t know the WHOLE truth. Dexter was determined to keep Deb in the dark about that.

It didn’t work.

The final scene has Dexter entering his apartment, only to find his place torn apart, and Deb sitting there. In front of her is all of Dexter’s killing equipment and paraphernalia and souvenirs, including his blood slides.

“Did you kill all these people?” Deb asks coldly.

Dexter has no choice but to come clean.

“I did,” he says.

And then the big question.

“Are … are you a serial killer?” Deb says.

The entire run of Dexter has been leading up to this moment.

“Yes,” he answers.

Finally, there it is.

And I swear, Dexter is relieved. His life as he knew it is over. But being a serial killer, even one who’s trying to live by a code, is a lot to carry around on your own.

That big story line is the reason Dexter still is on the air. But other plot paths were set up as the seventh season began, with some of them having the potential to link up with the overriding arc as things proceed.

The “unrelated crime angle of the season” involves a dead stripper, a strip joint with mob connections in Ukraine, and, notably, a dead cop.

When Detective Mike Anderson (Billy Brown) stops to help someone with a flat tire, he finds the dead stripper in the trunk and instantly is shot dead. Mike always was a secondary character, but still, his murder – especially in the first episode of a season – was a shock.

Dexter later tracks and kills Mike’s killer. It’s a risky move by Dexter, given the Deb situation, but Dexter feels he needs to “centre” himself.

Ironically, that effort to return to normalcy helped lead to Deb’s wider discovery.

She never bought Dexter’s explanation at the church. So she was watching him closely. She learned that Dexter had told his omnipresent babysitter Jamie Batista (Aimee Garcia) that he was working late, when he clearly was not. “Does that happen a lot?” Deb asks, as she starts to put two and two together.

Two other noteworthy plot lines:

Dexter rightfully gets the creeps from Jamie’s boyfriend Louis Greene (Josh Cooke) – and vice versa, right? – but Dexter doesn’t yet understand what a threat Louis is.

And La Guerta (Lauren Velez) found one of Dexter’s blood slides at the church. This raises the spectre of James Doakes again, since the accepted wisdom of the Miami Metro Police Department is that one of their own, the now-deceased Doakes, was the Bay Harbor Butcher. And the butcher is associated with blood slides.

But we know – and Dexter knows – that it wasn’t really Doakes.

God, I wish I had a photographic memory of Dexter’s early seasons, since the show is doubling back on itself for key developments more and more.

All things considered, there was a heck of a lot going on as Dexter returned for season seven. You know, in the real world, I still think Deb would have “called in” the crime right away when she saw Dexter commit murder.

But hey, this is Dexter, so we left the real world behind a long time ago. If you want reality, watch Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.

bill.harris@sunmedia.ca

@billharris_tv

Clint Eastwood and chair, the newbies nowhere; review of SNL 38th-season debut

- September 16th, 2012

Frank Ocean, Seth MacFarlane, Fred Armisen

The new blood on Saturday Night Live never really got flowing as the 38th season began with a reasonably clot-free episode Saturday night on NBC and Global.

Host Seth MacFarlane served as an able utility player in a series of skits that had good energy, which is a key consideration on SNL. Notably, for a guy with basically normal hair, MacFarlane had more wig changes than Lady Gaga in concert, for some unknown reason.

But with the likes of Kristen Wiig, Andy Samberg and Abby Elliott gone from SNL this season, new featured players Aidy Bryant, Tim Robinson, Cecily Strong and Kate McKinnon virtually were invisible. The only extended contribution came from Strong, playing a Dominican voter with a bad accent in a Weekend Update segment that never quite took off.

The most edgy line during Weekend Update surfaced when anchorman Seth Meyers referenced the film Innocence of Muslims, which has caused violent and deadly protests in the Middle East. With a picture of a riot in the background, Meyers said, “This week the new film Innocence of Muslims was released, and so far, the reviews are not great. You guys know YouTube has a comments section, right?”

SNL leaned heavily on returning cast member Bill Hader early in the show, and heavily on returning cast member Kenan Thompson later in the show.

You knew SNL would have to reference the infamous Clint Eastwood performance talking to a chair at the Republican National Convention, and it did so with a pre-taped bit. Hader played Eastwood in an ad promoting Eastwood’s tour with the chair, with the tag line, “No script; no set tour dates; no predetermined theatres.”

Hey, didn’t Charlie Sheen do that already?

High points included Vanessa Bayer’s Honey Boo Boo, MacFarlane’s Ryan Lochte and a cameo appearance by Korean rapper Psy, who probably got the biggest cheer of the night.

The musical guest was Frank Ocean, who was wearing a sweater that looked as if it had been purchased in a casino gift shop (that’s him, and it, at far left in the above photo, with MacFarlane in the middle and Fred Armisen at right). John Mayer played guitar for Ocean.

Speaking of Armisen, as the U.S. plods toward a presidential election, all the moaning that people used to do about Armisen’s Barack Obama impersonation finally can stop. Cast member Jay Pharoah is the new Obama, with Jason Sudeikis back as Mitt Romney.

Pharoah’s Obama posed a question to America: “Stick with what’s been barely working, or take your chances with that.”

The “that” referred to Romney. But the jab had unexpected resonance on an evening when Saturday Night Live leaned heavily on its veterans and left the newbies to dream of future glories.

bill.harris@sunmedia.ca

@billharris_tv

Satan collects hefty tolls on Highway Thru Hell

- September 3rd, 2012

Highway Thru Hell

TV sure has gone to hell lately.

There’s Hell’s Kitchen, Hotel Hell, Hell on Wheels, not to mention Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, which doesn’t have hell in the title but sure makes you feel like you’re in hell while you’re watching it.

Which brings us to a new show on the Discovery Channel called Highway Thru Hell, which debuts Tuesday, Sept. 4. It’s about driving to the mall with your family. We kid, we kid. It’s actually an eight-part Canadian series focusing on a small group of steel-willed “heavy rescue” specialists who are called upon to help truckers in trouble.

And the truckers in this case face a unique type of trouble, since Highway Thru Hell is centred on the Coquihalla Highway, a.k.a. 100 treacherous kilometres that cut through the heart of British Columbia’s Cascade Mountains. Steep slopes, deadly drop-offs, random rock-slides, awe-inspiring avalanches and all-around wicked weather combine to make this economically important route anything but a smooth ride.

While much reality-TV fare obviously can be frivolous, this show actually is not for the faint of heart, as it deals with some life-and-death situations.

Apparently hell hath no fury like a hungry highway.

bill.harris@sunmedia.ca

@billharris_tv