Downton Abbey S04E01 & S04E2: “Episode 1” & “Episode 2”

an episode reminding us all the importance of “joining the living”

And we’re back folks!  Sunday night’s two-hour return to the Grantham stomping grounds had a veritable sampling of everything we love and expect from this ridiculously entertaining series.  After all, what other show on television can turn the introduction of a kitchen mixer into an existential crisis (poor Mrs. Patmore) or an accusation of foiling the morning egg order into legit fighting words (Thomas, you sly dog)?

Let’s just get on with all the glorious melodrama, shall we?

First off, let’s start with the bad news.  I hate to have to be the one to tell you, but it looks like your letter-writing campaign to Dan Stevens, threatening him to rejoin the Downton family, did not pay off.  The fourth season did not begin with The Dowager Countess dabbling in the dark arts and dripping snake blood across Matthew Crawley’s dead body, reciting necromancy incantations.  A miraculous resurrection was not in the cards, but Matthew is still very much ingrained in and a part of the goings-on at Downton Abbey.

Season four opens on a symbolically dismal day in February 1922.   It’s been six months since her husband’s burial, and Mary’s grief lingers unabated.  She cannot see past it and is unable to be the mother she should, passing off her son George, heir apparent to the Downton estate, to the seemingly delightful Nanny West**.

**Apparently, she REALLY hates poor people.  Lady Cora overheard her calling baby Sibyl a “half-breed” and didn’t take kindly to that kind of thing, suggesting she pack up her toothbrush and hit the bricks.  I don’t want to get up on my soapbox or anything, but being a hateful bigot does not seem to be the best way to maintain gainful employment.  There, I said it.  Let the controversy begin.

In many ways, I found Julian Fellowes’s treatment of Mary’s grief fairly superficial; she laments that Matthew saw the good in her and wonders now (in his absence) if she can ever be again, she snaps at Carson for over-stepping his bounds when offering advice, and she mislabels George an orphan.  I mean, yes, we get it; she’s sad, angry, lonely, and vulnerable, but I didn’t learn anything new about Mary as a character.  Thankfully, we didn’t have to wait long for this plot strand’s resolution, as Carson (it had to be Carson) helps Mary confront and take baby steps toward overcoming her grief.  At Branson’s behest, she’s picking up Matthew’s torch and insinuating herself in the management of the estate.  Michelle Dockery did what she could with the material, but I wish there had been more for her to sink her teeth into.

Despite the shortcomings of how we saw Mary’s grief handled, these initial two hours found Isobel Crawley’s very sense of identity in crisis as a result of her son’s death.  In a touching scene between herself and Lady Edith, she says: “When your child dies, you’re not a mother anymore.  You’re not anything, really.  And that’s what I’m trying to get used to.”  A plot that originally had me rolling my eyes (a mysterious actor friend of Carson’s reappearing) ends up dovetailing beautifully with Isobel’s struggle.  In offering to help this Mr. Grigg, she rediscovers a humanity she thought had died in the passenger seat right alongside Matthew.  Her kindness and charity—two traits that made her who she was—are alive and well.  They’d survived the accident, and if they did, then, perhaps, by remaining true to herself, she can honor Matthew’s legacy and endure as well.  Powerful stuff, and beautifully played by Penelope Wilton.

That brings us to the subject of my favorite plotline: Moseley.  Who expected Downton to afford so much screen time to the late Matthew Crawley’s valet?  I certainly didn’t, but I’m so glad we had the opportunity to delve into how this has affected him.  You see, from Moseley’s perspective, he was set for life; the sudden departure of his cash cow has replaced the prospect of a steady income with a general sense of listlessness when it comes to his future.

The Dowager Countess gets involved (as is her wont), staying true to her tendency to help those she cares about.  It seems the Lady Shackleton might be in need of help when her current butler retires, so Violet pulls some strings and gets a sort of performance interview during a luncheon between the two ladies.  In a bleakly funny sequence, the Dowager’s current help, misreading the scenario and feeling his livelihood is in jeopardy, hinders Moseley’s every move (including heating up the handle of a serving tray beneath a flame) and the job opportunity disintegrates.

Soon after, Anna finds Moseley working as a day laborer doing street repairs, and she feels horribly and wants to help because Anna is THE BEST.  Bates agrees to help Anna because Bates is THE BEST and, with Violet, they hatch a scheme to give Moseley a gift of 30 pounds by convincing him Bates owed him money from ages ago.  It turns out, a stint it prison teaches you more than how to make the best toilet wine; you can also learn the fine art of forgery and use it to trick your friends into taking your money!  So, in the end, Bates and Anna help Moseley when they’re not mailing each other anonymous love notes on Valentine’s Day.  #PowerCouple

Speaking of love stories for the ages, our Lady Edith seems swept up in the plot of every school girl’s dream: it’s the old find-a-man-you-love-and-who-loves-you-but-who-can’t-be-with-you-due-to-his-current-wife’s-extreme-mental-incapacitation-so-he-must-become-a-German-citizen-before-he-marries-you-because-lunacy-is-grounds-for-divorce-there.  Yes, things are progressing just as you’d expect for Edith and (future Nazi?) Mr. Gregson.  Call me a pessimist, but I have a sneaking suspicion this Cinderella story isn’t going to end as well as it seems destined to right now.

In other not-so-newsworthy developments, Robert continues to be THE. WORST.  In an effort to cement his bid for Father of the Year, he uses Mary’s grief to his advantage (her withdrawal having left a power vacuum as far as estate affairs go, leaving Lord Grantham salivating) and considers withholding Matthew’s will from Mary to secure his grip on power.  Thank God for Violet, who takes every opportunity to belittle her son, calling him both childish and foolish in her very upper-crust Dowager Countess-y ways.  As the second hour ends, and Mary finds the hastily scrawled will to be legitimate, I loved Hugh Bonneville’s look of feigned happiness; Robert, ever the traditionalist, clearly takes issue with this latest brand of female empowerment.  The clash between modernity and tradition has always been at the heart of this series, and I am excited to see how it unfolds here between father and daughter.

Amongst all this are subplots of various quality: O’Brien flies the coop in the dead of night (for India because why not?), Carson makes up with a long-lost theatre buddy after a squabble over (what else?) a lady, Rose likes to dress up as the help and go dancing (not in that order), the Alfred/Ivy/Jimmy/Daisy quadrangle complicates during Valentine’s Day, Mrs. Patmore is adorably inept with her newfangled kitchen appliance, *** and Edna Braithwaite returns to Downton (who?).

***For the record, I fully endorse the idea of having each subsequent episode feature Mrs. Patmore wrestling with a new piece of quasi-technological cookware because that sounds amazing.

In the end, though certainly uneven in spots, this premiere did a great job of getting us right back into the swing of things at Downton.  It wasn’t perfect, but that’s sort of why I love this show so much; it’s big and messy and over-the-top and melodramatic, and I love every minute of it.

Well, my fellow Downtonites, until next weekend!  Whatever that is…


Snippets of Intrigue

– Carson: “What does it matter anyway?  We shout and wail and scream and cry but in the end we all must die.”

Mrs. Hughes: “That’s cheered me up.”

– Dowager Countess: “You must choose either death or life.”

– Carson: “You’re letting yourself be defeated, my lady.  I’m sorry if it’s a lapse to say, but someone has to.”

– Lady Mary: “He’s not bad-looking, and he’s still alive, which puts him ahead of most men of our generation.”

Community S05E02: “Introduction to Teaching”

 …an episode reminding us all the importance of “being a sexy cat”

If the excellent premiere episode was all about re-acclimating us to Harmon’s vision of Community and allowing us to fall in love with his characters again, the second one—even better than its predecessor—was all about tickling our funny bone.  And if you didn’t find yourself erupting with laughter at least a half-dozen times throughout this installment, then it’s likely that this show just isn’t for you.  Because if this is the kind of humor we can expect from an invigorated fifth season, then I would like to take all of the classes, please.

I loved the thematic lynchpin of this episode, as both the A and B stories hinged on a sort of identity crisis for those involved.  Jeff, Greendale’s Fundamentals of Law professor, found himself in need of an identity overhaul when the episode began.  Business as usual was no longer appropriate for Mr. Winger; apparently, it’s not socially acceptable for a teacher to leer at his female students or to ridicule those who chose to pierce their ears (I’m looking at you, Leonard).  Chalk that up as Jeff’s first learning experience as an educator.

And this is where this second episode of Community found a way to mine fresh life out of this series: introducing the teachers as a new social group.  With the exception of Chang (the newly minted math teacher whose advice to Jeff is to have students break up into groups and grade each other, dangling episodes of Planet Earth in front of them as motivation), the teachers didn’t really fly in the study group’s orbit on any consistent basis.  But getting to know this bunch is going to be a hoot because Harmon’s opening up this world in very new ways.

Which leads us to Criminology professor/amateur cartoonist Buzz Hickey.  As played by the incredible Jonathan Banks, Hickey is a cantankerous, cynical, and grizzled educator, scoffing at Jeff’s insistence that this teaching thing is just a phase.  Though Jeff is by no means in love with teaching (though, by episode’s end, he does concede that he wouldn’t rule out hooking up with it from time to time), Hickey’s palpable disdain for his students is off-putting even to him.  Hickey schools Jeff in the darker realities of teaching: it’s a world of chalk (teachers) vs. lead (students).  And sometimes, that means threatening students with cafeteria flatware and stealing their meatballs to establish dominance.  Such is the life of an educator in America.

A peak into this distorted world of teaching was hilarious enough—commentary on the laziest of teachers proved ripe with comedy—but Harmon took it a step further.  After Annie catches wind of Jeff’s lackadaisical teaching style, she enrolls in his class to make sure he’s qualified to teach law, which, of course, he’s not.  In an act of friendship, Hickey gives Annie a dreaded A- on her Witness Intimidation Project (hilarious), forcing her to drop Fundamentals of Law to put all of her efforts into Hickey’s class.  Because, you see, this is the darkest secret of all: the A- was invented by teachers as payback for students they don’t like.

Fed up with Hickey’s bad attitude, Jeff lets this slip, leading to a literal riot as the students of Greendale realize their perceptions of their teachers and themselves as students has been a lie.  “Minuses are made up!” Annie screams to the masses, provoking them.  Even Magnitude joins in the ensuing chaos, hurling a garbage can through a window and shouting the most blood-curdling version of “Pop pop” you’ll ever here.  As I’m writing this, I’m still laughing about it.

After quelling the riot, Dean Pelton forms a Teacher-Student Alliance, featuring our usual study group members plus (oh goodness gracious I’m giddy with excitement just thinking about it) Professor Hickey.  Plus, Jeff found out teaching might not be so bad after all.

During all of this, a second (perhaps even funnier) identity crisis was taking place.  A two-session class called “Nicolas Cage: Good or Bad?” piqued Abed’s interest and, with Troy and Shirley in tow for emotional support, he enlists.  Needless to say, it’s not long before Abed goes full-on Carrie Matheson as he tries to deconstruct Cage’s performances in myriad films, including a half-baked theory about aliens early on in Snake Eyes.

When Abed comes back to class holding a binder thick with notes and rife with post Its, evidence of his analysis, I knew something special was about to happen.  But I had no idea just how special, as Danny Pudi delivered one of the best comedic performances I’ve seen in a while, devolving into a virtual revolving door of Cage-isms.   When he climbed onto the desk and declared himself a sexy cat, I laughed until I cried.

That this plot somehow managed to become an exploration of faith is just so wonderfully Harmon-esque.  I never thought I would hear a human being utter the phrase, “So Nicolas Cage is Jesus?” in my life.  But I’m so, so glad I have now.

This was simply a brilliant episode; its exploration of what it means to redefine yourself when you least expect or want to, coupled with gut-busting humor, launches it to the top of my list of personal all-time favorite Community eps.  After season four, I thought the show’s best days were behind it.

Apparently not.


Quotes from the Refurbished Study Room

–   Jeff: “Any questions?  You, Red Hair.  I’m not going to learn names.”

Student: “Will there be a syllbas?”

Jeff: “Will there be a syllabus.  Is a good example of a question.  Moving on.”

– Jeff: “Oh, Elaine.  Take it easy on the Oxford commas!”

– Shirley: “I don’t know. If I was in 70 movies over 30 years, and I spent each one of them speaking at random volumes, I might accidentally win an Oscar.”

– Troy: “Abed!  Think of something safe!   Like Holly Hunter!  Or Don Cheadle!”

– Did you catch the board in class?  ABC = Always Be Caging.  Words of wisdom if ever there were any.

Community S05E01: “Repilot”

…an episode reminding us all the importance of “vision boarding!”

Regardless of your opinion on Community’s maligned fourth season (for the record, I didn’t hate it as much as most), you can’t deny the show’s dire need for a creative boost.  While the first three seasons crackled with a maniacal creative energy, last year seemed content to recycle gags—Inspector Spacetime, Darkest Timelines, and paintball—and become more insular, much to the show’s detriment.

In reclaiming the throne previously wrestled from him, re-appointed showrunner Dan Harmon needed to do two things: reestablish the show’s madcap comic sensibilities (duh) while somehow assuring us that last season was simultaneously an anomaly but not a complete waste of time.  This required the fifth season of Community to both distance itself from last year while also building off it in some capacity.  Um.  Yeah.  Sounds simple, I guess?

Going into Thursday night’s premiere, I’ll make a confession:  I was worried.  Harmon’s behind-the-scenes shenanigans, at this point, are well documented and won’t get more play here, but I had a very real concern that his ego would interfere with his ability to pull off this virtual high-wire act of a reboot.

Sometimes, I love being wrong.  Of course he pulled it off.

From the first shot of Jeff’s absurd attorney promo film (an Abed Nadir joint, we later found out), this all felt so…right.  In the tradition of the best Harmon-era episodes, the narrative of “Repilot” was driven by a close attention to this ragtag assemblage of characters, and it gave us a chance to fall in love with them again.  After all, when character (and not gimmick) drives the story, the jokes feel fresh and organic, and fresh and organic jokes tend to land, which they consistently did tonight.

What’s more, Jeff’s post-graduate law practice failed before it really began—that inflated SFX budget on his film did not prove a wise investment—which sparked a plot that found a very believable way to put Britta, Annie, Troy, Abed, Shirley, and Jeff back in the study (now record) room together, which had been closed for sentimental/asbestos reasons after graduation, according to Dean Pelton.

You see, it turns out Greendale graduates have a track record of ineptitude.  In fact, a local bridge collapse can be traced back to one such alum, Marvin Humphries, whose path toward mass destruction could probably have been predicted by his end of coursework thesis: a faulty Lego bridge.  His attorney is, of course, Jeff Winger’s nemesis Alan Connor (a hilarious Rob Corddry).  Connor’s defense strategy is to prove Humphries was “irresponsibly educated” by an institution that, as he says, “turns idiots into bridge collapsers.”  Jeff, feeling as if he’s lost his lawyerly mojo, agrees to retrieve Humphries’s Greendale files for Connors, and before you can say E. Pluribus Anus, he’s strolling the halls of his old stomping ground, prompting raspberries from Leonard and gasps of ecstasy from Dean Pelton.

Naturally, Dean Pelton shredded Humphries’s records, so Jeff has to embrace his inner sleazeball in order to both prove he’s still got it and get payback on a college he believes failed him.   After Abed wrangles the crew together to take part in a “Save Greendale” Committee, Jeff seizes the opportunity to suggest to the former study group about bringing a class action suit against his alma mater.  All it takes is some minor Machiavellian manipulation of his closest friends.

There was something really interesting bubbling under the surface here, a heft that gave the comedy more meaning.  As we caught up with these characters, none of them were living the post-graduate lives they imagined they would be.  Britta’s a bartender.  Abed gave up filmmaking; apparently, irreconcilable creative differences  over inserting Jeff’s “derivative” 555 office number during his film left a rotten taste in his mouth.  Andre left Shirley again, this time because of Shirley’s diverted attention with her business.  Annie is pushing pens for a drug company that both invented and cured fibromyalgia.  And Troy, well, Troy is waiting to sue Abed—don’t ask.  The sequence played like Community’s version of group therapy, both for the study group and the audience.  By checking in with each character, or more to the point, Harmon’s version of each character, it seemed like the perfect way to make sure our transition back to the Community of yore was a smooth one while also addressing the very real notion of post-college anxiety and disappointment.

Of course, the study group ultimately opted to skip the class action (thanks to a hilarious and surprising message from Pierce Hawthorne in hologram form who gave Jeff the reminder he needed).  Rather than destroy Greendale, they decided to rebrand themselves, torching the old study room table and rebuilding a new one.  But Harmon played this heavily symbolic moment, which might have otherwise come across as hokey, just right, having them fail a woodworking assignment for making a table but not the required birdhouse.  For me, this was a microcosm of Harmon’s genius: the zany bond of friendship flying in the face of logic.  It’s what Community has always been about, and I loved seeing it addressed so cleverly once again.

As the episode closed out, our study group friends are re-enrolling at Greendale to quit making excuses and grab their lives by the throat.  Good for them!  Oh, also Jeff’s a teacher now.  And a bald-headed, vision-boarding dean is definitely hot for him.

The Community we love is back, folks.  Oh, happy dean!


Quotes from the Former Study Room:

– Britta: “I’m on sabbatical.”

Troy: “You’re Jewish?”

– Britta: “I don’t believe in evil.  But this school clearly got a finger up its butt as a child.”

– Dean Pelton: “I’m going to cry.”

Jeff: “Please don’t.”

Dean Pelton: “Request denied.”

– Hologram Pierce Hawthorne: “Don’t turn your back on this place.  It’s a crappy place, for sure.  But only because it gives crappy people a chance to sort themselves out.”  Vintage Pierce: crude but sweet!

Welcome to

I can no longer contain my obsession with television and film.  I’ve loved both for a long time and have utilized Facebook almost exclusively as a platform to talk about both.  But I think it’s time to expand before my friends list collectively rises up in one harmonious mass to strike me down if I post one more aggravated reaction to Homeland.

So this is really a matter of personal safety.

But this still, I know, begs the question: why should you bother reading my ramblings?  Watching TV and movies has become my second job.  You know, the kind of job you put tons of hours into but that doesn’t pay a single cent.  Managing my DVR becomes, in the heyday of the season, an almost Herculean task.  After all, we are positively inundated with outstanding art in both mediums, and I do my best to keep up with as much of it as possible.  But more and more, I’ve become fascinated with reading and writing about what I’ve watched.  I’m no bona fide critic, just a guy with a thought or two on the shows and movies he loves, or hates, or finds meh.

But I suppose the best way for you to get to know me and see if our tastes align at all is to take a look at my Best Shows of 2013 List.  Here ya go:

1. Breaking Bad

2. Game of Thrones

3. The Good Wife

4. Justified

5. The Americans

6. Parks and Recreation

7. Boardwalk Empire

8. Broadchurch

9. Person of Interest

10. Black Mirror

Honorable Mentions: Parenthood, Shameless, Enlightened, Eastbound & Down, Fringe, Treme, Banshee, House of Cards, Veep, Family Tree, Arrested Development, Orange is the New Black, Downton Abbey, American Horror Story: Asylum, Hello Ladies, Nurse Jackie, American Horror Story: Coven, In the Flesh, Strike Back


See?  Told you I liked TV.

Another question might be percolating: what will I be able to find on this blog?  You can expect me to post some agglomeration (I also like big words) of news, episodic reviews/recaps, movie reviews, random Netflix recommendations, and other such  nuggets of gold.

I love the idea of TV and film as a social experience, and that’s what I want to cultivate here.  Comment, add, critique.  Just be kind.  I’m very sensitive.  😉 If you’re liking what I’m laying down here, you can also follow me on Twitter, @overstuffeddvr, where I’ll post immediate reactions to my favorite shows.

I hope you stick around and check my blog out.  We can cut through the small talk and just jump into a full-on TV & film conversation, shall we?  What are your favorites on right now?