Is there tea left in the kettle for 'Downton Abbey: A New Era'? : Pop Culture Happy Hour Downton Abbey is back again. Three years after the 2019 movie that extended the popular TV series, the Crawleys are once again dealing with the clash of the old ways and the new ways. This time, the interloper is early Hollywood. While a director, a crew, and a bunch of actors descend upon the estate for filming, the story also travels to the south of France for a story that might reveal secrets from the Dowager Countess' past.

Is there tea left in the kettle for 'Downton Abbey: A New Era'?

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LINDA HOLMES, HOST:

"Downton Abbey" is back again. Three years after the first movie that extended the popular TV series, the Crawleys are once again dealing with the clash of the old ways and the new ways. And this time, the interloper is early Hollywood.

GLEN WELDON, HOST:

While a director, a crew and a bunch of actors descend upon the estate for filming, the story also travels to the south of France for a story that might reveal secrets from the dowager countess's past. I'm Glen Weldon.

HOLMES: And I'm Linda Holmes. And today we are talking about "Downton Abbey: A New Era" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.

Here with me and Glen is Tobin Low, an editor at This American Life. Hello, Tobin. It's always so good to see you.

TOBIN LOW: Hello. Could not be happier to be here.

HOLMES: I know, right? So without recounting the entire run of the TV series - you can go to various wikis for that - this movie splits the Crawleys into two basic stories. One takes place at Downton itself, where a director, played by Hugh Dancy, and a lead actor, played by Dominic West, are among the Hollywood folk who arrive to shoot a silent movie. The other follows some of the family and the staff to a villa in the south of France that's been mysteriously left to the dowager countess, played by Maggie Smith, by a mysterious man no one in the family has ever heard of. Why did this man leave such a valuable property to Violet? Well, the family is wondering the same thing.

We couldn't begin to list the entire cast here, but practically all the big players - your Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern as Robert and Cora, Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary, Robert James-Collier as Barrow and so on - are back, plus a few new faces, like Dancy and West. Creator Julian Fellowes is still in charge of the writing, of course. Simon Curtis directs.

I want to dive directly into this discussion. Tobin, how did you like this new chapter?

LOW: I enjoyed it for what it was. There's something about when these franchises - can I say franchise? It's not, like, a Marvel universe. But, you know, like, these...

WELDON: Totally is.

LOW: Yeah. Like, when shows like this that have done their run come back for another movie and then another movie, there's, like, a feeling to it that can be, like - it's a little bit fan fiction-y (ph). It's a little bit like we're taking something that's very wrapped up and we're going to dive back into the universe to give people an additional bow on their story. And that's what that - this movie had as a feeling for me. Like, if you're wanting to just revisit these characters and feel like you get a little, like, truffle with them and their stories and, like, just an additional little something, like, you're going to feel very satisfied.

I will say, at the screening I was at, they asked before, who has never seen "Downton Abbey" before? And several hands went up. And now, having seen the film, I don't know what you would get out of this if you had not seen "Downton" before.

HOLMES: Yeah. Yeah.

LOW: So I will say that. As a film, like, it's totally for the fans. It's totally for that, like, you know, delightful revisit - is the takeaway I had.

HOLMES: Yeah. When we covered the first "Downton Abbey" movie in 2019, we talked about this very thing that, like, look, if you're not a person who has followed this up until now...

LOW: Yeah.

HOLMES: ...I cannot imagine what you would get out of this. And I feel even more that way about this one. Glen, what was your take?

WELDON: Yeah, I think the bloom is off this English rose. I think this is a mighty thin bouillabaisse. I think the returns - they're not just diminishing. They have diminished. They're not going to go into the West. They're not going to remain Galadriel. I'm running out of metaphors. This is a writer imitating himself, to Tobin's point. We get recycled storylines, not just within the "Downton" franchise, but from without it - as, I think, Linda, you have some things to say about. And because we're trying to service so many different characters, you get this really wonky pacing, where every scene that happens, it's like we arrived at it late and leave it early, just long enough for one single plot point - one single piece of information to be conveyed, and then we're out. And that's because this cast list is hilariously long.

The most fun thing about the previous film was how sweatily it worked to tie every single character's fates up in a bow. It wasn't subtle. It's like Fellowes went around with a big old stamp and stamped everybody's forehead, the end. And I think he suspects that we're kind of full up on these characters. But the only breathing room we get in this movie is for architecture and landscapes and cars driving up to a villa and cars driving up to Downton. That's when the movie has breathing room. Otherwise, it's just these really quick scenes.

But again, to Tobin's point, do I recommend it to people who want a fix? Sure, because you're going to get it. But it is like when you're - you've got a favorite series of books, and the author dies, and it gets handed off to another writer. You hit all the familiar beats, but it's just the beats. It's just the percussion. There's no new music. And I was kind of hoping for new music. I expected we wouldn't get any.

HOLMES: Yeah. My reaction to this was basically, the well is dry. The well is dry, and yet they are trying to get more out of it. And I think the Hollywood storyline in this movie is so closely ripped off from a fairly well-known little film called "Singin' In The Rain." I got to that point where you're sort of embarrassed for people because you feel like you're looking at it thinking, are you - is this supposed to be an homage? Are we supposed to not notice? Are they counting on the fact that people who are going to this film will not notice? Is it because it's so English?

LOW: It was down to the wigs.

WELDON: (Laughter).

LOW: Like, the hairs were the same, even. Yeah.

HOLMES: Down to the wigs, indeed. It has that awkward feeling of watching something really unfortunate happen, and you feel kind of bad for all the smart people who were involved in it. Borrowing from itself, you know, a big part of the previous movie was this, you know, health scare hanging over the dowager countess. And then at the end, you find out what that's all about. And it's sort of, what's wrong with Granny? And then at the end, you kind of find out. They actually try another health scare in this movie that has a very similar tone and goes for a big part of the movie in a very similar way. I was very surprised by that. And the problem to me is - so you've got the one story that's super derivative of an original movie, like, to a comical degree. Then you have another story that feels derivative of the previous movie. In fairness, if you like the story about the villa and the French guy who had some mysterious connection to Violet, I think that's the part that feels the most like I hadn't seen it before. But a lot of the rest of it, as Glen said, is these five minutes with Daisy. Here's five minutes with Mrs. Patmore. Some of your favorite characters, Bates and Anna, don't really do anything. I guess Edith's storyline is Edith takes a photograph.

LOW: And rediscovers journalism.

HOLMES: The problem is it's impossible to serve all of these characters in this period of time.

LOW: Yeah.

HOLMES: So it feels dutiful in a way. And I really want to hear what you guys think about this version of the Barrow discovers a secretly gay person with whom perhaps he can have some connection and discover his true self.

LOW: You know, there are characters on the show whose basically - their entire storyline was to have bad things happen to them, right? Like, they were just sort of a dumpster for bad things. And so as much as they appear in this film, it's, like, to sort of right that wrong so that they get some happiness, so that they get something that sort of makes up for the torture that they went through. Barrow's storyline, to me, feels like the biggest and perhaps laziest version of that. He spent so much of the series being tortured about his sexuality and about - will he ever find somebody? And then the way this movie sort of addresses that and wraps it up feels like you both atone for that without doing any of the work for why it's going to wrap up as happily as it does for him. I'm so happy for him that it did happen, but it felt like a shorthand the way it plays out.

WELDON: I don't know, man. In the last film, he got to dance. Yeah, he got arrested for it, but at least he got to dance. Here, he just gets to not reflect back any of the chemistry that's coming toward him. It is a...

LOW: Yeah.

WELDON: ...It seems to be a one-way attraction, and it resolves in a way that is problematic for a whole host of reasons. But I kept waiting for a moment, like with Barrow, for a character to be allowed to have a moment - a thought - a bit of dialogue where they don't state exactly what they're thinking and how they're feeling and why they're feeling it. But that means that any shadings that occur in this film come from the actors. And there's a moment when Lord Grantham, Hugh Bonneville, gets a few seconds to have an authentic response, an emotional response. And it's like, that's when I thought, OK, you have these actors that can do a lot more than you're asking them to do, so maybe what these movies should be about is exploiting that - progressing these characters, not just having them, you know, bump up against history.

HOLMES: Yeah.

WELDON: Speaking of - I mean, I kind of want to see another film. This film takes place in the summer of 1929. They make a big thing of that - oh, it's - no one goes to France - or the south of France in the summer, which means that October 29, 1929, is right around the corner. And I want to stay with these folks long enough to see them come up against the Great Depression, see these snooty jerks have to deal with that.

HOLMES: Yeah.

WELDON: That's the "Downton" I want to see.

HOLMES: One of the things I think is so funny about this film is that it is called "A New Era." I can't imagine why. I honestly can't. I kind of went into this thinking, you know, is this a - you know, the Avengers hand off the story to the next round of Avengers or something like that? It's nothing like that. There is zero of that. That is not at all - and so it is no more a new era than every incarnation of "Downton Abbey" is a new era because, as we've noted many times, the show's entire raison d'etre, as it were, is the threat of the new and all that stuff.

WELDON: Yeah.

HOLMES: And I think, in a way, a Hollywood story could have worked. A changes-in-culture story could've worked - not this one. But it's interesting to me that they want you to think of it as something new when it is so resolutely the same thing. And, you know, you mentioned Hugh Bonneville, Glen. One of the things I think is so interesting is that you now have put the characters who originally were at the center of the story - Mary, Edith, Cora, Robert - really made those characters emotionally inert for the most part, with the exception of a couple of real kind of external string-pulls. But as people, they are now just emotionally inert. You know, Mary is all over this movie but is doing nothing that suggests the way she started off as a kind of haughty, unpleasant person and then kind of came around to being a kinder person, came around to sort of feeling responsible for Downton. It's sad to me how none of these characters are fun to watch for me anymore.

LOW: Yeah. Can I say the filter that I put on this film that allowed me to enjoy it just a little bit more? We talked about "Singin' In The Rain" being very present. Also, part of me was like, oh, this is "Sex In The City 2." This is like...

(LAUGHTER)

LOW: ...You take the characters that you're pretty much done with 'cause you've done a full series and a first film.

HOLMES: Right, right.

LOW: And you're like, OK, what do we do now? I guess let's put them on a fun trip and see what happens.

HOLMES: Yeah. It's also one of those, like, ABC sitcom families...

WELDON: Oh, yeah.

HOLMES: ...Goes to Disney World - kind of specials.

LOW: Yeah. So it's like, the stakes have left the building a little bit. Why not take them on a romp? Like, I - like, that's just kind of the vibe this film had for me.

HOLMES: Yeah. I mean, one of the few times when I actually went like, ooh, that's interesting is, like, literally four people wearing tennis clothes.

LOW: Yeah.

WELDON: Right.

HOLMES: I was like, oh, it's tennis clothes. That's interesting to see. Like, you've got no time for most of these characters to have stories, but there's plenty of time to talk about sweating...

LOW: Yep.

HOLMES: ...Through the summer in the south of France, which I thought was quite disappointing.

WELDON: Yep.

HOLMES: Well, tell us what you think about "Downton Abbey: A New Era." Find us on Facebook at facebook.com/pchh or tweet us @pchh. Up next, what is making us happy this week?

It is time for our favorite segment of this week and every week, What Is Making Us Happy This Week. Glen Weldon, what is making you happy this week?

WELDON: Oh, you'll know it when you hear it. Candice Lim, hit me.

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HARVEY FIERSTEIN: Penguin Random House Audio presents "I Was Better Last Night: A Memoir." This is the author, Harvey Fierstein.

HOLMES: Oh, boy.

WELDON: Yeah, it is. That is actor, writer, activist Harvey Fierstein - his memoir, "I Was Better Last Night." It's a good read. It's a great listen, though, because that voice is iconic. He's got stories to tell, this guy. And they're not just show biz stories because yeah, there's coming of age in New York City in the '60s and the '70s and '80s - you know, Warhol's Factory, off-off-Broadway theater, drag shows, alcoholism and of course, the AIDS epidemic. The book is funny and candid and moving in places. And when it comes to straight culture's lack of response to AIDS, it is, I think, righteously angry. He's held on to it, rightly so. He does a great job documenting the fear that straight people were treating him with even as they were throwing awards at him, like, pelting him with Tonys at a distance. It's a chronicle of a history that I don't think we can afford to forget by someone who lived through it. It's dishy. And ever since starting it, it has affected me. I'll be home of an evening, I'll look up, and I'll sort of gaze into the middle distance. And my husband will say, what is it, Glen? And I'll say, Penguin Random House Audio presents...

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WELDON: "I Was Better Last Night." And now that you've heard it, you will never unhear it. And I hope that you annoy your loved ones with it as well.

HOLMES: Very good.

WELDON: That is Harvey Fierstein's memoir, "I Was Better Last Night."

HOLMES: Oh, beautiful. Thank you very much, Glen Weldon. All right, Tobin Low, what is making you happy this week?

LOW: My what's-making-me-happy is kind of a surprise even to myself because I believe that I appeared on this very program trash-talking the first season of it, but the second season of "Bling Empire" just dropped on Netflix. It's the sort of "Crazy Rich Asians" reality TV show. And I remember feeling like the first season was just trying to do way too much. It was trying to, like, culturally educate. It was trying to sell you on these characters and that they were just as dishy as any other reality show. And so, like, I didn't like it very much. But the second season, I will say, I feel like they've settled into what it actually is, which is just a trash reality show. Like, you know, they're doing that thing where, you know, when someone says something bad about another person, the person hearing it takes that piece of information and goes directly to the person being trash-talked and communicates it right to them. I just feel like Season 2 came back, and I was very pleasantly surprised by how sort of in the Netflix universe of "Selling Sunset" and these reality shows, like, it just drops right in there as enjoyable reality TV that is not trying to be more than what it is. So I would surprisingly now recommend Season 2 of "Bling Empire."

HOLMES: Yeah. You know, sometimes when your reach exceeds your grasp, you adjust your reach rather than your grasp. And it sounds like that is what you are saying. So "Bling Empire" - thank you very much, Tobin Low.

What is making me happy this week? Sometimes you have to acknowledge that you have written about something, but someone else has written about it better. Now, you can read my review of the very strange TV adaptation of the novel "The Time Traveler's Wife," which follows the not-very-well-regarded film adaptation. But I also really have to recommend that you read the review by friend of the show Kathryn VanArendonk in Vulture, which is called "A Warning From The Future About The Time Traveler's Wife." Kathryn found a way to incorporate time travel into her review of "The Time Traveler's Wife." She speaks to herself as a critic starting the show. She receives dispatches from herself having watched the entire show. She also speaks to herself in 2010 for a few reasons. It is a wonderful conceit. It is a delightful way to approach this show. And I am always here for an inventive, vivacious way of reviewing not-good television. So I cannot recommend the show, "The Time Traveler's Wife," but I do recommend the review, "A Warning From The Future About The Time Traveler's Wife." It is a pure delight. That is what is making me happy this week.

If you want links for what we recommended, plus some more recommendations, sign up for our newsletter at npr.org/popculturenewsletter. That brings us to the end of our show. Glen Weldon, Tobin Low - thanks to both of you guys for being here.

WELDON: Thank you.

LOW: Thank you.

HOLMES: This episode was produced by Candice Lim and edited by Mike Katzif. Hello Come In provides the music you're bobbing your head to right now. Thanks for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. I'm Linda Holmes, and we'll see you all next week when we will be talking about some of our favorite books about identity and culture from last year.

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