Benedict Cumberbatch went on what was possibly the world’s worst media tour for Parade’s End over the past couple of weeks. Most infamous was his interview with the Radio Times in which the Sherlock actor bemoaned the shittiness of Downton Abbey‘s Season 2 (which he called “fucking atrocious”) and threatened to move to the United States to avoid the apparent posh-bashing of English critics and audiences. Gossip site ONTD had a field day with Cumberbatch’s foot-in-mouth syndrome, causing them to create a list of all of the unflattering things they believe he looks like (my personal favorite being the middle stage of an Anamorphs cover) and generally telling him where he could shove his privelege.
The problem with an actor insulting another show — especially a show as wildly popular and successful as Downton — is that it puts an enormous amount of pressure on your own work to now not just be good in its own right, but to be actively better than your perceived competition. It also means that for at least the next few months, Cumberbatch’s show will never be able to escape the association. If Parade’s End is wildly successful or critically lauded, it will still be mentioned in the same breath as the “fucking atrocious” soap opera set in the same era.
Downton has a lot of flaws, and the last season was insane, but at its heart it really never had any ambition to be anything other than the incredibly soapy, campy period drama that everyone likes. So to attack it for soapiness, or even messiness, effectively misses the point. If you want to attack it for inconsistent writing, like the temporary tragedy of Cousin Matthew’s malfunctioning penis, or the sudden reappearance and disappearance of that guy who probably died on the Titanic, then fine. But, by the Christmas special, everyone still had fun — which was the point.
Parade’s End, meanwhile, is not light, easy entertainment. Some critics have argued that they sense the BBC2 miniseries is making a conscious effort to stay far away from Downton by avoiding sentimentality and soapiness altogether, but the difference in tone likely has much more to do with the source material (Ford isn’t exactly PG Wodehouse) than any conscious effort to avoid seeming like a copycat. But the lack of soap doesn’t mean that Parade’s End is any less of a mess than Downton. The whole tone of the first twenty or so minutes is completely scattered and strange. We open up on Sylvia (Rebecca Hall), a society girl who likes sleeping with married men, but sadly got herself pregnant. So she humps a guy in a train car and something something they’re getting married. He’s a lot wealthier and smarter than her, whereas she’s a lot livelier and more sexual than him. Everyone’s happy.
She has the baby and suddenly their son is five and Sylvia is bored again. Now she likes dating single men while she’s married. The main conflict is that Sylvia and her husband genuinely love each other, but Sylvia wishes that her husband was more passionate, so the best way to get him to be passionate is to cheat on him. Her husband, Christopher Tietjens (Benedict Cumberbatch), is surprisingly not turned on by cuckoldry and so instead he looks sullen and tears up a lot while his wife laughs in men’s ears. After Sylvia runs off with one of her lovers to get her husband to like her more, Christopher falls in love with a young suffragette and, for reasons still unclear, the two coincidentally find themselves having lunch in the house of a crazy reverend a day or two after she and her friend storm his golf course and yell about women getting votes for a bit.
I’m not being unfairly facetious — the plot is genuinely this muddled and, sadly, the acting’s just as scattered.
I love Rebecca Hall, so I can assume she got some bad direction, but whether she’s rutting with her husband-to-be in a train car or throwing plates at his head or writing him savage, vindictive letters and telegrams, she’s the worst kind of theater actress: flailing her arms around and saying all of her lines loudly as though it adds depth instead of just volume. Hall’s obstreperousness is made even more jarring by the fact that the young gamine suffragette that her husband loves can barely be heard half the time. Most of her scenes sound muffled and she appears to have been hired solely for her ability to look dreamy and wan while she drifts around in the fog.
Cumberbatch, who arguably had the most to prove after his public word vomit, is admittedly very good in the lead role, as are nearly all of the other supporting actors. All of that said, I don’t see Parade’s End, which has four more one-hour episodes, being a rousing success — even if Part I was just a rocky start. We’re on a track where our lead is a bit spineless and the objects of his affection are either awful or devoid of personality. And even if the focus shifts to more of the war and/or the civil liberty movements, having a boring love triangle that will probably serve as the show’s emotional core is something of a problem.