It’s too easy to say that one of these things is not like the other, but the truth is, that cliché works at least two ways, here. The obvious one is that Downton Abbey and Justified are established top-level series while Killer Women is a new pop confection. But I could also note that Justified and Killer Women are modern versions of the Western, while Downton Abbey is, well, Downton Abbey. What really, matters, though, is that one of these shows is a classic, one is an overrated pop confection, and one is a crappy pop confection.
Downton Abbey returned in America Sunday for Season Four. It has gotten worse with each season, so that Season One was quite good, Season Two was a drop off, Season Three was even worse. Still, friends had us over for a fine dinner and a group-watch of the season premiere, and it was a fun evening. Here’s the thing, though. We used to get together to watch The Tudors, because it was on Showtime, which our friends don’t get. The Tudors was ludicrous and hammy and filled with naked people having sex. I suppose the creators took it seriously, but it was always clear that they knew people watched as much for the hot-cha naked people as they did for the cockeyed history lesson. In other words, it was as far as you could get from a PBS series. When we laughed at The Tudors, we laughed with the folks behind the show. Downton Abbey, on the other hand, is all about the prestige. Yes, they have a built-in comedy go-to character in Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess, but overall, things are v.serious on Downton Abbey. And, as I have said many times before, the desire for prestige shows in the way the series presents the upper class and the servants: the values of the show are the values of the Earl and Countess, and the most favored servants are the ones who try hardest to maintain the old values. Meanwhile, the ever-more-silly plot shenanigans leave us relying on the characters as a reason to keep watching, and the characters don’t really change over time, so their appeal lessens. Which leaves the acting, which remains strong, and you could watch Downton Abbey just to see the cast in action. But I care more about shows with interesting characters portrayed by interesting actors, than I do about shows where good actors do their best with shallow characters.
Justified, of course, is an exemplar of what I just said: interesting characters portrayed by interesting actors. And those characters show an odd kind of progression that doesn’t exist at Downton Abbey. We see these people trying to change, and we learn more about them with each season, but one of the underlying themes of Justified is that we can’t escape the place from which we came. So Raylan Givens works hard, as a lawman, to escape the future left him by his scumbag crook of a father, but as time passes, we (and he) realize it’s a case of like father, like son. Raylan doesn’t step over the line into a life of crime, but his pent-up anger at the world can’t be suppressed forever. And always looking over his shoulder is Boyd Crowder, the son Raylan’s father always wanted. Add to this the quality of the writing (every character on the show is capable of Dowager Countess wit, the dialogue is endlessly wonderful, and the scenes where two characters talk and talk and talk are often the best scenes in an episode) and you have a show as good as Downton Abbey pretends to be. Having said all of this, the Season Five premiere on Tuesday was a bit disappointing, although Justified has always been a show that picked up steam as the season progressed. While no one expects a repeat of the quality of Season Two with Margo Martindale (still and always the best season), I’m looking forward to spending the next couple of months with Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins.
Which leaves Killer Women. I watched the pilot for one reason, and one reason only: Tricia Helfer. In her favor? She is beautiful, she is a fun presence on the Internet with her BFF Katee Sackhoff, and she was one of the great surprises of Battlestar Galactica. She deserves a showcase for her talent. But she’s dealing with too many problems here. Killer Women wants to walk the line of a Raylan Givens, but it’s on ABC, and the playing field between broadcast and cable networks is too great, for the most part. Worse, where a show like Justified (or BSG, for that matter) exists in part to play around with the clichés of genre while simultaneously expanding that genre, based on the pilot, Killer Women is the cliché. There is nothing original here. It is possible the characters will gain depth over time, although I won’t stick around to find out. In the pilot, they just seemed intent on cramming as much backstory as possible into 42 minutes, while still solving the crime of the week. Helfer does what she can, but she is given very little to work with, and while she certainly has the acting chops to nail complex roles, without complexity, she’s mostly just a pretty ex-model. (Katee Sackhoff, who is not as classically beautiful as her buddy Tricia, is nonetheless able to grab the screen, even with limited roles, one reason I’m still watching Longmire.) Grade for pilot: C.