Don't count on Julian Fellowes' 'Doctor Thorne' to be the next 'Downton'
The newest offering from Julian Fellowes — perhaps best known as the creator of Downton Abbey — dropped on Amazon Prime on Friday amid some serious buzz. But the show already drew some cool reception across the pond, and after spending the weekend watching it, this period drama enthusiast can very much see why.
Doctor Thorne is certainly no Downton.
Lots of reviewers have cried that it's far closer to Jane Austen, which is true with its 1800s setting, numerous love-versus-money marriage plots and a strong dash of families-who-don't-agree. But even then, it lacks something of the depth one usually feels in an Austen adaptation, and every episode is rather maddeningly introduced and recapped by Fellowes himself, sitting in a red armchair by a crackling fire. (Yes, really.)
The first introduction is a little helpful, providing background on Doctor Thorne author Anthony Trollope, not so famous as Austen or Charles Dickens but also, coincidentally, credited with bringing the mailbox to the U.K., Fellowes tells us. Aside, the only previous adaptation of a Trollope work I can remember seeing was the BBC's 2001 The Way We Live Now, recommended if only for David Suchet (Poirot) and Matthew Macfadyen (Mr. Darcy, obvs).
From there, the show launches into an oddly paced and somewhat confusing tale where the Gresham family of Greshamsbury Park is snobbish but really deeply in debt (sound familiar?) to a drunken baronet. The titular Dr. Thorne (Tom Hollander, Mr. Collins of 2005 Pride and Prejudice/Cutler Beckett of Pirates of the Caribbean) is, well, the local doctor and also somehow given to managing people's business affairs. But the real protagonist is his niece, Mary Thorne (Stefanie Martini), whose birth is, well, shrouded in mystery even from herself but who is sweet if a little soulless. She hasn't got a penny, but she's in love with the Greshams' son, Frank. Mom, dad and auntie don't approve because the estate needs money, kid, so they're trying to marry him off to an American who's too smart for all this (Allison Brie).
It's mighty hard in all of this to keep track of who everyone is. There are dozens of side characters — seriously, look at the size of the cast list for just three episodes (split to four on Amazon) — many of whom do not seem to get good introductions. Who is this lady again and why is she meddling? Who is this dude and and why do we care if he's standing for Parliament?
It's also mighty easy to see where the main storyline is going from a million miles away. Mary doesn't know who her mom is, but the ailing rich man in the story has an absent sister and says several times that if his (totally terrible) son dies before he's 30, the money will go to his sister's eldest child. He repeats this several times and Dr. Thorne then spells out who exactly it is, in case you didn't get the point.
Also in case you didn't get the point or shake your head at the folks who put money ahead of happiness, Fellowes comes on again at the end of every episode to lecture you and drive the points home. He also waxes on about how Trollope paints characters in shades of gray, where no one is ever totally good or totally bad. Aside from the fact that all worthwhile characters should be part bad and part good, I'm not sure that conclusion is ever really borne out; it's easy to tell from the start who is going to get what they want and who is going to die or be overruled by the end. Redeeming moments at death's doorstep don't really count as anything special.
Predictability isn't always a bad thing. I can't tell you how many adaptations of Austen or Dickens books I've watched knowing full well where they'd end. But without many other redeeming qualities beyond aesthetics — nice costumes and scenery, lots of pretty flowers — such as round, interesting characters or solid acting or humor, it's somewhat hard to see what the benefit is.
If you're looking for just a filler period drama, go ahead and watch. But if you're looking for something with the zing of Downton or the heart of Austen, there are much better things out there.