Screen Test

A shadow of Downton Abbey

Actors Harry Richardson and Alison Brie (both above) star in Dr Thorne.
Actors Harry Richardson and Alison Brie (both above) star in Dr Thorne.PHOTO: YOUTUBE
The cast of Preacher (from far left) include Joseph Gilgun, Ruth Negga and Dominic Cooper.
The cast of Preacher (from far left) include Joseph Gilgun, Ruth Negga and Dominic Cooper.PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

Creator Julian Fellowes' Dr Thorne echoes Downton's socially charged verbal jousting

Still feeling pangs of Downton Abbey withdrawal? Creator Julian Fellowes' newest series, Dr Thorne, can offer a quick fix, though perhaps not a wholly satisfying one.

For his latest show, Fellowes has adapted English author Anthony Trollope's beloved 1858 novel of the same name.

The story ticks many of the boxes that delighted Downton fans: It is a British period drama replete with class tensions, cut-glass accents, sumptuous costumes, grand country houses, status-conscious- but-cash-poor aristocrats, a rich American who could bail them out, a child born out of wedlock, a heroine named Mary, plus an assortment of other young women each in search of a suitable husband and, finally, true love stymied by social pressures.

The town's physician, Dr Thorne (Tom Hollander), has a lovely niece named Mary (Stefanie Martini), who has been a close friend of the high-born Gresham family since she was a child, yet she is not deemed good enough to marry their son Frank (Harry Richardson).

Seeing that Frank has fallen in love with Mary, his mother, Lady Arabella Gresham (Rebecca Front), schemes to keep them apart and tries to pair him off instead with Miss Dunstable (Alison Brie), a rich American whose fortunes could save the family's troubled estate.

The man who owns most of the debt on the estate is Sir Roger Scatcherd (Ian McShane), who killed Dr Thorne's brother in a drunken accident 20 years after confronting the latter for getting his sister pregnant. Scatcherd was jailed for manslaughter, but became a rich railway baron after he got out.

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On his deathbed, Scatcherd tells Dr Thorne he is leaving his money to his no-good son Louis. But if the latter dies before turning 30, the estate will go to his sister's first-born child.

Scatcherd does not know who that child is but, 30 minutes into this three-hour miniseries, and the mystery heir's identity will be bleedingly obvious to the audience, who will also see exactly where this is all heading.

The predictability is half the fun, in a way - knowing Lady Arabella will get her comeuppance sets up a nice, easy serving of schadenfreude.

Sadly, there is no Maggie Smith here to deliver gloriously tart one-liners as Downton's Dowager Countess. But there are a few echoes of that show's delicious socially charged verbal jousting, especially when the Greshams hint at the calculus whereby money trumps social class ("Mr Moffat is rich - he has no other quality visible to the naked eye," one snipes).

It is far from subtle, though, and the series repeatedly hits you over the head with essentially the same point and with none of the nuance or flair of Downton (to be fair, the latter was no Pride And Prejudice either and grew increasingly soapy towards the end).

Think of Dr Thorne as a bite-sized Downton, designed not to be too filling and maybe this and other failings will not matter as much.

Fast forward a couple of hundred years to Preacher, also an adaptation of a much-loved text - in this case, a cult graphic-novel series by Garth Ennis.

Only the pilot episode has aired so far, but it is an intriguing one, if for no other reason than you get to see Tom Cruise quite literally explode.

Sort of, anyway. Cruise does not actually appear in the series, but his "death" is referenced in a news report as the bodies of spiritual leaders start to fatally erupt, spewing blood and guts all over their followers.

It is a sign that all is not well in the universe following the arrival of a mysterious force from outer space - a fact that slowly dawns on Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper), an apathetic minister in a small, dusty Texas town, who suddenly finds himself in possession of strange new powers.

Custer goes on a quest to get to the bottom of this and enlists the help of his ex-girlfriend Tulip (Ruth Negga) - whose chequered past is linked to his own - and a vampiric Irishman named Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun).

It is an eccentric blend of existentially charged science fiction, the supernatural, action, comedy and drama, and spiced up with some very graphic violence and grotesque special effects.

Despite the unlikely mishmash, Preacher seems to work, although at this early stage, it gets a big boost from the novelty and element of surprise.

Online spoilers from comic book fans may be a problem in sustaining that, but if viewers can resist the temptation to read them, it will be interesting to see how the series unpacks all these threads.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 01, 2016, with the headline 'A shadow of Downton Abbey'. Print Edition | Subscribe