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Ask Matt: Downton Abbey's Meanies, Remakes, Touch, Grey's Anatomy and More!

Send questions and comments to askmatt@tvguidemagazine.com and follow me on Twitter! Question: I'm one of the last people one would expect to watch Downton Abbey, but after hearing the endless raves about it, I made it through the first season on DVD during a weekend, and a new episode is now one of the highlights of my TV-watching week. However, my question is about the "mean girls" (i.e. Thomas and Miss O'Brien). Sure, it's always fun to have a couple of mustache-twirling villains to root against, but unless I missed something, I guess they're supposed to be bad just for the sake of being bad.

Matt Roush
Matt Roush

Send questions and comments to askmatt@tvguidemagazine.com and follow me on Twitter!

Question: I'm one of the last people one would expect to watch Downton Abbey, but after hearing the endless raves about it, I made it through the first season on DVD during a weekend, and a new episode is now one of the highlights of my TV-watching week. However, my question is about the "mean girls" (i.e. Thomas and Miss O'Brien). Sure, it's always fun to have a couple of mustache-twirling villains to root against, but unless I missed something, I guess they're supposed to be bad just for the sake of being bad. This being an otherwise thoughtful and insightful drama, I would have expected something to at least offer a little background as to why they're this way. On the other hand, maybe avoiding the clichés is exactly why we haven't been given anything. At least O'Brien showed a (very) slight sense of remorse after causing Cora to miscarry just because of a misunderstanding, but Thomas is a thoroughly despicable character and a sorry excuse for a human being by anybody's definition. Yes, I know there actually are people like this and always have been (a lot of us have the misfortune of having to deal with some of them on a daily basis), and with such a relatively large number of characters, some of them have to be designated pot-stirrers. Still, have you found this distracting, or do you think more detail about what motivates them would be a detriment to the overall story? If I recall, Thomas swings from a different side of the plate than was acceptable for the time, but hopefully we're not expected to take that as simple cause and effect.

Also, have you heard any word about Torchwood? I'm hoping the season on Starz wasn't enough to kill the show, or more accurately, that Miracle Day wasn't enough for Torchwood to die of embarrassment. — Mike

Matt Roush: For all of its plummy trappings and critical accolades, Downton Abbey is at heart a delicious romantic melodrama, and certainly not above indulging some good old-fashioned villainy. Thomas and O'Brien (let's give credit to the actors, Rob James-Collier and Siobhan Finneran) are the perfect embodiment of characters you love to hate, but even so, there are cracks in the surface at times so you can see the human beneath, and wartime has a way of bringing that out: O'Brien's empathy for the shell-shocked valet, Thomas' attachment to the blinded soldier who commits suicide. But the worst thing Julian Fellowes (Downton's creator/writer) could do is soften them or rationalize their behavior with convenient armchair psychology. With someone as ambitious and frustrated (sexually and otherwise) as Thomas and as sour as O'Brien, I attribute their attitude in part to being trapped in a life of service, which in many ways is not a full life at all, especially in that period. But I can't imagine Downton Abbey without them, nor would I want to. They don't distract me any more than the impossibly noble heroic types do.

As for Torchwood: From what I gather, Russell T Davies is busy with other projects and there's not much chance we'll get another chapter in the Torchwood saga anytime soon, almost certainly not this year. But like you, I'd hate for the disappointing Miracle Day to be the last word on this franchise, and it's pretty clear that John Barrowman and Eve Myles would get back in the saddle whenever asked. So be patient. I can wait for another Torchwood as long as they promise to make it a better Torchwood.

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Question: I really enjoy the American version of Being Human and I have never seen the BBC version, which I know you feel is far superior. But my question is whether you are able to review a new version of a television show without taking into consideration the original, which might create a bias albeit deservedly so. The same could be true with Prime Suspect and countless other shows. I tried watching the BBC version of the first season after watching the American version first and could not get through it since I already knew the plot line. — Rob

Matt Roush: Thankfully, the Syfy version is beginning to diverge a bit from the original, so I think it may be possible to enjoy both. (Or not, though I do try.) But I think it would be curious as well as unprofessional for a critic to review a remake of a show without referencing the original, and while it's true that the comparison rarely comes out in favor of the remake, it's not unheard of for a remake to come into its own (as NBC's The Office eventually did before fizzling out), and it can be fascinating to see different versions of the same property, most recently in the films of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. In these circumstances, I do try to keep an open mind, even if it doesn't appear to be the case. But I think some fatal miscasting is what's keeping me from totally embracing the Syfy Human, though the premise is so engaging I totally get why those unfamiliar with the BBC America version (which returns Feb. 25) would embrace it.

Question: I've been following your columns for over a decade now and always appreciate your assessments, so I wanted to ask about something that's been puzzling me. Judging from the reaction online, I feel like I'm the only one who found the pilot episode of Touch completely absurd. Not the ambitious premise (which is why I was so excited to watch in the first place), but the unbelievable characters, implausible dialogue, and plot holes the script was begging me to overlook for the sake of the grand narrative. Why are there so many people in this world who would randomly pass along someone's lost cell phone to a stranger? Why would a child become a suicide bomber in exchange for an oven? Most of all, I can't imagine a social worker being so judgmental and domineering with a family she just met ... how could this character exist? I love stories that deal with interconnectedness — like Heroes, the short-lived series The Nine, and movies like Magnolia and Babel — but I can't handle any more episodes of Touch if the blatant emotional manipulation continues to trump decent storytelling. Have you seen any more episodes, or do you have any insight on where the series will go from here? — Sarah

Matt Roush: To my knowledge, no one has seen more episodes yet, and just as the show itself requires a significant leap of faith to swallow the coincidences and endure the manipulation (as I noted in my review last week), I guess we have to expect that Touch as a series will follow the model of the pilot, for better and for worse. The problems that threw you for a loop didn't bother me nearly as much, in part because I found Kiefer Sutherland to be such a compelling window into his son's crazy quilt of cosmic patterns, but there were other critics who were quite skeptical of the premise and/or the improbable particulars of the story in the pilot. Although for me, the subplot of the Iraqi boy trapped in a terrorist plot as he tried to provide for his desperate family, even for something as mundane as an oven (which they couldn't afford), felt like a legitimate dilemma, although the ticking-clock climax was straight out of the 24 playbook. For all of its excesses, it was an awfully well-done pilot, and I'm curious to see where it goes and whether the audience will follow. I'm just glad to see any show a little out of the norm that can actually open.

Question: In addition to appreciating a terrific scene between Sandra Oh and Kevin McKidd at face value, I think the thing to take away from the end of the most recent original Grey's Anatomy episode of Jan. 19 is that we, the fans, should trust the writers of a show to tell us a good story and not be hypercritical. Sure, there are times when shows lose steam and seem creatively lost (subsequent seasons of Heroes and more recently Glee come to mind), and it's fine to criticize when a show has gone downhill. But it's obvious that the Grey's writers knew full well what they were doing by holding back the abortion discussion until this moment. Sometimes, what is unsaid is more powerful than what is said, and I don't think the blow-up would have been quite as effective if there had been a previous substantial discussion of the issue throughout the season to date. Grey's has not been a perfect show by any standard (hello, Denny's ghost, I'm looking at you), but it has done more right than it has done wrong, and I think we, in a collective sense, would enjoy the show a lot more if we would stop worrying about what we want to happen and start just going along for the ride. This seems to be the case with a lot of shows these days — overanalyzed and underenjoyed — and while I love the forum that this column provides, such things can sometimes be a double-edged sword in that respect.

On a similar note, I also wish we were in a climate where new shows didn't have to be an immediate success and were given more opportunity to find themselves. It's always nice when a show starts with a strong vision of itself and viewers catch on, making it an out-of-the-box hit (Once Upon a Time and New Girl come to mind this season), but something like Pan Am isn't necessarily like that. I enjoyed the Pan Am pilot, which I watched on your recommendation, but found the following episodes meandering and generally not exciting. Still, I stuck with it, and over the last four or five episodes, it has become much stronger than it used to be. It's still not a perfect show (and I still think the distinct lack of smoking is extremely bizarre for a '60s show), but it's improved a lot, especially once they ditched the flashbacks and amped up the personal stakes for several characters. It still has some growth to do, and since it seems essentially cancelled, it won't get to go further on that learning curve, but I do think the show has found more of an identity for itself of late, and am surprised at how much I will miss it when it is gone.

I know there's not much point in trying a "save the show" campaign or anything, nor do I blame ABC; its marketing campaign was broad, and they've kept the show on regularly, so it's not as though people can't find it. But if the more interesting recent episodes had aired earlier in the season, people might have stuck with the show instead of deciding to drop it as so many seem to have done given its sliding ratings. I just find it unfortunate that the television climate we are in right now does not allow for certain shows to have time to discover themselves; often, it takes time to hit the sweet spot from which storytelling can really gel, and time is not really afforded many shows. I just find it unfortunate. Your thoughts? — Jake

Matt Roush: On the Grey's Anatomy front, I agree. Especially in a large ensemble drama, the writers have to pick and choose their moments for the various characters, and letting this conflict simmer (while always acknowledging there was a tempest brewing) made the explosion that much more effective when it finally happened. Now they just need to pull off the follow-through. Regarding your point about hypercritical fans, I suppose I should wonder where I would be without them. I've often been likened to a "TV therapist" for talking them down off ledges when a show fails them in any number of ways (often involving relationships). I appreciate fans' passion, because I often share it, but in today's environment, inflamed by the Twitter-verse, the rush to judgment sometimes make it look like there's a backlash when what's really called for is a time-out.

As to your point about Pan Am and other shows not being allowed to grow and find their way, I would argue that because of today's challenging ratings environment on network TV, some series are getting longer runs than they would have in more robust times. Pan Am, as you said, was left alone on Sundays to play out its initial run (which will consist of 14 episodes) despite very disappointing ratings, and what seemed to be a slow creative learning curve. I'll take your word that it has improved — I've heard that from others — and I may try to watch the last few remaining episodes to see for myself, in case it beats the odds and returns. (ABC insists it isn't officially dead, but it's the longest of long shots.) I wanted this show to be as fun as the pilot promised, but it never really took off the way I'd hoped.

Question: Given that there aren't any more writer's blogs and since Shonda Rhimes seems intent on giving every fan base of every other pairing on the show reassurance on Twitter except for the one I am interested in knowing about, I am writing to ask you your opinion on the Cristina/Owen storyline this season. What do you think that the writers are trying to convey with the storyline with Cristina and Owen thus far? I understand that this is a drama, but these characters rarely have any long-term happiness with one another, and as a fan, it has become very tiresome to watch them get bogged down with the angsty storylines with very little joy to keep viewers invested in the meantime. Even though Sandra Oh and Kevin McKidd are brilliant in those types of scenes together, it seems as though viewers are expected to suffer through endless episodes of angst with very little payoff in terms of long-term happiness for this couple. Why is it that there is no balance in the storytelling for the Cristina/Owen storyline, especially this season where they have been followed by the cloud of the abortion since the beginning? And is it enough to expect fans to "wait it out" until there is some hope for this pairing? It doesn't help when there is no sense of anything from promos, future episode descriptions, or from the show-runner herself that indicate we're going to get some sort of reward for the (limited) patience fans of this pairing have had this season. — Michelle

Matt Roush: Seems to me that Shonda Rhimes hasn't been shy about teasing the fact that things were going to get worse for these two before it would get better. With characters this driven and damaged, where work conflicts are as intense as the personal traumas, you're expecting a walk in the park? Besides, if things were rosy between them, there would be little for these two to play (shades of the period when the MerDer fan base kept going ballistic over how underused they were for a time) — and it's not like we haven't seen them in happier, passionate moments. The problem with long-running shows like these is that the writers have to keep putting obstacles in the characters' way for the purpose of story. Happily ever after may be the long-term goal, but in the moment, it doesn't get them through a season. From where I sit, I feel they've been given some of the best material lately: the situation where she presides over Henry's death without knowing it, Owen keeping it from her and then from Teddy, Owen in the precarious position of being her boss, the whole abortion mess spotlighting their priorities where family is concerned. Would it be nice if they lightened up a bit from time to time? Sure, but that's not who they are. And not how Grey's operates.

Question: My family has discovered Grimm. So good. I know it is on Fridays, so that has to help it, correct? We bought the season pass on iTunes to watch it/own it. Do the ratings take such things into account? I bought Chicago Code as well, but that did not help it stick around. — Alex

Matt Roush: You're right that being on Fridays means expectations aren't quite so high for Grimm to deliver, and being on NBC also helps. Grimm may not be a breakout hit, but by NBC's standards, it's a keeper for now. From a corporate bottom-line point of view, things like iTunes sales can make a difference, but ratings matter more in the long run. I bet if Chicago Code had aired on NBC instead of Fox, it might have had a longer life.

Question: A couple quick questions about the status of two shows: First, Body of Proof. It appears that The River will take over its time slot in February. Is The River a miniseries, and Body of Proof will be back later in the spring, or is it done — either for the season or for good? Second, I see that ION renewed Flashpoint for another season, with production to start in February. The episode on Jan. 25 sure had the feel of a series finale, but I'm guessing they filmed it before getting word of a renewal. So, was the "Slow Burn" episode the end of season 4, and when might we expect to see season 5 on ION? I'm just not that familiar with that network, and don't know just when they define a new "season." — Kathy

Matt Roush: To clarify the ABC Tuesday night situation: The River only pre-empts Body of Proof on the night it premieres, Feb. 7, with a two-hour opener. For the rest of its limited eight-episode run, River (which I'm crazy about) will air at 9/8c, with Proof in its regular 10/9c time period. But Proof will end its run this season a bit early, in April, when Private Practice takes over the time period once the new Shonda Rhimes drama Scandal moves into its Thursday slot. Can't really speculate on Proof's chances for renewal. ABC is having a pretty good season, and it probably depends on how some of the new midseason programming fares. Regarding Flashpoint, it appears that the "Slow Burn" episode was the official season-ender, but to my knowledge ION hasn't announced when the next season will premiere. With production starting in February, it likely won't be until later this year, maybe even fall.

Question: Well, the top of one Top 10 list may already be secured for 2012. Congratulations to Fred [from last week's Ask Matt column]! You're the D-Bag of the Year for your comments about Zooey Deschanel being "chunky" on New Girl. Have no fear, though, Fred. Your waif-accustomed eyes likely won't be offended for long. The lovely Zooey will surely fall victim to the dreaded "Shrinking TV Actress Disease" (See: Aniston, Jennifer; Messing, Debra; Gellar, Sarah Michelle), and you'll have less and less of her to love (or hate, in your case) as each season of New Girl progresses. — Julie

Matt Roush: To no one's surprise, that controversial remark from last week generated quite a bit of negative reaction, with more than a few suggesting Fred donate bills of rather large denominations to his own "Douchebag" jar.

In other follow-up news from last week's column, thanks to everyone for playing along with answers and thoughts about the origin of Henry's book of fairy tales on Once Upon a Time. Most everyone pointed out that Mary Margaret gave Henry the book, but as Joe notes, "the origins of the book have never been explained. But being that this new male character in town — who rode in on a motorcycle — turns out to be a writer and stated that he's inspired by the goings-on in Storybrooke, I wouldn't be surprised if he wrote it." That seems to be the prevailing theory these days.

And Robert points out, in response to my suggesting that the town clock (representing time) started moving once Emma came to town, "her decision to stay in town and not leave is what started to break the curse and start the clock moving." Which answers part of the following question, another indication that people are still having trouble dealing with the show's very high concept.

Question: Love your reviews and column! I have a question about Once Upon a Time. I know that time has stopped for everyone at Storybrooke, and I'd assume that no one ages, no one graduates from school, etc., etc. If this is the case, wouldn't people notice that Henry is growing up, since he's from the "outside?" Or do people actually age? If yes, how do they keep people in town? Do people just grow up and stay in Storybrooke? Perhaps it hasn't been addressed in the show, but it just bugs me. Also, I feel like the show would have been much better if Regina didn't know she was the Evil Queen, don't you? My biggest nitpick of the show is that Regina is so one-dimensionally evil. At least when she is playing the Evil Queen, there seems to be some backstory that makes you wonder what heartbreak she had to endure to become so vengeful. Based on her reaction to Henry and Hansel and Gretel, I would guess it involves her ability to have kids, or something related to being a mom. Your thoughts? — Serena

Matt Roush: With the whole time thing, as well as the premise that no one is able to leave town and few strangers able to visit, I think we just have to accept that the residents of Storybrooke are living in a fugue state under the curse, and simply don't give much thought to things like the aging process or other aspects of time passing. Where the Evil Queen/Mayor is concerned, that's a fair point about her self-awareness, and it might be more interesting if she wasn't always aware of why she was acting so despicably. But in both worlds, I think we're supposed to feel that her actions are in part motivated by her inability to receive and/or feel love, especially by children.

Question: I think that Blue Bloods is one of the best shows on TV right now. Tom Selleck has once again shown why he is a great actor, and I'm surprised he doesn't get more recognition for the great work he does on the show. I also like the work that Donnie Wahlberg and Bridget Moynahan bring to the show as well. I think Blue Bloods is the best show that CBS has on right now. So my question is do you think Blue Bloods is the best show on CBS, and if not where would you rank it? — Allan

Matt Roush: It's not a secret that I consider The Good Wifenot only CBS' best drama, but the best drama on any broadcast network. Nothing else comes close. But looking at CBS' deep bench of procedurals, Blue Bloods is one of the most solid, and I give it credit for grounding its crime stories within a family saga — which also makes it special because it's unlikely CBS will be able to clone this one. For pure entertainment purposes, I probably enjoy original NCIS and The Mentalist more, and Person of Interest is less conventional, but on the rare occasions I watch anything that airs on CBS on Friday night, this is the one that stands out. (And the network has made this week's episode available for preview, so I hope to be writing about that later this week.)

That's all for now. Keep sending your comments and questions to askmatt@tvguidemagazine.com, and in the meantime, follow me on Twitter!

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