Fans of the British drama Downton Abbey have had constant spoiler crises, trying either to glean every detail of the overseas telecasts before the episodes air in the U.S., or laboring to avoid any spoilers until they can see the show for themselves.
Well, here comes another challenge: the home-viewing release of Downton Abbey: Season 4 (PBS, $54.99 Blu-ray, $49.99 DVD) on Tuesday, before the fourth season has concluded its current run on the Masterpiece series.
The set presents the series as it was originally televised in Great Britain; the two-hour season premiere in the U.S. was assembled from two episodes presented separately in the DVD and Blu-ray packages; the home-viewing version accordingly consists of nine parts, eight episodes and The London Season, which aired as a Christmas special overseas but will wrap up the fourth-season run on PBS on Feb. 23.
While I don’t want to get into spoilers about the fourth season, since some of you may not be caught up, it has had its share of controversy, particularly about the way the women of Downton Abbey are treated. And, having seen all this season, my enthusiasm based on the early season-four episodes began to wane. The series sacrificed a certain thoughtfulness in its melodramatic storylines in favor of a more soap-operatic approach. Even when interesting ideas are in play, about race and class and a changing nation in the 1920s, they are merely offered as plot devices, and sent on their way once the narrative has moved on to another romantic crisis or surprising (and, too often, not all that surprising) plot turn.
The show is ably acted, and Maggie Smith is among the performers well above that measure. Indeed, so good and comfortable is the cast that, when Shirley MacLaine arrives for The London Season, she seems not on the same level — especially in a scene that seems designed only to let Smith and MacLaine go one-on-one. And, much as I objected to some of the developments this season, I watched every doggone episode — and have plenty of nagging questions for the next season.
Extras include segments on the making of the series and the new cast members.
Another well-regarded series, HBO’s New Orleans drama Treme, bid farewell in December and now brings its last moments to two sets, Treme: The Complete Fourth Season (HBO, five episodes, $49.99 Blu-ray, $39.98 DVD) and Treme: The Complete Series (36 episodes, $134.99 Blu-ray only). From writer-producer David Simon (The Wire), the tale of people in post-Katrina New Orleans was typically challenging in its storytelling and range of characters, but often compelling as a portrait of a city.
Extras in the fourth season include two audio commentaries. The complete-series box has all the extras from the previous single-season boxes plus a bonus disc with 15 videos of music from the show. But be careful when you unwrap your complete-series box: the music-videos bonus disc is inside the cardboard slip wrapped around the box holding the episodes. (The inside of the wraparound notes it has the bonus.)
Also from the TV world is Bonnie & Clyde (Sony, $45.99 DVD, $55.99 DVD/Blu-ray combo), the reworking of the tale of bank-robbing lovers which aired on History, Lifetime and A&E. Emile Hirsch is Clyde Barrow and Holliday Grainger is Bonnie Parker in this rendition, which is more about Parker and her longing for celebrity. As I said when it originally aired, it is a grubbier and grimmer take on the tale of the two desperadoes than the 1967 movie starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. It is also very violent. But it was still somewhat entertaining.
Extras on DVD and Blu-ray include making-of pieces, among them ones where Grainger and Hirsch talk about their characters. The Blu-ray adds a talk with writers John Rice and Joe Batteer about how they approached the script.
On the movie side is Rush (Universal, $29.98 DVD, $34.98 Blu-ray/DVD/digital combo), director Ron Howard’s chronicle of the real-life careers and rivalry of auto racers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl). Both racers are intriguing — Hunt a swaggering playboy, Lauda a highly focused driver and technician — and their clashes were memorable. While Hemsworth is a good actor, it is Bruhl’s Lauda who steadily takes over the movie, much as Lauda overcame some stunning setbacks in his own life.
Extras include deleted scenes and a piece about Ron Howard, with the Blu-ray adding a look at the real people and events, and at the making of the film.
Finally, let me make mention of Last Vegas (Sony, $30.99 DVD/digital, $40.99 Blu-ray/DVD/digital) if only to say, “Don’t.” The movie has four Oscar winners — Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Kline — as longtime friends getting together for Douglas’s wedding in Sin City. Much as I like these actors, and as much as I was inclined to watch the movie, I gave up after less than 30 minutes of spiritless, uninspired effort. There are extras, but why bother?
Down video road: The Oscar-nominated, across-the-board excellent Nebraska comes to DVD and Blu-ray on Feb. 25, and to digital services on Feb. 18.
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.