I’m going to do what every other reviewer out there has done and connect this series with Downton Abbey. I wanted to find an original approach, but I guess I’m just not that creative. The only reason I don’t feel too bad about it, is that comparing The Halcyon to Downton Abbey is I think going to end well for The Halcyon. Drawing attention to the way a series surpasses something that was a huge success doesn’t feel like quite such a cheap reviewing strategy.
The similarities between The Halcyon and Downton Abbey are quite clear. Both period dramas from ITV, both the kind of thing that is very safe to watch with your Gran. The plots are notionally based around issues of the time (in this case World War 2 and the blitz) but are really about the range of people sharing the same physical space but being worlds apart in background and social location. The tones of the series are similar, both towards the easy watching end of the drama spectrum, but it’s in the nuances of the tone that the series actually differ.
Downton seemed to try to hover on the very edge between drama and melodrama, generally drifting towards the farcical end of the spectrum with the occasional swerve back towards thoughtful drama when it felt it had got a bit too silly. Some characters were played mostly straight, while others were played as mostly caricatures. Plot lines were more likely to make you laugh, although there were a few that would make you cry as well, and a non-negligible number that made you do both at the same times. It was a guilty pleasure, a silly series for a Sunday evening to watch with a biscuit before the proper drama of the week got started (both televisual and in real life) .
The Halcyon is a Monday night drama, not a Sunday night one. It’s played straighter, it’s not without moments of levity and happiness, there’s plenty of romantic threads running through to make it still entertaining to watch, rather than the occasional slog that ‘proper’ dramas can become. But it’s a just a little less silly than Downton – people die, people suffer and some problems just aren’t solvable. I think part of that comes from the fact that time seems to pass more slowly, people remember what happened last week without awkwardly pointing it out.
The characters also feel a bit richer, no one is just one thing, they’re not just their job or their title even if that is the pretense they put on. On Downton the characters rarely felt fleshed out or complex, just very simplistic descriptions of “this is the X, they believe Y”. Not all of the characters on The Halcyon progress beyond that, but most of them get at least a few different aspects – changing their minds, presenting different fronts to different people. The interactions are more interesting.
There are still some dafter, and more cliche plots that I could have lived without. The cheesy “he has a secret past” stuff I could happily have lived without, and some of the ‘issues’ are dealt with in a slightly off-hand way, possibly rushing through too many ideas in the first season. But I found myself looking forward to it each episode. Downton always felt disposable, very enjoyable while you’re watching it, but rarely lingering in your thoughts once Monday comes around. There’s a place for that (Sunday evening) and I do miss having that sort of easy watch, but The Halcyon filled a very specific niche too, and I’ll miss that too.