Dreadful news, everyone: The Titanic has sunk again. It just keeps sinking and sinking and sinking . . .
How come some enterprising cruise line doesn’t just rebuild a fleet of them and sink one annually? (Disney? Carnival? Who has the rights?) Rebuild it and the masses would certainly come. It could be like one of those murder-mystery dinner inns, only more romantic, tragic. People would pay good money to dress up in Edwardian finery, set sail and glub-glub.
Anyways, amid the many hours of Titanic centennial programming on the tube this month, ABC has quite cleverly programmed a British miniseries, four hours in length, airing this weekend (yes, four hours — including an approximate 1 squillion commercial breaks) written by none other than Julian Fellowes, the man who brought us the PBS smash “Downton Abbey.”
What’s that, you say? “Downton Abbey” on the Titanic? The Crawleys meet the iceberg? Upstairs, downstairs and wayyy downstairs? Why, that doesn’t sound at all unnecessary, given that James Cameron’s blockbuster “Titanic” (now in 3-D rerelease) lacked scope and ambition. What could possibly go wrong? Sounds unsinkable to me!
Oh, poor lamb. Here’s your life vest and your deck chair. This whole thing is going down and taking us with it. It’s no secret to “Downton” fans that Fellowes is a fan of the disaster — Season 1 began with the household waking to the news that Lady Mary’s intended fiance perished on the voyage. Letting Fellowes roam around the Titanic is like letting the least motivated “Biggest Loser” contestant roam freely through the Hunan Palace Kountry Sizzlin’ Buffet. His eyes are bigger than his stomach, and the socioeconomic metaphors are piled high. The Titanic glistens and teems with his favorite dishes of class awkwardness.
Uppercrust and nouveau-riche passengers scornfully regard one another in first class while their servants fret, flirt and fuss (and attempt to pocket a brooch — even this “Titanic’s” jewelry shenanigans can’t stand up to Cameron’s). In second class, those of slightly lesser means keep calm and carry on, etc. Below decks in steerage, cramped passengers talk incessantly about how much better life will be in New York, where nobody ever judges anybody because of how much money they have. (Maybe it’s good they never made it.)
It’s not an altogether terrible cruise. Fellowes introduces a lot of characters — some real, some imagined, all played gamely by actors who do a splendid job of pretending they never saw the 1997 film — and begins his trademark juggling act among them. His dialogue is pure efficiency, but his characters are more like a set of Titanic paper dolls. The ship interiors have the look of a lovingly restored hotel that is now somebody’s Wyndham.
The daughter of a countess is wooed by an American scion; an Italian waiter falls for one of the ship’s maids; a socialist revolutionary flees arrest by getting a steerage ticket, then stalks the wife of the ship’s electrician; nobody wants to give Molly Brown the time of day; the snakey J. Bruce Ismay sneaks aboard a lifeboat as his grand ship founders.
Fellowes’s “Titanic” lovers never achieve the heat of Jack Dawson and Rose DeWitt Bukater; the only between-the-sheets glimpse comes courtesy of Mr. Guggenheim and his French mistress. But the stories are sweet enough, and, in a twist that won’t surprise anyone who found the second season of “Downton Abbey” to be a little too sappy, there are a surprising number of happy endings waiting in the lifeboats for the Carpathia’s arrival. (Survivors galore!)
Despite its meandering soapiness, there are passing moments of enjoyable “Downton”-like momentum wherein a viewer can eventually let go of the Cameron version (and “A Night to Remember” and the many, many documentaries in cable rotation) and simply enjoy the tilt.
The series was clearly designed to air as four one-hour episodes. Three of them will air consecutively Saturday night, with the final hour airing Sunday. This distorts Fellowes’s one bit of fanciful story structure — each hour, we come at the story from a different beginning, working our way toward a crescendo where the Titanic begins to list.
When it finally does go down once and for all, it does so with grace, dignity and a polite burp. One gets the feeling the producers couldn’t afford much else.
(four hours) begins Saturday at 8 p.m. on ABC. Concludes Sunday at 9 p.m.