Thursday, March 27, 2014

Farewell, Television Without Pity

This morning, I received a punch in the gut: one of my favorite websites would be going offline forever.  Yes, Television Without Pity, originating the phrase "spare the snark, spoil the network," will mark its last day on April 4th.  (The forums will remain open until May 31st, but that's cold comfort.)

I've lost many Internet loves over the years, but Television Without Pity deserves a special mention.  It has been one of my go-to websites for at least 10 years.  I vaguely remember when it was called Mighty Big TV and run by two women, Sarah Bunting and Tara Ariano, instead of NBC Universal.

NBC can be thanked for TWoP's demise.  In 2007, Bunting and Ariano sold the website to Bravo, which was part of the NBC Universal empire.  Recently, citing a drop in traffic, NBC tried to sell TWoP to another entity, but found no buyer.  Rather than try a different model, such as a subscription system, NBC decided to shut the doors.

It's possible that someone might step in to save the website.  But if not, I'll just try to remember the good times.  Such as recaps of favorite shows that could last two hours.  Television Without Pity's specialty was the blow-by-blow recap, which described and critiqued every scene and character interaction.  Some of these recaps could be 20-plus pages long.

Frequently recappers would include their observations in other recappers' works.  Characters received nicknames, sometimes lame but usually funny.  Character interactions received tropes to describe them.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Gilmore Girls.  Survivor with the excruciating Rupert seasons.  Sex and the City.  Dollhouse.  Freaks and Geeks.  Friday Night Lights.  Mad Men.  The West Wing.  The list goes on.  Television Without Pity recaps either enriched an already great viewing experience, or at least made it more bearable.  It was like watching with a group of your snarky friends -- only much smarter than your friends.

Admittedly, after Bunting and Ariano left in 2008, the recaps began to lose some of their steam.  They became more explanatory and less clever.  However, the forums were still a rich source of intelligent commentary, ranging from snarky to thoughtful.  Every show on television, both past and present, was represented and endlessly dissected.  The forums have not only served as a place of discussing episodes, but also of discussing culture and history.

Yet even with the welcome addition of Movies Without Pity, the website was apparently losing its mojo.  There were signs here and there, such as slideshows on the main page that strained to make connections between two very different shows or characters.  One favorite: "Are Downton Abbey and Game of Thrones the same show?"  Because they both have snarky old ladies, or something.  Next up: "Are Little House on the Prairie and Breaking Bad the same show?"  Because both involve cooking over an open flame.

Still, it seemed as though TWoP was strong enough to go on indefinitely.  Even now, it doesn't feel real that it's closing down.  Maybe some deep-pocketed, sentimental business person will swoop in and rescue it last minute.

If not, other websites may fill the void in various ways.  There is Bunting and Ariano's current venture, Previously TV.  Or the A.V. Club.  But none will ever completely take the place of Television Without Pity.  It's going to be hard to wean myself off of the habit of going there every day.

Farewell, my Snarky Friend.                          

Friday, March 21, 2014

Disney Debate: Tangled Versus Frozen

I thought I would be one of the few to avoid saying anything about Frozen, but I was intrigued by the reasons given for why Frozen was such a mega-hit while Tangled was merely a box office success.  So I decided to look at both movies and see whether I agree with some of the prevailing assumptions.

First, let me say that there is no loser in this race.  Both movies are good -- really good.  In fact, both even have identical ratings (89 percent) at Rotten Tomatoes.  The only way that these movies "lose," in my mind, is being CGI instead of 2D, but that's for later.

Some of the reasons given for Frozen's success include better songs, a deeper and more compelling story, and a rare female-centric storyline.

The Soundtrack.  Few would argue that Tangled has a better list of songs than Frozen.  While Tangled's "When Will My Life Begin" was clever, the Mother Gothel songs a blast, and "I See the Light" touching mainly for the visual sequence, none was a great song.  That said, Frozen's soundtrack is a bit overrated by comparison, since for the most part, its songs are not great, either.  They are a bit catchier (see "Love Is An Open Door") and the swelling music of "For the First Time in Forever" would be at home in a Disney film from the 90s, but otherwise, they just kind of get in and get out.  All except one, of course: "Let It Go."  While I'm not as wild about "Let It Go" as many, it is a bona fide show-stopper, the sort that Disney hasn't had since "Colors of the Wind."  I'm not merely talking about a show-stopper within the movie -- The Princess and the Frog had one of those -- but the type of song that jumps its movie boundaries and becomes a true pop cultural hit.  I had almost forgotten what it felt like to hear a good movie song twisted into a dull pop ballad (thanks, Demi Lovato!).

That said, I think that Tangled has the better score, most likely because it was done by Alan Menken.  There are some genuinely lovely moments that seem enhanced by the music, such as the moment when Rapunzel brings Flynn back to life.  I'm with one YouTube user who wishes that the "Anna gets frozen" moment had received similar treatment.

The Storyline.  First, I should say that both movies suffered equally for having inane trailers.  I wasn't at all excited to see Tangled until someone told me that the story was nothing like that.  When Frozen's equally stupid "Shrek Meets Ice Age" trailer came out, I was prepared.

Frozen is praised for having a psychologically rich storyline: a young girl taught to so fear her natural abilities that she shrinks from human contact, damaging her relationships with everyone, including her sister.  At the same time, it could be argued that Tangled has an equally twisted psychological core: Rapunzel has been kept in her tower not because thorns on the ground could impale her, but because her "mother" has taught her that she is too weak and helpless to survive in the horrible cruel world outside.

The extent of Rapunzel's disturbing relationship with Mother Gothel is glossed over, I think, because Rapunzel is so resilient.  If Rapunzel were as obviously damaged as Elsa, her relationship with her "mother" might resonate more.  But since Rapunzel seems to be almost supernaturally upbeat, the movie's overarching tone is bright and madcap, and that is what lingers long after the credits roll.

That said, while both movies are enjoyable to watch, I think that Tangled's storyline actually flows better.  Rapunzel's quest is pretty straight-forward: get out of the tower and go see the floating lights.  She remains the focus of the movie for the most part, and scenes without her (such as Flynn's escape) are fairly brief.

By contrast, Frozen can feel un-focused and overplotted at times.  Elsa's breakout song "Let It Go" raises the expectation that she will be a greater focus of the movie.  Instead, it turns into "Anna and Kristoff's Wacky Hijinks in the Snow."  Not that their journey isn't entertaining, but I would much prefer to watch Elsa design a snow village or otherwise test her powers.  Then after Anna visits Elsa, we get yet another development: Anna is dying and can only be saved by an act of true love.              

Female-Centric Storyline.  While Frozen has the obvious female-centric storyline involving two sisters, Tangled's is actually pretty female-centric as well, given that much of the meat comes from Rapunzel's relationship with Mother Gothel.

However, here is where I think Frozen distinguishes itself: the female relationship is not only dominant, but it also survives the end of the film.  Oh, and it's also seen as a positive.

While Rapunzel's relationship with her "mother" formed the psychological core of Tangled, it was seen as a poisonous negative that must be destroyed in order for Rapunzel to flourish.  Tangled had some elements that made it a bit more progressive than its 90s predecessors -- like in The Princess and the Frog, the male love interest signs on to help the female character achieve a goal that is completely independent of the relationship -- but is otherwise fairly standard Disney fare.  Stepmother is evil?  Check.  No strong bonds of female friendship?  Check.  (In this sense, I would venture that even The Princess and the Frog is more subversive than Tangled, given the friendship between Tiana and Charlotte.)      

By contrast, Frozen's sisterly relationship is not just a necessary good, but the entire point of the movie.  If Anna can rekindle the bond with Elsa, then a kingdom is saved.  Even better, Elsa actually remains human the entire movie, something that poor Elinor in Brave never got to enjoy.

There are other pluses to the way the female leads are portrayed in Frozen.  As has been pointed out numerous times, Elsa is the rare queen who isn't evil.  Yet at the same time, she's not all buoyant irrepressibility like the other Disney princesses.  She's tense!  She's repressed!  She's moody and anxious!  Meanwhile, Anna fits the mold of typical Disney princess better, but even she deviates somewhat.  While intelligent and compassionate, she is also impulsive and awkward, traits that might not be uncommon among female movie leads in general, but are definitely uncommon among Disney heroines.  For all that Belle was accused of being "odd," could you see her doing anything remotely undignified?  (Mulan might be more Anna's soul sister in that respect, but even her awkwardness seemed confined to specific situations.)

It just so happened that when Frozen premiered, Hollywood was making the earth-shaking discovery that moviegoers will go in droves to see movies starring female protagonists.  What seems like common sense to you or I had to be drilled into the great minds of Tinsel Town, so caught up in their received wisdom that "gurlz will see boyz, but boyz won't see gurlz."  The change in thinking began with Twilight, but was certified by the monster success of The Hunger Games.  And audiences everywhere rejoiced!  Frozen premiered at the same time as Catching Fire, and I think got caught up in the same wave of jubilation that greeted the former: "Hell yes, we actually have a good movie starring interesting female characters who deal with problems that don't just involve romance!"  So while Frozen itself is not a great movie, it contains elements that are immensely appealing, especially at this time.  Had Tangled premiered in its place, I don't know if it would have received the same reception due to its slightly more conventional package.

The Biggest Loser.  That said, I think that both movies are losers in one respect -- in relying exclusively on CGI, they have given up some of the beauty and nuance of hand-drawn animation.  Don't get me wrong: there is some impressive nuance in the character animation.  But it's impressive for CGI, not in its own right.

Many have criticized the character designs for being uninventive, pointing out how much Anna and Elsa look like Rapunzel.  (This has even launched several theories that Anna and Elsa are, in fact, Rapunzel's cousins, which has credence given that Rapunzel attended Elsa's coronation.  Never mind that Tangled clearly seems to exist in an earlier era -- make it happen, Disney!)  Elsa's character design is perfectly fine, but I could see animators of 2D being inspired to give her a slightly more elegant, refined look.  Something a little more stylized that would work for 2D, but look strange in CGI.

Then there are sequences that would have been stronger had the character animation been 2D.  "Let It Go" is the highlight of the movie, but as Elsa moves, she seems curiously unaffected by the elements around her.  While "the cold never bothered [her] anyway," her hair would still be affected by the wind.  Her bangs barely flutter as the wind somehow yanks at her cape and pulls it out into space.  I could see a 2D animator really driving home how harsh the elements were: the wind so hard that Elsa's bangs are flying back and individual hairs are straining to be free; the cape would be flapping wildly this way and that; Elsa would be pushing onward, her face creased with lines of concentration that would make her look like an old woman if transferred to CGI.  "Let It Go" as it was looked great.  "Let It Go" with hand-drawn character animation could have been amazing.

Though CGI has been progressing, you can't escape the fact that while the scenery looks so fantastic and real, the human characters still look like rubber toys.  At least Tangled tried to experiment with CGI's possibilities, creating a CGI landscape meant to look like a deep version of a 2D landscape (though to me, it still looks like a prettier Shrek).  Frozen has so many gorgeous ice shots, but just okay character shots.

Regardless, I will say this about both movies: they're both better than The Lion King.  Never got the hype about that one...

 The above images are used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Brief Post-Downton Abbey Blog Update

Hi everyone, I just wanted to give a quick road map of where the blog is headed now that I've finished my Downton Abbey recapping.

As you saw, I recently posted an update on my novel that goes more into the storyline than any previous posts.  I will likely be posting more updates of this nature in the coming months -- more information about the storyline, the characters, the research, and the selling process.  Some of it will be tied to past posts (like any of the "Downton Extras").

Another thing I'll be doing is taking a look at other neo-Victorian novels published within the last 15 or so years to get a sense of the market.

Otherwise, it will be back to the usual -- Movie Musicals That Got It Right or Wrong, Unpopular Opinions, and other essays.  I have some doozies planned.  Stay tuned!

Friday, March 14, 2014

It's a Novel Update, With Even More Selling Power!

I figured it was time to give an update on my novel.  For those who aren't interested, at least be glad I'm done recapping Downton Abbey and will be turning my attention to other fare in the coming weeks...

Long-time readers are aware that I've written a neo-Victorian novel set in 1860s England.  I've posted snippets of it here, here, and here.  It began life at nearly 175,000 words, but has since been shaved down to around 141,000, and I don't intend for it to be any smaller [Update: Except now it's 120,000].

I officially finished it last January, but spent some time reading and rereading, correcting errors from historical to grammatical.  I even gave it *dramatic pause* a name: Rage and Regret.

Yet despite my work being ready to hit the marketplace, I realized I was completely ignorant about how to sell.  That turned out to be a big deal because agents are inundated with queries every single day and you need to present yours just right to get their attention.  That means an amazing letter, amazing synopsis, a word count that's not so big that they will automatically hit "delete email," and a wonderfully polished 50 or so opening pages.

All of these took six months to achieve.

Of course I was doing other things during that time -- one of them was writing a 9,000-word outline for Rage and Regret's sequel.  But a lot of it was reading and rereading query letters and synopses and soliciting feedback from numerous people.  Before I get into that, though, let me give more background about the novel.

What's Your Novel's Name Again?  Rage and Regret

How Did You Come Up With It?  Through much trial and error.  After trying on many names, it seemed to be the one that best addressed the novel themes.

Will You Tell Us Your Name?  NO!  My name is a beautiful, sacred secret that I'm sure you could discern through clues planted in earlier blog posts and some careful Internet searches, but otherwise will remain unrevealed in case one day Twitter trolls get bored stalking celebrities and turn on me.

In all seriousness, I realize that I need to reveal my name sooner or later, but Internet shyness leads me to keep postponing that day.

Can You At Least Tell Us What Your Novel Is About??  It's about a wealthy young English girl named Isabella Warpole, who will grow up to be the world's most powerful female industrialist (in the Victorian Era).  She's spent most of her life sickly and despises doctors.  She is terrified of speaking in public.  Yet she must be strong and take on a public role when her beloved mother dies unexpectedly.

Isabella blames a local factory owner and his supporters for her mother's death.  Her mother had opposed the building of a new factory, believing that its waste would poison the local drinking water.  Soon after, vicious rumors were spread about her, causing her health to suffer.  Isabella hates the factory and vows to find and take revenge on those who hurt her mother.  She imagines that her mother would be proud of her if she knew -- which would be all Isabella ever wanted, since her mother was never proud when she was alive.

However, Isabella's methods are... controversial.  They involve a combination of blackmail, favors, and threats to get the information she needs.  After hurting an innocent person, she realizes that she has gone too far, and wonders whether she is truly bad and deserved to be rejected by her mother.  The question is whether she can rally in time to save her community.

This novel is the starting point on a long journey, projected to be six or seven books.  Part of the journey involves seeing how this awkward, angry girl who hates factories becomes a powerful, self-assured industrialist.

Is That the Only Story Line?  No -- there is a significant subplot involving Isabella's cousin, Arthur, that eventually folds into the main plot.  Arthur is an orphan with a past he does not remember.  He might just be the legitimate heir of a nearby estate, which is currently in the hands of his uncle Edmund, who guards it jealously.  Arthur tries to forget his past and focus on the future: becoming a medical doctor at a time when the profession is rapidly growing more respectable.  This becomes difficult, though, when he throws his support behind the doctor who treated Isabella's mother.  The Warpoles believe this doctor contributed to her rapid decline and blame Arthur by association.  

What About the Factory?  Oh yes, that.  Let's just say Isabella's mother was right to be worried.

So If It's a Neo-Victorian Novel, Where's the Romance??  Now, now, not every Victorian novel involves pairing people off.


Okay fine, yes, there is a romance.  Based on the information I've given, you should be able to determine the two individuals involved.

So How Is This a Historical Novel?  It is set in the 1860s.  While not set against the backdrop of any major events, its circumstances strongly reflect the times.  The Warpoles do not merely mourn Isabella's mother -- they coat themselves in black for months, even years, in accordance with Victorian mourning tradition.  It's also a time when people were starting to make the connection between waste in drinking water and serious illness, thus sparking an interest in sanitation reforms in cities and towns.

Medicine was also making great strides, and the path to becoming a doctor was becoming more regulated.  At the same time, the book is set right before the time of Joseph Lister's discovery of antiseptic surgery, so doctors were still using dirty tools that caused infection without realizing the connection.        

Which Victorian Novels Would This Remind Me Of?  I think that there's enough about it that is fairly unique, but it would probably remind you the most of the works by Elizabeth Gaskell (especially North and South), George Eliot (especially Middlemarch), Anthony Trollope, and maybe a little Thomas Hardy.  In addition to novels by those authors, countless works influenced this novel, many of whose authors were not Victorian.

What About Modern Novels?  Someone once told me that the plot seemed a bit like Wideacre, though with a more sympathetic female protagonist.  It's possible that if you've read Wideacre, or any of the more recent neo-Victorian novels, mine might remind you of them, but I hadn't read any of them prior to writing.

Now the Big Question: Why Should I Care?  If historical fiction doesn't interest you, you might not care to read this novel at all.  Maybe you think the Victorian Era has been done to death.  That's your prerogative.  But if you do like novels set in the past, with Downton-like country houses, this ought to at least pique your interest.

And then once you start reading, you will hopefully keep going because you like

  • watching the development of characters who are flawed, yet surprisingly sympathetic and relatable;
  • a story line that is not predictable and leaves you guessing until the end;
  • a satisfying resolution that, at the same time, leaves the door open for future stories.

How Do You Plan to Sell This Thing?  I would like to go through conventional channels, if possible.  I first attempted to sell the novel back in July 2013, when it was nearly 170,000 words.  I read some websites about how to craft the ideal query letter and synopsis, wrote something that I thought was good, and dropped my manuscript on 20 lucky agents.  Silence ensued.  Well, silence and rejection.  And maybe laughter.

I knew that my submission package needed work, so I've been showing it to this expert or that for feedback and advice.  I finally got the seal of approval for both the query letter and synopsis, but am still cautious about submissions.  My plan is to query the hell out of every available agent, as well as attend any conferences or workshops that I can afford.  If I can't draw any interest, then I will try publishers directly.  If they aren't interested, then I will probably (1) write the sequel and (2) write a different novel, in that order.  I would just go ahead and peddle the sequel, but I heard that is frowned upon -- you must sell the first book of the series or else you're out of luck.  If so, I would rather shop around a different novel before trying self publishing, though I know many have found success through that route.

Anyway the road is long, and I've only just put on my new walking shoes.  I will give more updates on my progress as they come.

The above image is used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Downton Abbey: So How'd I Do With My Predictions?

So here we are.  Another year of Downton Abbey aired and gone... this time with no notable deaths.  Last year at this time, I made several predictions as to how I thought Series Four would go.  This year, I'm going to check how I did and make yet another set of predictions.  Watch me go!

Predictions For Series Four

1.  The Viewership Numbers Will Remain Strong.  That was definitely the case.  In the UK, the series viewership numbers slipped just the tiniest bit, from 11.7 million for Series Three to 11.5 million.  The Series Four premiere broke viewership records in the U.S. and the show did better against the Super Bowl than last year.

2.  Mary and Branson Probably Won't Get Together in Series Four, But in Series Five...  Another one on the nose.  Truth be told, it was a bit of a no-brainer.  It would have been wrong for Mary and Branson to become passionate in Series Four after each lost the love of their life in Series Three.  I'm actually surprised that Mary had as much romance going on as she did -- I guess Fellowes thinks that she just can't be interesting without men hanging on her.  So she and Branson were nothing more than friends and allies... this year.

3.  Edith Will Be Gregson's Mistress?  Yes, though sadly, there were far fewer highs to this storyline than lows.  One reason is because the actor who played Gregson went off to star in a play with Angela Lansbury, necessitating that he be written off of the show in the slightly absurd German citizenship plot.  That left Edith without the high of being with the man she loved, damn society's disapproval, and with the low of being pregnant with his child after her first sexual encounter.  It wasn't completely hopeless, as Edith now has one of the more compelling storylines -- secret bastard child that will be raised near Downton.  Still, it would have been nice if Edith had gone one full Series without being the family ne'er do well.

4.  What Will Become of Mary and Isobel's Relationship?  Okay, that wasn't really a prediction.  But I did note that neither Mary nor Matthew interacted much with Isobel in Series Three, and that sadly continued to be the case in Series Four.  Oh, it would have been nice if Mary and Isobel could have clashed, as it would have meant Mary acknowledging the other's existence, but so far, that has not been the case.

5.  The Servants' Lives Will Continue to Be Frustratingly Inert.  Ohhhh yes.  It's true that there were bright spots -- O'Brien got the hell of out Dodge, and there was the surprise friendship/romance between perpetual sad-sack Molesley and the mysterious Baxter.  However, the rest of the servant interactions were dominated by the Love Quadrangle That Would Not Die.  Daisy loves Alfred!  But Alfred loves Ivy!  But Ivy loves Jimmy!  But Jimmy loves... himself.  And so on and so forth.  The other servants were so desperate to end it that they even pretended everyone had the flu when Alfred came to visit from cooking school.  That storyline finally ended in the last episode, but it took far too long.

Even when you had a challenging storyline like Anna being raped by Green, it became a retread of previous series ("Oh no, Mr. Bates can't be allowed to murder him, or he'll go to prison... again!").  And meanwhile, Thomas continued to be a glowering jerk who couldn't count his blessings for still having a job -- and a promotion at that -- while Carson continued to disapprove of everything.  There were hints of a little amour between him and Mrs. Hughes, but nooooo... that's the one area where I would rather nothing changed.

6.  Rose Will Serve as an Audience Surrogate.  Only if the audience is filled with idiots.  This was my biggest prediction miss -- I really hoped to see a different (improved) Rose from the spoiled party girl she was in Series Three.  Nope.  Rose had an interesting interracial storyline, but it turned out her dalliance with Jack Ross was partially about getting back at her mother.  There was no snipping at Mary or support of Edith.  Quite the contrary: Rose, like everyone else, never gave a fig about Edith, but seemed to respect Alpha Female Mary.

7.  Lord Grantham Will Continue to Be Stupid.  Right-o.  Fortunately, thanks to Mary and Branson, he had a far smaller canvas on which to work his destruction.  I will never forgive Harold Levinson for getting involved in the Teapot Dome scandal, as it gave Lord Pompous an opportunity to preen and act superior.

And yes, Cora continued to be boring and useless.

So with that out of the way, onto predictions for Series Five.

Edith's Plot Will Blow Up in Her Face Because... Edith.  It might have been nice if, similar to Ethel from Series Three, Edith could have just observed her daughter from afar while the latter was raised by a kind tenant farmer and his family.  But that can't happen because it's Edith we're talking about, a veritable black hole for happiness.  The Crawleys will learn everything and Edith will face possible scandal and be left with at least one heartbreaking decision.  Mary's response will be interesting: will she finally be a real sister to Edith, or just snigger about Edith's misfortunes the way she did about Gregson going missing?

But That's Okay, Because Things Will Finally Start Going Her Way.  ... I hope?  Maybe Gregson will return.  Maybe Evelyn Napier, the Jan of Mary's men, will realize he'll never get the Alpha Female and turn his attention to Edith.  Then, what starts as a consolation prize turns into true love, complete with Napier proposing to Edith after the big scandal about her bastard child comes out.  Hey, I can hope, right?

Mary Will Start Series Five Having to Choose Between Two Boring Men.  At least that's how it appeared from the Series Four Christmas Special.  Sorry Fellowes, but you're not going to generate one tenth of the chemistry that existed in Series One/Two between Mary and Matthew.  Lord Gillingham is a hot cipher and not much more.  Mr. Blake has the potential for more friction, but I really don't care about him, either.  Stop trying to make them happen, Fellowes!  You tried to make the Love Quadrangle happen, and look where that got you!

But Midway Through, Mary Will Develop a Thing For Branson.  ... I hope?  I can't imagine that the audience is supposed to root for an end game where Branson gets together with Sarah Bunting.  I think she's probably the in-between romance before the Big One.  And since Branson needs a reason to stay at Downton... why not pair him with one of the Crawley sisters?  Some have suggested he pair with Edith, and I could see that happening, since they are both third wheels and have a nice rapport.  However, if Fellowes wants anything close to the Mary/Matthew spark, he would do well to pair Mary with perpetual fish-out-of-water Branson and then dive for cover.

Rose Will Continue to Make Me Miss Sybil.  And Sybil wasn't even a favorite of mine.  Still, she was a far better soul than the person who took her place, and I can only imagine what she'd say if confronted with Rose.

Daisy Will... Finally... Do Something?  Daisy showed a lot of emotional growth toward the end of Series Four.  Now let's see her push forward with a real plot line.  Will she join Mr. Mason at his farm?  Stand up to Mary and Branson when they push collective farming?  Will she meet a manservant whom she likes, and who likes her in return?  I would love to see her get a happy ending.

Thomas Will Continue to Be a Jerk For No Reason.  Thomas will have a good job and resent every minute of it.  Yet he will do nothing to change his lot, such as seek a position in a new household or buy one-way passage to America.  Instead, he will channel his resentment into terrible acts toward Molesley and Baxter, whose secret we will finally learn and be underwhelmed by.  And no one will remember or care that Thomas is hiding a big secret of his own, or that Baxter only entered the household thanks to Thomas's recommendation.  The best thing that could happen in a "Thomas torments Baxter and Molesley" storyline is that Thomas ends up getting fired when the Crawleys' patience finally runs out, and we spend the rest of the series watching Thomas scheme and manipulate to survive in the harsh outside world.

Anna and Bates Will Be Dull and Long-Suffering Together.  I suppose there might be the lingering mystery of whether Bates really killed Mr. Green.  But if not, I'm sure Fellowes will find something to make them miserable.

The rest of my predictions are premised on how predictable this show has become.  Isobel will get righteous about something.  Violet will be witty and aware of everything that goes on everywhere.  Whereas Cora will continue to simper and be aware of nothing.  (Really, Cora?  Your daughter goes away to Switzerland for eight months to learn French?)  And Lord Grantham will continue to be self righteous and clueless, though occasionally he will show glimmers of awareness.

Which is my way of saying: it's fine for the show to have one slow series to serve as a bridge between two that are more intense, but multiple dull series could spell death.  Downton Abbey needs a real spark, and at the moment, the only way I can think to do it would be to pair Mary with Branson.  Or Edith with Branson.  Or, failing that, have Edith raise her bastard child in Downton Abbey.  Just something big, something risky.  If Series Five is another series of Mary's Men, I may just turn off the show for good.