Downton Abbey just finished its six-season run two months ago, but if you have been fiending for British accents, period costumes, poorly managed hereditary estates, class tensions, love stories revolving around a young woman named Mary, and the nostalgic eye of Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, here comes Julian Fellowes Presents Doctor Thorne. The miniseries, adapted from an Anthony Trollope novel, arrives on Amazon on Friday, having aired earlier this year in the U.K. under the simple title Doctor Thorne. For its move to America, the show has put on airs. These airs reflect Amazon’s ambitions, ones that will perhaps last only for the duration of this series, to challenge PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre. In a rumble between Masterpiece Theatre and one Amazon costume drama perhaps a lone cravat would be mussed, but Amazon’s usurper intentions, however fitfully meant, are a more interesting illustration of the relentlessness of change—an obsession of Fellowes’—than Doctor Thorne, a perfectly serviceable, occasionally adorable, utterly predictable period drama.
Every episode of Doctor Thorne begins with Fellowes, ensconced in a red velvet arm chair, sitting beside a flickering fireplace. The camera at first comes upon Fellowes from a low angle, a shot just odd enough to suggest Fellowes is aware that Alfred Hitchcock used to “present” television too. But it then settles into an unshowy midrange shot, from which Fellowes delivers a bit of patter in his posh tones about the series audiences are about to see. The whole thing is extremely Masterpiece Theatre, all cozy highbrow, inviting audiences into a civilized realm—that velvet! That fireplace!—where Fellowes can drop Austen’s and Dickens’ and Trollope’s names, clip the vowels in Amazon so it sounds as if he is saying “Amahzin,” and donnishly explain the moral ambiguity of Trollope’s work, even as he keeps that ambiguity almost entirely out of his miniseries.
Doctor Thorne, one of the novels from Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire, is set in 1850s England, where, in an addendum to Jane Austen, a single man of no fortune is in want of wife. The Greshams, like Downton’s the Granthams (one suspects that Doctor Thorne, one of Fellowes’ favorite books, was a source of inspiration even before he adapted it), are a noble family who have lost most of their fortune, and are now deep in debt to Sir Roger Scatcherd (Ian McShane), a common man who was elevated to a baronet. The kindly Sir Gresham (Richard McCabe) and his more driven wife Lady Arabella (Rebecca Front) are focused on marrying their children off to very wealthy partners, with or without good breeding, so as to save the family home. They want their handsome, sweet son Frank (Harry Richardson) to marry Miss Dunstable (Alison Brie), a wealthy American, but he is in love with the lovely Mary Throne (Stefanie Martini), the niece of the titular doctor (Tom Hollander), though she has no fortune to speak of and mysterious parentage.
After about 20 minutes, the entire plot of the miniseries becomes crystal clear. This is a story with a happy ending, and in such period pieces, happy endings require not only that the true lovers end up together but that they do so in possession of their property. Luckily, Doctor Thorne’s predictability doesn’t preclude its enjoyability. McShane and Front are not given the witticisms of the Dowager Countess, but they chew some scenery, their pinky fingers in the air; though, it is Kate O’Flynn as Lady Alexandrina de Courcy, the Greshams’ niece, who is the most wonderfully vile. Hollander’s Doctor Thorne, the embodiment of decency, gets the best lines, particularly in a number of outraged speeches he delivers on behalf of his niece’s honor. (If Fellowes has cribbed from Trollope, they both have cribbed from Austen, and he restages Elizabeth Bennet’s confrontation with Lady Catherine de Bourgh a number of times.) And that niece is worth defending: Martini’s Mary is a self-sacrificing good girl whose self-sacrifices and goodness do not make her a wet blanket.
You can see why Fellowes is attracted to the material: Here is a moment when change is afoot but not yet seriously threatening the finer aspects of the class system he so adores. Doctor Thorne is full of lower class characters who see their fortunes elevated, most especially Roger Scatcherd, whose wife was once Frank’s wet nurse. But the Scatcherds, like the rich merchant the Greshams try to pair off with their daughter, want the standing the Greshams have. (It’s only the American, Miss Dunstable, who doesn’t care about bloodlines.) Mary and Doctor Thorne prove their civility and morality when, even wronged by the Greshams, they do everything they can to keep them in their home. In Doctor Thorne, money still wants class and decency still respects it. It’s a little ironic that Fellowes, whose work burnishes a simpler time when high status was beloved, has partnered with Amazon to see if PBS, the gentleman of American networks, can’t be dethroned.