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The hotly-anticipated miniseries from the mind of Julian Fellowes (‘Downton Abbey’) was expected to be one of the highlights of the centennial anniversary of the RMS Titanic’s sinking, however, a bloated cast, flawed set-up and overload of social commentary amounted to one massive disappointment.
‘Titanic’ is a 4-part miniseries which will document the experiences of various passengers aboard the infamous ship which sank on its maiden voyage on April 12 1912. The ship’s sinking has been depicted onscreen many times before, most successfully with the eponymous 1997 theatrical release grossing almost $2 billion, and soon to be re-released into cinemas in 3D. But this miniseries, penned by the same man who turned ‘Downton Abbey’ into a worldwide hit, does not seem likely to follow in the footsteps of Fellowes’ award-winning series.
For starters, there are too many characters. Plain and simple. Featuring 89 main characters in total, each episode will focus on a select group before ending with their efforts to escape from the sinking ship. Episode 4 will presumably tie all of the storylines together and then show which of the characters managed to survive.
Unfortunately, Fellowes has tried to do too much with too many characters, barely giving the audience a chance to learn their names or backstories before one is suddenly thrust onto the deck where hundreds of inter-changeable characters are running around, spewing out stock dialogue of a dozen other disaster dramas.
Clearly trying to emulate the appeal of ‘Downton Abbey’, Fellowes depicts the servants and the first-class passengers, and every other group in between. However, unlike ‘Downton Abbey’, Fellowes does not have 7 episodes to tease out the nuances of their relationships, nor is there the opportunity to create compelling or surprising encounters between characters of different social status. Certainly, a variety of characters do interact in this first episode, but it is to no dramatic pay-off.
The most glaring and irritating aspect of the first episode is undoubtedly the inclusion of a social issue in every other line of dialogue. The very first scene, which lasted no more than 60 seconds, referenced: the judicial system, political protests, women’s right to vote, class bias, and even an allusion to homosexuality.
Moving beyond that, not an act break could go by without one nationality criticising another, with one American character awkwardly commenting, “I can’t see the English wanting to drop the class system anytime soon. It’s woven into their heritage.” Excuse me, but what was this character’s name? Who was he addressing?
Why should the audience care? The most laughable, and again awkward, piece of dialogue had to be when an upper-class American character told a man from an opposing political party that he could sit next to him – all while outside on the deck hundreds of passengers were clamouring onto lifeboats. It was ridiculous, and simply ineffective on any thematic level.
All in all, Fellowes is clearly eager to explore class, sex, politics, nationality, and countless other hot-topic issues. And who could blame him? The RMS Titanic was a melting pot of different cultures and classes, with the accounts of survivors offering up various threads for a story-teller to pursue in this type of series.
It must have been incredibly tempting to produce a big-budget series, guaranteed to be given a massive promotional push, scheduled in the exact same time-slot as ‘Downton Abbey’, and sure to attract interest from the U.S. and beyond. But all those lavish production values amount to nothing when you have bland characters, forced dialogue, predictable interactions, and an badly-executed premise made all the more frustrating by the possibilities for provocative storylines which it had to offer in the first place.
With three episodes still to go, one can only hope that things improve. If not, Fellowes won’t be worried. After all, ‘Downton Abbey’ isn’t going anywhere.