The story of Titanic often is told as one of class divisions that become meaningless once the ship hits an iceberg. The upstairs, downstairs nature of traveling on Titanic was apparent in James Cameron's "Titanic" and it was especially pronounced in the underrated, Tony-winning "Titanic: A New Musical," which played Broadway around the same time "Titanic" arrived in movie theaters in 1997.
"First class and third and second will mean nothing!" sang shipbuilder Thomas Andrews as the ship took on water. "And sheer humanity alone will prevail. One single class -- brute, harsh and crass -- that's what will come of the world that set sail."
It's understandable then that the story of Titanic's passengers from assorted social strata would be intriguing to "Downton Abbey" creator/writer Julian Fellowes. "Downton," which began with the sinking of Titanic, is all about characters from different social classes living under one roof in the British countryside.
Mr. Fellowes' four-hour "Titanic" miniseries, airing on ABC this weekend, also chronicles the lives (and deaths) of characters from different social classes sailing on one doomed luxury liner. British press dubbed Mr. Fellowes' "Titanic" "Downton-At Sea" and "Drownton Abbey," but "Titanic" is a terrific production sure to appeal to fans of period dramas and disaster flicks, two circles in a Venn diagram that rarely intersect.
It helps going in if viewers understand how this short-run series is formatted when it airs 8-11 p.m. Saturday and 9-10 p.m. Sunday on WTAE. Even by the end of the first hour, the ship has hit the iceberg, which leaves viewers to wonder, how exactly do producers intend to fill the remaining three hours?
Turns out it's all about the characters. The first hour is largely devoted to the first-class passengers with the second hour going back in time to before Titanic sails to introduce second- and third-class passengers. Viewers see some scenes multiple times from different characters' perspectives.
The third hour also flashes back to before Titanic leaves Southampton and delves further into character relationships; the fourth hour depicts the ship's sinking.
This fast-paced "Titanic" miniseries gets better as it goes along. In the first hour it seems like a gloss on Mr. Cameron's film with dewy-eyed, young lovers surrounded by a ship full of complainers of varying social classes who are united only in their disdain for one another. But the more "Titanic" explores the characters and their relationships -- through the flashbacks -- the stronger and more compelling the miniseries becomes.
"Titanic" begins with the Earl of Manton (Linus Roache, "Law & Order") bailing his suffragette daughter, Georgiana (Perdita Weeks, "The Tudors"), out of jail and boarding Titanic with his judgmental, class-conscious wife, Louisa (Geraldine Somerville, who played Harry's mother in the "Harry Potter" movies).
Second class is embodied by the Earl's Irish lawyer, John Batley (Toby Jones, "My Week With Marilyn"), and his unreasonable wife, Muriel (Maria Doyle Kennedy, who played the evil Vera Bates on "Downton Abbey").
Hour two concentrates on ship's electrician Jim Maloney (Peter McDonald), who books passage for his large family in steerage, and some of the ship's staff, including cabin steward Annie Desmond (Jenna-Louise Coleman, who will soon play the new companion on "Doctor Who").
Some aspects of "Titanic" are likely to leave viewers scratching their heads, particularly references to British politics of the era and an anarchist's bombing plot. Occasionally the accents are a bit thick, too.
As with most Titanic-inspired entertainment, this miniseries also traffics in Schadenfreude moments when a White Star Line exec declares there's no need for lifeboats for all passengers, saying, "I will not have the promenade deck ruined or the ladies scared out of their wits." When Maloney's wife balks at their third-class tickets, her husband says, "It won't be so bad," in a moment of heavy-handed portent.
"Titanic" features a cast of 80-odd characters, some of whom are based on real Titanic passengers, and that's a lot for viewers to keep track of -- and the show's producers, too. In the end, the fate of every character is not depicted.
By necessity darker than "Downton," "Titanic" maintains the humanity of its characters -- but there are so many of them that this miniseries doesn't achieve the same depth viewers have seen over two seasons on the PBS drama.
Anyone seeking the humor of "Downton's" dowager countess, played by Maggie Smith, will be similarly disappointed. There are too many characters, too much forward momentum to pause for humorous asides, although Benjamin Guggenheim's French mistress, Madame Aubart (Josephine de la Baume), does utter this gem when Lady Manton gets in a snit over sharing a table: "No one is more morally indignant than a beauty on the wrong side of 40."
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