Doctor Fellowes is not really a "Downton" type mega-hit. Instead, it is a little bit Cranford, a tiny bit Poldark, and a lot of Emma and Sense and Sensibility.
Taken in its own right, Doctor Thorne is everything I expected it to be…which is just fine by me. I enjoyed it thoroughly.
To be clear, it really more of a long movie than a "series," per se (just under three hours in total). But the length works well enough for the source material.
To turn it into a set of four distinct episodes rather than the a movie format, the producers added formal fireside introductions and conclusions by Julian Fellowes to each "episode": kind of an Afred Hitchcock meets Masterpiece Theater kind of touch. Those weren't really weren't my personal cup of tea, because they tended to take me out of the flow of the story, and sometimes offered up (minor) spoilers. Some viewers might enjoy those interludes though, and they were easy enough to skip over.
To be clear, nothing about Doctor Thorne was surprising in the slightest. Marvelously grand houses. Spectacular clothing. Unnaturally beautiful people. Stunning English scenery. Fabulous wealth, and the desperate fear of losing it. High-stakes tradeoffs between love and money. Deathbed drama, and lighthearted frivolity. The strictures of being a woman during that era. Uptight English norms, and desires to break free of them. The entre of an American heiress into that world, casting a bright light on some of the inherent dysfunction of that system. And, of course, some requisite swoon-worthy deep eye gazing, with expressions of repressed and forbidden love.
Okay, so not terribly surprising, and more than a little predictable; even a bit formulaic at times. But it is the source material by Trollope which is responsible for that, not something about this particular rendition. And in any case, so what, since it is a formula that works?! It was engaging and pleasant and perfectly marvelous fun, and I will happily watch it again. And it is quite to Amazon's credit that it is willing and able to support original feature productions of this impressive quality.
The characters and all of their perfect imperfections were compelling, often comically so, with a few notably wise souls in the mix. I was left wanting to see more of them, which is a good sign. I enjoyed seeing familiar faces (favorites were Allison Brie of Mad Men, Ian McShane of Deadwood, with several other recognizable actors in the mix as well.) I did not happen to find the familiarity to be distracting in this case, but be forewarned that some viewers may.
It will have a smaller potential audience than Downton Abbey. Among other especially special attributes of Downton, it was quite a cross cutting show, enjoyed seemingly as much by men as by women. I quite loved both of the shows myself, but I am guessing Doctor Thorne will not be as widely beloved. This strikes me as a show mostly for the English period drama aficionado, which is quite fine by me, but naturally limits its reach.
For some interesting context about Anthony Trollope's work relative to his contemporaries, with discussion of Doctor Thorne in particular (with useful comparisons between the book and novel), Google "The Way We Live Now," by Laura Miller, published on Slate.com on May 30, 2016.
For those of you who finish all 4 episodes/ 3 hours of Doctor Thorne tonight (...and, c'mon, you know you probably will...), and are then left wanting more British period drama, here are some ideas. Here are good Amazon options, mostly on Prime (+ also check the comments section below this review, since people have been making some great suggestions there, as well!)
*** TIPS for VIEWING ALTERNATIVES (for after you have blown through Doctor Thorne!) ***
~~~ POLDARK ~~~ A succulent English drama that will tend to appeal to the same crowd who will enjoy Doctor Thorne, albeit with a bit more darkly melodramatic flair. Set in the English countryside on the heels of the Revolutionary War as British soldiers return home, it has classic themes of marrying for love or money, sudden gains and reversals of fortune, working class struggles vs. the landed gentry, tension between those who are ready throw off the strictures of hierarchical English society versus the many elites who resist it mightily. After blowing through Season 1 of Poldark on Amazon Prime, I am now eagerly awaiting Season 2.
~~~ LARKRISE TO CANDLEFORD ~~~ Seasons 1-3. Based on a book of the same name, Larkrise to Candleford is a bit less opulent than Doctor Thorne and Poldark. It spends much of its time with the middle and lower classes of English society (directly acknowleding the differences in engaging, if fairly predictable, ways). As such, the costumes and sets aren't quite as marvelous. But it is a lovely show, if a tad dated in terms of production quality. It is also one that is family friendly (kind of like an English "Little House on the Prairie"), mixing life lessons in with the drama, so I have been rewatching it with my 11 year old. Catch it while you can on Prime, as it has circulated in and out of Prime, and right now (May 2016) all three seasons are free on Prime. (and/or just read the classic books, as they are also a real treat, and fantastic window into that interesting time of railroads and associated technological developments, and how those affected rural English society.)
~~~ CRANFORD ~~~ Cranford is along the lines of Larkrise to Candleford, a little newer, and also quite a charming on small village life in merry 'ole England.
~~~ THE PARADISE ~~~ The genre is slightly different -- i.e. rather than focusing on the landed gentry in pastoral England, it focused on the opening of the first full-fledged department store in Gibson-girl London. The concept can feel a tad predictable and trite (audacious store owner, big stores pushing out small stores, women gaining independence in the workplace, shop floor competition, etc.) Yet it is much fun! Great costumes. Engaging characters. An always-interesting focus on new developments replacing old traditions. Different seasons of Paradise cycle in and out of Prime (and it doesn't seem to be on Prime as of the moment), but it always worth a look to see if/when The Paradise available for free.
~~~ MR. SELFRIDGE ~~~ Basically see my description of "The Paradise" for plot (the shows are almost amazingly similar!) Keep the idea of a flashy and controversial department store replacing the increasingly staid stores of London. Change the era to Downton Abbey/ early 20th century/pre and post WWI. And basically, you get "The Paradise" and its department store politics, set in a later era, with an audacious businessman (Jeremy Piven of Entourage) who happens to be American. It also has great costuming. It also focuses a good deal on new developments pushing out old traditions, and on the societal change of women gaining independent power outside of the home. Like the Paradise, it is also a little predictable and sometimes a bit trite, yet it is still good fun! Several seasons of Mr. Selfridge happen to be on Prime at the moment, and you might want to grab it while you can because it, too, cycles in and out of Prime.
~~~ OUTLANDER ~~~ I almost hesitate to add Outlander because it not on Prime at the moment (so $19-ish per season), and because it probably has already been voraciously consumed by a good portion of the people looking into Doctor Thorne...but, oh, if you haven't seen it, you must! Be forewarned though, it can be graphic, both sexually and in terms of violence; Outlander is definitely not family-friendly fare, and the violence sometimes seems over the top and unnecessary to me. But, aside from that, it is quite a magnificent show. If you are not familiar with it, or the wonderful books the series is based on, Outlander is a bit hard to explain -- it is mostly Scottish colonial period drama, mixed with time travel. But even the sci fi adverse are likely to enjoy this show, with its magnificent costumes, sets, lush Scottish scenery, and, aye, the truly marvelous accents and men in kilts. The acting and characters are great, as well. Highly recommended, at least for those who are ok with fairly explicit violence and (...some wildly, passionately, super hot...) sex.
~~~ Happy Viewing! ~~~