Major spoilers ahead, for those waiting to see the show on HBO in the fall.
The specter of "Downton Abbey" has been present in the run up to the broadcast of BBC and HBO's new period drama "Parade's End," which aired its first episode in the UK last night (it'll come to the US cable network in the near future, though no exact date has been confirmed yet). Both are lavish period tales in the run up to, midst and aftermath of the first world war, and the star of the latter, Benedict Cumberbatch, didn't help matters much when he labelled the second season of 'Downton' "fucking atrocious" in a recent interview.
In fact, the comparisons are a little overblown. 'Downton' and "Parade's End" (an adaptation of Ford Madox Ford's cycle of novels, often labelled as among the finest literary achievements of the 20th century, written for the screen by the great Sir Tom Stoppard, and directed by Susanna White, who was also behind "Bleak House" and "Generation Kill") might share a loose genre, but on the strength of the first episode, they couldn't be more different -- 'Downton' is a soap, for better or worse, while "Parade's End" is a fearsomely intelligent, deceptively funny epic that, if it can keep up this level of quality, will likely be one of the best things on television all year.
Things begin in Paris in 1908, as the soon-to-be-married Sylvia (a phenomenal Rebecca Hall) romps with a married lover (Jack Huston, of "Boardwalk Empire"), even as her fiance Christopher Tietjens (Cumberbatch), a buttoned-down government statistician, and younger brother of an aristocratic family, leaves London, telling his best friend Macmaster (Stephen Graham) that he "doesn't even know if the baby's mine."
Clearly, it's something of a shotgun wedding, and both seem a little reluctant; she refers to her future husband as "that ox," and Tietjen's brother Mark (Rupert Everett
) tells him he's been "trapped by that papist bitch." But married they nevertheless are (probably pushed through by Tietjens remembering their first encounter, fucking on a train within moments of meeting), and three years later, they're back in London, with their son Michael having nightmares. Christopher clearly adores the boy, Sylvia barely acknowledges him (we're not sure they interacted once in the episode), instead focusing her attentions on winding up her husband and mother (recent Oscar nominee Janet McTeer
), and the latest in a long string of lovers, Potty Perowne (Tom Mison
Sylvia admits that she's desperate for her husband to notice her dalliances (telling a friend that "I want to shake him"), and soon he does exactly that, as she leaves for France with Potty. Heartbroken, Christopher sends his son to live with his sister, and goes with McMasters (an aspiring writer and critic) to play golf in the countryside with some society high-ups, including General Campion (Roger Allam
) and government minister Waterhouse (Tim McMullan
The course is raided by a pair of suffragettes, including Valentine Wannop (Australian actress Adelaide Clemens
, the successful product of an attempt to simultaneously clone Carey Mulligan
and Abbie Cornish
), who turns out to be the daughter of a friend of Christopher's father. He aids in their getaway, clearly intrigued by her, and later meets her at the house of a demented rector (Rufus Sewell
, in a lovely, against-type cameo), whose wife (Anne-Marie Duff
) Macmasters is enamored of.