I guess it depends on what you’re in it for.
When you already know that a show was intended to span multiple seasons and develop long arcs and got kneecapped by its network for whatever reason, you know you’re likely going to be disappointed at some level, unless the multi-season vision happens to have been contained in discrete season-units where the season finale actually concludes those storylines and perhaps hints at new ones. On the other hand, if it’s interesting and well made, it can be kind of like a fling instead of a long marriage, and there’s something to be said for that. Here’s what I will say about The Halcyon:
Were you one of the people who adored Downton Abbey? If you were, you might love this show—or you might find it totally frustrating. Some of us were diehards who were totally aware that Downton had become ridiculous, irredeemably soap-operatic and wildly unlikely, but it didn’t slow us down much. I attribute the phenomenon to a combination of powerful subject matter, amazing stylistic fidelity to history, and super-watchable characters played by astonishingly good actors. It turns out we can forgive a truly outrageous number of main characters dying the minute they become parents when that kind of magical marriage of zeitgeist and performance takes place.
The Halcyon takes place in a fancypants eponymous hotel in London during the Blitz. Like Downton, it concerns itself quite a lot with class, and with Britain’s service economy, and with the waning relevance of the British nobility in the 20th century. Set against the backdrop of the war, it follows “upstairs” and “downstairs” characters through a variety of storylines, but the main character is, in many ways, the hotel itself. And the hotel is a strong character, actually more interesting than some (though certainly not all) of its human employees, owners and guests—a five-star grande dame full of glamour and history. So, if you’re someone who eats period dramas for breakfast, lunch and dinner, you’re likely to enjoy this one. It’s… well, it’s Downton Abbey fast forwarded a few years and set in a hotel. It’s got double lives, dark secrets, forbidden romance, infidelity, heart failure, humiliation, bravery, the working class girl and the young Lord Thingamawhatsit in a star-crossed romance and slinky jazz music and spangly gowns and let us not forget intermittent bombings! That is a lot.
Acting-wise (and for me a good ensemble cast can totally get me to ignore shabby writing or an improbable story or any number of other things, I am a sucker for a great performance, all the more so if it’s wrested from a tired or lazy or ham-fisted concept, script or plot), there are some compelling ones, in particular Steven Mackintosh as Carson. I mean, sorry—Richard Garland, the hotel manager. And Matt Ryan as Joe O’Hara, the hardbitten Yankee journalist who has hung his shingle at the Halcyon’s busy bar. Sope Dirisu needs a shout-out as well for his turn as ivories-tickler Sonny Sullivan. He’s really very endearing.
OK. Some good performances, beautiful production, and a compelling peek at Blitzed London. That is an inherently interesting subject for a lot of reasons, and you’d have to work pretty hard to make it boring.
They get close a few times, actually. This is painfully trodden ground if you watched more than half of Downton, and the juxtaposition of internal and external “wars” (between nations, between classes, between dueling suitors, between duty and desire, between pride and… well, you get it)? It’s not doing any real heavy lifting here. There’s nothing especially innovative or unique about these people or their situation or the lens through which we’re shown it. It’s glossy but not very deep. It’s busy and overwritten sometimes. It’s confused and wayward quite a lot of the time. There’s too much going on, which I realize is a thing in hotels and cities and wars and stuff, but the beauty of scripted dramas is that we get to focus in on something. The Halcyon could really be more focused.
I wish they’d branched out a bit more, gotten out of their upstairs-downstairs wheelhouse and really taken a different approach, and let the hotel be the fascinating character it might have been. Letting go of class angst and embracing some other aspect of history (because those do exist) would have been a great way to utilize a good cast, some gorgeous sets and a really incredibly dramatic moment in history. What we have instead is visually appealing and certainly not unwatchable.
It just doesn’t try very hard.
The Halcyon airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on Ovation TV.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.