Downton, look what you've done.
By having the nerve in its first season to intrude upon the movie and miniseries Emmys HBO seems to assume are its birthright, Downton Abbey has provoked HBO into doubling down on a sumptuous, aristocrats-as-endangered-species British mini all its own.
PBS used an original idea; HBO strikes back with an adaptation of a quartet of well-regarded English novels. PBS has Oscar and Emmy winner Julian Fellowes; HBO turns to Oscar and multiple Tony winner Tom Stoppard.
PBS wound up with a lovely, well-acted, marvelously entertaining TV treat. And tonight, HBO launches five installments of lovely, well-acted torpor. Which may be why HBO is dumping it onto a Tuesday night rather than premiering it over the weekend, which is where you normally expect to find HBO's prestige projects.
Make no mistake, Parade's End practically drips prestige, from its gorgeous (if overused) kaleidoscope credit motif to its first-class cast to its very stately tour of pre-World War I Britain clubs and mansions. It's the kind of project you think you should watch but don't really want to - an instinct, in this case, you should not suppress.
Sherlock's Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Christopher Tietjens, a precise, tradition-bound aristocrat accountant married to the scandalous Sylvia (Rebecca Hall), who cheats on him mainly to get a rise out of him. Christopher yearns for a pure-hearted suffragette, Valentine (Adelaide Clemens), but his priggishness, his sense of noblese oblige and his desire to bolster collapsing standards keep him trapped in his loveless marriage, at least until World War I has the good grace to intervene.
For five episodes, that's pretty much it: Sylvia torturing Christopher, who tortures her in return. For a brief while, you worry that something dreadful will happen. Then you realize that, until the war comes, nothing will happen.
To make matters worse - and to separate itself even further from Downton in entertainment value - Parade attaches that "nothing" to characters we care nothing about. And that's despite excellent performances from the three main stars, particularly Cumberbatch, who can convey volumes about his character by simply digging his chin into his chest.
Actually, in its own way, Parade may be the ideal project for a busy age. It seems to be purpose-built for those who like to multi-task while watching TV, looking up now and then when some beautiful set piece (Christopher and Valentine caught in the fog) or some Stoppard witticism catches their attention, safe in the assumption that they won't miss much of import when they look away.
Beyond doubt, great talents and noble ambitions are at play here, but somewhere in the process, those talents seem to have confused "good" with "dull" and "serious" with "tedious." What you're left with is what some British critics have taken to calling "Posh Porn": an inert drama where the houses and the clothes, and the desire to be rich enough to wear them, provide the only reason to watch.
It's obvious that a certain segment of the viewing public loves these stories of landed-elite glory-days lost, or TV wouldn't keep churning them out. But while the war-induced collapse of the English elite was certainly a tragedy for them, it wasn't much of blow to the urban industrial population they shut out of political power, or for the colonial millions under the empire's thumb who helped keep the upper class in top hats and furs.
You can see why the wealthy few on the floats in the front were sorry to see the ride come to an end. For the rest of us, maybe it's time to let this particular parade pass by.