The UK’s Channel 4 drama “Indian Summers” had all the makings of a hit, from a programmer’s perspective: Strong visuals, complicated characters, lush atmosphere and the deep sense of a corrupt empire in decline.
Arriving on the heels of the biggest import in years, “Downton Abbey,” the show told a dark and twist-filled story of British socialites in 1930s India — and perhaps it was that very premise, and darkness, that meant it wouldn’t last long. Originally planned for five seasons, the show’s first season aired on American PBS late last summer, and its second — and final — run of six episodes comes to us via PBS’s “Masterpiece Classic,” beginning Sunday.
It’s admittedly a hard sell, especially set against the bright and soapy drama of its predecessor: Not even Lady Mary could survive a day at Simla, the resort in the foothills of the Himalayas where “Indian Summers” takes place. Shame, betrayal, racism both monstrous and institutional, shocking acts of brutality and subterranean sexual neurosis are key points all along the two-year story.
But one could argue that those things are all implicit in “Downton Abbey,” too — that it’s easier to look away from the nasty roots of imperialism and feudalism that made the Granthams, and their lifestyle, possible. In the same way that a gun nut might blame President Obama for the rising tide of white supremacy in this country, Many “Downton”-obsessed Americans might find the nastiness of “Summers”‘ underbelly a bit too much to stomach — somehow offensive, problematic, in a way we’d find difficult to verbalize.
That is a mistake, but it’s one worth thinking about: Nobody likes the guy who needs to remind you that your iPhone was made by suicidal factory workers, but that’s a far cry from chucking your phone at his head for mentioning it. “Indian Summers” is a fever dream, truthful to events from long ago, that helped shape not only our world today, but provided the very power on which “Downton” relied, thrived, perpetuated and ignored. It is a true bookend.
But it’s not correct either to say watching “Summers” is a necessary antidote to the cheerful classism and exploitation that undergirds every Downton soiree and elopement: That implies it isn’t a fantastic show in its own right, that it’s something to be borne or sternly appreciated, NPR-style. In fact, it’s terrific, when considered purely on its merits, as a television show. It might not exist without the overwhelming success of “Downton,” but it deserves its place at its side.
The first spiritual ripple from that great wave, the “Upstairs Downstairs” revival, actually was too much for me: I don’t enjoy Gilded Age stories, as a rule, because they often come too close to reveling in their proto-Nazi leftism rather than treating it with the nuclear care it deserves. But the characters were indecent, selfish, in a way that might otherwise be highly enjoyable — a theory “Indian Summers” confirms, with relish.
Central to the drama are Ralph Whelan (Henry Lloyd-Hughes) — a slick, sociopathic, delightful softboy; Nate Archibald gone horribly wrong — and his manipulative foster-mother Cynthia Coffin (Julie Walters) — an elderly, racist, sexy, bawdy old witch. The machinations, as they try to ride the dying dragon that is the British presence in India during the time of the Raj, Gandhi and Nehru, is as repulsive as it is desperate.
If it weren’t for the cleverness of the writing, the sweetness and revolutionary idealism of other leads, and the utter beauty of the show’s visuals, those two would overpower the whole thing. But as it is, we’re put into the absurd position — familiar to fans of Lady Mary and Blair Waldorf alike — of half-rooting for them to find, if not power, at least peace.
The cast is filled out in several directions, as the story attempts its full and integrated story of the ways class, race, money and lust contribute directly to the building and the fall of empires. Each character in the ensemble has his or her own lovely spotlight, a truly realized heartbreak or two, a very rare good day, and plenty of jokes and funny moments: By the end, we find not a single dud among them.
Nikesh Patel, in particular, has a star-making turn as Aafrin Dalal, who over two seasons goes from royalist functionary to illicit lover to complicit traitor to revolutionary and beyond. Although I showed up each week for my dear Ralphie and his pathetic, disgusting ways, it’s Our Man Dalal that I’ll miss the most. It’s rare that I go back to rewatch anything, but this summer I plan to revisit them both.
If you haven’t yet seen the show, you’re in luck: Like “Downton,” its series were meant to take place years apart (the “summers” in the title, of course, referring to the aristocracy’s annual visits), so the final season that begins this weekend takes place three years after the first, and thus represents a fairly safe place to hop on.
While some of the best moments and characters are restricted to the first season, their influence is limited, and our introductions to the ensemble are striking enough it feels less like a season beginning and more like a premiere, in medias res. Not quite tighty-whitey Walter White in his wildly careening van, but a lot closer than you’d think.