business news in context, analysis with attitude

Go figure. I commit to watch three-plus seasons of "Downton Abbey" on iTunes because Mrs. Content Guy wants me to, and she goes to a lot of movies just because I want to see them. And it ends up that not only do I get totally hooked, but that "Downton Abbey" is positively loaded with business lessons.

Go figure.

For the uninitiated, "Downton Abbey" takes place during the early 20th century, beginning at the time of the sinking of the Titanic and through World War I. It has a kind of "Upstairs/Downstairs" them to it, tracking the aristocratic Crawley family and the veritable army of servants who maintain their palatial estate in Yorkshire. There is all sorts of high drama and romance and sex and violence and intrigue taking place against the background of post-Edwardian England.

I don't want to give too much away; one of the real pleasures was not really knowing much about the series other than the fact that it was a big hit with highly dedicated fans. (When there is a series I think I might want to binge-watch, I avoid almost all the media coverage. Which means that at some point, I'm going to watch both "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad" and find out what all the fuss is about.)

One of the things I find most intriguing about the show is the ways in which so many of the characters seem to be resisting the inevitability of social, cultural and economic change. When discussing the management of an estate that has become expensive and unwieldy, one character says, "But we've been doing it this way for hundreds of years." A statement that, if adjusted slightly, probably has been uttered by plenty of 21st century businesspeople. Or, in a slightly more humorous vein (at least to us), there is a discussion about whether wearing black tie to dinner somehow represents an enormous drop in standards for a society in which aristocrats wear white tie every evening to supper.

"Downton Abbey" is a wonderful series. Sure, it is essentially a soap opera, but it is an extremely well-written and acted soap opera that is sumptuously produced by the BBC. I completely understand the mania that has affected many of its fans, and I urge you to watch it.

The third season of "Sherlock" is back on PBS - it is an updating of the Arthur Conan Doyle stories to modern day London, with Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Martin Freeman as Dr. Watson. "Sherlock" is cleverly written, taking just enough from the original novels and turning them on their ear in a way that is enormously entertaining. Also, the writers and producers know enough not to overdo it … they only produce a few episodes every few years, better to leave the audience wanting more. I suggest that you catch up with the first two seasons on iTunes, and then watch the new three episodes, now being shown on PBS. Great stuff.

I've always liked the movies made from the Tom Clancy novels about CIA analyst Jack Ryan - The Hunt For Red October (with Alec Baldwin as Ryan), Patriot Games, and A Clear and Present Danger (with Harrison Ford) are models of smart, efficient, thoughtful entertainments - I've always thought that it a lot of ways that they were better than the Clancy books because they trimmed out the technobabble and were a little bit less reverent about Ryan as a character. I liked The Sum of All Fears (in which Ben Affleck took over as Ryan) a little bit less, but still thought it was pretty good.

Now, Chris Pine takes over the Ryan role in the new Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, which reboots the series by addressing Ryan's early years and how he went from a student at the London School of Economics and eventually was lured into working for the CIA. It isn't taken from a Clancy book, but that's not the problem with it.

Shadow Recruit just seems a little dumbed down for my tastes - a few too many explosions and car chases, and without the sense of context that the earlier films had. It isn't bad - Pine is very good, as are Kevin Costner as his CIA mentor and Keira Knightly as the women with whom he lives.

Maybe the producers felt that today's audiences needed the extra stuff. But I hope that if there is a next time, they'll let the movie breathe a bit, and think. That always was one of the pleasures of the Jack Ryan films, and it is missing here.

Every once in a while it is fun to catch up on old movies, and I went on a bit of a Steve McQueen tear recently, watching both Bullitt and the original Thomas Crown Affair.

Bullitt remains first-rate and timeless entertainment, with McQueen the epitome of cool as a San Francisco cop working a murder case. it has one of the great chase scenes ever filmed, a fabulous score by Lalo Schifrin, and Jacqueline Bissett.

But Thomas Crown, it ends up, struck me as hopelessly dated. While released the same year as Bullitt, I found that it does not hold up nearly as well - the production values, the direction and the script just feel labored and anachronistic. Surprisingly, the remake - starring Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo - strikes me as something that will better stand the test of time. We'll see if I'm right about that.

Finally, I watched Michael Clayton the other night - the terrific thriller starring George Clooney and written and produced by Tony Gilroy. It remains absolutely riveting … and it struck me as even better that the corporation portrayed in the movie is in the GMO business. If you haven't seen it, you should.

That's it for this week.

Have a great weekend, and I'll see you Monday.

KC's View: