I’m afraid I tend to be something of a conformist when it comes to television. My idea of discovering a good show isn’t watching from week one and hoping it turns out great. Usually it doesn’t and I’ve wasted my time waiting for The Event or Terra Nova to get good. Rather, I’d prefer to try out an existing program that’s been on for a year or two that people can’t seem to shut up about.
Recently, that show has been Downton Abbey. I’d heard it mentioned in passing before, but now with the series airing in America on PBS, it’s more popular than ever.
As my favorite shows are Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad and The Wallking Dead, an hour long program about the inner workings of a British manor hardly seemed like it would be my cup of tea. Not to say a show needs to be violent to capture my attention, but I can’t say the majority of my favorite dramas haven’t had some level of bloodshed attached to them.
I would imagine that it might be a bit hard for those with more…delicate sensibilities to even watch much of anything on TV these days. The most popular shows on TV are about serial killers, murder investigations, biker gangs, bootleggers, zombie killers and incestuous, bloodthirsty royalty. What’s someone like my poor grandma to do?
That’s where Downton Abbey finds its niche. It’s a show that features death and sex in only miniscule doses. It manages to be one of the “cleanest” shows to air on TV in years, and I can imagine those with “finer tastes” finally believing that someone has made a show just for them. A gorgeous house on a gorgeous property filled with gorgeous rooms lived in by gorgeous people wearing gorgeous clothes. What more could you ask for?
The story follows the Earl of Grantham, Robert Crawley. He’s the proud father of three daughters and now short two cousins who have recently died on board the Titanic. Without an heir, he has to climb through the most distant branches of the family tree to find Matthew Crawley, a third cousin and his legal heir, whether either of the men like it or not. Minor spoilers to follow.
The show balances the lives of the lords and ladies of the house with that of the staff that waits on them. The two groups get nearly equal screen time, and occasionally cross over in scandalous ways. A chauffeur makes eyes at the youngest Crawley daughter. A maid helps cover up the accidental death of a house guest. It’s hardly Spartacus, but given the uptight nature of the show, any scandal, no matter how innocuous, is almost always quite a big deal indeed.
The first season gives us a look at what life is like for the Crawleys and their staff in the early 20th century. It takes some getting used to, as everything seems too ridiculous to be real. We watch remnants of an era long rendered obsolete. The butler fusses over spots on the silverware and whether the first footman or the second footman should deliver a particular dish. It is a crime if someone doesn’t understand the seven different types of spoons used for specific types of food.
If you think the staff is finicky, it’s only because of their masters. Early on, it’s hard not to hate the Crawleys a bit. Absolutely none of them work, having inherited their entire fortune from their ancient family, and spend their days eating five course meals and being dressed by other people.
I’m still unsure as to whether or not the show is meant to be pro-rich, anti-rich, or neither. Certainly, it’s a relevant political issue in our current climate, but I’m not sure if the show chooses a side. Yes, the Crawleys seem largely useless at first, but as time goes on, you start to see their “value,” as they say. They provide a means of employment for the few dozen members of their staff. They support the local village financially, even if it is a bit of a lord/serf relationship left over from a medieval era.
Eventually you come to like the Crawleys quite a bit, particularly during season two when things really get turned upside down. World War I rips through England like a knife, and it’s a very interesting turn for the show. Season one sets up the prim and proper life of the Downton elite, and season two shatters the tranquility that’s been built. Nearly every eligible male is sent to war, and the show drastically transforms many of its characters, forcing them to evolve with the times. It’s a really well-fashioned transition from the lap of luxury to the muddy trenches of despair.
Over the years, the characters become like family, and there are a few that undergo really interesting transformations. There’s Barrow, the closeted butler who is often a villain, but slowly starts to grow a heart. There’s Branson, a chauffeur attempting to adjust to a new life above his station. And there’s Bates, a kindhearted valet forced to turn cruel to save himself and the ones he loves. These characters have real arcs that actually transform and evolve who they are, something that doesn’t often happen effectively on TV shows.
The show may excel in many areas, filming, acting and character development, but what can be lacking is the writing. The individual lines of dialogue are fine, but the story lines of the plot seem to be stretched too long, cut too short, or simply repeat themselves. Here’s a summary of one spanning almost two full seasons between the middle daughter and a potential suitor.
“I’m too old for you!”
And this takes about nine full episodes to unfold. Or perhaps take the kitchen maid who pretends to love a footman who has a crush on her when he’s sent off to war.
“I have to tell him it’s a lie!’
“I have to!”
“I have to!”
This can be repeated for quite a few of the subplots, and the show can feel artificially stuffed because of it.
The show also plays around with time in odd ways. In three seasons, the show has already spanned eight years, jumping from 1912 to 1920. The gaps are often leaped in between seasons, but sometimes in between episodes. No one seems to age a day, or even bothers changing their hairstyle, but the more pressing issue is that they carry on like the time jump wasn’t made at all. Events are discussed like they occurred yesterday, which is quite disorienting, and it seems like they only have the show move quickly in order to create and grow children or insert historical events into the storyline.
While I did appreciate the first two seasons, despite their flaws, season three started to lose me. After World War I, everything reverts back to the way it was and despite a lot of talk of change, there’s very little of it to be found. Plot lines become predictable (will the Crawleys have to sell Downton??? Yeah right), and the show begins to start killing off major, beloved characters out of what appeared to be boredom.
One particular death in the middle of the season was tragic to be sure, but another at the end sparked such severe outrage from fans that the creators had to actually respond and explain it. On the surface it seems like one of the dumbest, most random plot turns in history, but in reality, it had to do with an actor’s contract, as he simply didn’t want to return for another season. That’s all well and good, but in the process that actor has managed to be the catalyst for perhaps the worst plot twist in modern television history. The actor may indeed have had the legal right to “move on” when his contract lapsed, but he may have single-handedly destroyed the show in the process.
In short, Downton is a high quality show, but one that might be running out of ideas. The drama is starting to seem forced and manufactured, and this latest plot development might sink the show entirely. That said, I think it’s worth watching if only to just diversify your television consumption. There really isn’t anything else like it on TV, and you don’t have to be my grandma to appreciate it.