As Downton Abbey returns for third season on PBS Sunday, this critic admits the thrill is gone
This is an admission which will sound like sacrilege to some, especially those who put this show on their Best of 2012 lists just a few weeks ago.
But I am falling out of love with the 1920s-era English soap opera, Downton Abbey.
That’s tough news for fans of great TV. Winter is considered the season when the best shows arrive, particularly on broadcast television, as Fox offers The Following, a new serial killer series starring Kevin Bacon; NBC revamps its Broadway drama Smash and FX's brings back Timothy Olyphant’s deliciously laconic U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens on Justified in weeks to come.
Downton Abbey might well be the cherry on that particular quality TV sundae, festooned with awards and fan appreciation for its well-crafted look at a fictional English manor serving as the seat of Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham and his aristocratic family in the era of World War I, the Titanic and beyond. But some may find its third season a bit, well, familiar for repeated thrills.
That’s not to say that the run of new episodes, which begins airing stateside on PBS stations tonight through the Masterpiece series, lacks all the stuff that Downton fans love. (WARNING: plot description with some spoilers follows)
There’s a challenge to the family fortune, as downturns in business (pun intended) leave the Crawley family in danger of having to – gasp! – sell Downton itself! And there is a family member who can help, by pledging a newly-bequeathed fortune to save the clan, but an antiquated sense of morality interferes.
More family conflict comes, thanks to the cheeky Irish chauffeur Tom Branson, who crossed class lines by marrying the youngest Crawley lady, Sybil. His political views about freeing Ireland from English control and upending the class system hardly fall on sympathetic ears at Downton, especially when a clash with the English during a bloody terrorist action leads him to flee the country without his new wife.
There is the challenge of new servants added to the fold, including a new footman related to Lady Grantham’s maid, the curdled Sarah O’Brien, and another new footman whose good looks set the female servants aflutter (along with a certain closeted male servant, the villainous Thomas Barrow).
And, of course, the irrepressible Shirley MacLaine arrives as Martha Levinson, mother to Elizabeth McGovern’s American-born Lady Cora Crawley. Never comfortable with the rigid English system of codes, roles and class, she seems an acerbic counterpoint to Maggie Smith’s tart Violent Crawley, Countess of Grantham, even as the Crawleys seek her assistance to avoid their financial woes.
Why has the bloom fallen from the rose for me this season? I’ve got a few suspicions, based on my less-than enthusiastic reaction to this season’s batch of new episodes, which already aired on British TV this fall. (doesn't help that the news is filled with stories that the actor playing Matthew Crawley, Dan Stevens, chose not to renew his contract on the show and was written out of the program in a way which upset many fans in England. Click here to read the spoiler-filled reason why.)
Suspicion #1: We know this world now. One culprit may be my growing familiarity with the class system depicted in the series, which once felt like excavating an old archaeological dig, full of surprises and odd discoveries.
But now, the routines of the house and the class divisions are well-known. The servants are expected to devote themselves wholeheartedly to serving their masters, the masters are expected to safeguard their fortune, oversee the maintenance of their obscenely huge properties and ensure their titles and money continue by marrying off children to the best prospects available.
Along the way, there will be circumstances which test their devotion to their musty values, which will mostly stand, because that’s what musty values do. But seeing this dance play out over two seasons already, I’m ready for a few new steps.
Suspicion #2: The villains and heroes are too easy to see. You can judge a character on Downton by a simple question: Are they virtuous?
Footman Thomas Barrow wears villany on his sleeve, gossiping acidly about everyone at Downton while acting only to further his own agenda (that he seems to be the regular cast’s only gay character also is a bit troubling). But Anna Bates, the housemaid who married a valet later wrongly convicted of murder, embodies virtue in her devotion to an imprisoned mate, even when his letters from prison mysteriously stop coming.
Some characters can be redeemed – oldest Crawley sister Mary seems to have moved from the bad girl column to virtuous since her marriage to middle class lawyer Matthew Crawley. But it’s a soap opera convention that characters announce their standing to the audience, and that can be a bit boring at times.
Suspicion #3: The predicaments rooted in the mores of the time seem silly and unrealistic. One of the early plots points in this season’s episodes is the danger that the Crawleys might lose Downton itself.
But a guilty Matthew Crawley, who winds up bequeathed a fortune by the father of the fiancée he jilted to wed Mary, refuses to use the money to keep his new wife’s family from losing the home they have lived in for generations.
This devotion to doing the right thing is what makes him a virtuous character in the Downton world. But it also seems silly and stupid; could any marriage survive a husband letting his wife’s family lose their legacy?
Again, this is the stuff of which fine soap opera is made, and Downton fans will probably relish every moment of Matthew Crawley’s principled insanity. But for me, it was a signal that the entertainment had ended on this particular ride.
At least, until this old fashioned drama develops a few more modern surprises.