Sunday's Downton Abbey finale: A proposal and a movie commercial on PBS
I'm not sure it was the best way to begin an evening of classically inspired drama. (SPOILERS AHEAD)
But the advertisement just before Sunday's Downton Abbey finale hyping the new movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel -- which just happens to feature two women from the Downton cast -- was also a jarring reminder of the new reality PBS lives in.
Even its biggest hits have to pay their way in new, disappointing fashion.
That might also describe my feeling watching Sunday's Abbey finale, which continued the series' slow descent into something resembling a more genteel version of Wuthering Heights.
When the show debuted, I enjoyed its restraint and seemingly painstaking detail in recreating an England from a century ago. But success and the need for a modern storytelling pace has pushed producers into amping up the melodrama by ridiculous factors.
In last night's finale, we had a murder trial with bruising testimony, a man sentenced to death and then rescued, a woman moving to New York and then not, the same woman planning to marry a man she hated, then not, and a servant hiding the master's dog to create a crisis he hoped to solve, only to find the dog disappeared (fear not, local kids found the pooch and returned him to Lord Grantham).
And that's about half the action in the 90-minute finale.
Admittedly, I'm not the target audience for Downton. Most Merchant Ivory films make me yawn and period pieces focused on a time and place where no one who looks like me would ever appear are not at the top of my instant queue list, so to speak.
The best payoff Sunday, of course, was seeing star-crossed couple Matthew and Mary finally commit to each other. If Abbey producers deserve any praise this season, its for the manner in which they have kept these two apart -- the young man destined to inherit the Downton estate and the daughter of the current Lord who sees it all as her inheritance.
Only in the last episodes, as Matthew's fiancee died from Spanish Flu and it was increasingly obvious Mary hated her fiancee, newspaper baron Sir Richard Carlisle, did the pair's unwillingness to attempt a relationship feel strained as the plot twist in a Harlequin romance novel.
Often, such shows have a litmus test for characters -- the one quality which signals whether they are heroic or villainous. on Abbey, its respect for the rigid roles of servant and master which govern the 50-bedroom estate where the series is set.
Titled notables who don't respect the servants are unfailingly the villains, along with any servant who might grow bitter or try to skirt the rules. If a servant seems to be meddling in another's affairs, just wait; eventually that character is exposed as Up To No Good.
Unfortunately, that make it horrifically easy to see plot twists coming, as producers rarely refuse to let heroism go unrewarded. (That's also why I'm sure long-suffering-yet-principled valet Mr. Bates, convicted of murder Sunday, will eventually get out of the hoosegow.)
My hope, is future editions of the show work harder to surprise us and challenge the characters. As the Edwardian age gives way to a more modern time, we need to see treasured characters lose big and villains occasionally come out on top.
Otherwise, the show winds up looking too much like this Saturday Night Live skit below: