I first came across Downton Abbey after its first season had aired in the U.S. I was flipping around the channels on some random afternoon and I saw two people on PBS in what was obviously a costume drama making out. Sign me up!
I went back and watched the first season, learning that I’d seen Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley hooking up, but not eventually getting married. I’ve watched Downton Abbey dutifully since then, but it does not get any better than that first season. Most specifically, it doesn’t get any better than the last episode of the first season, when Lady Cora’s maid O’Brien causes her to slip on some soap and miscarry a child. O’Brien failed to be much of a villain after that, and a show–even a period costume drama on PBS–is only as good as its antagonist.
Downton Abbey is written by Julian Fellowes, and I think it’s an indulgent reward for him winning an Oscar for writing the superb costume drama Gosford Park. I watch this movie at least once a year and always manage to catch something I’d never noticed before. (My advice is to watch it with subtitles.)
Perhaps it’s unfair to compare the two. After all, Downton Abbey has dragged out over six seasons, since the Titanic sank to the social and economic aftermath following World War I and Gosford Park is a two-hour glimpse inside a country house over the course of one weekend. However, Gosford Park contains much, much more nuanced and better-written characters and offers a more realistic look, I think, of an earl and his kingdom. He’s slept with half the staff and his wife is seething but can’t really do anything about it. Everyone is constantly begging him for money. The staff are concerned for their jobs but are actual people with their own personal problems and have their own drama going on that’s just as important as what’s affecting the people upstairs.
Downton has slowly and sluggishly limped toward its final season, with the characters becoming caricatures of themselves. Its decline has been as steady as that of the aristocracy it depicts. Sure, the costumes are lovely and the sets are grand, but each season, Fellowes winds up his characters, sets them down and watches as they mechanically repeat the same things they’ve done the season before. Lady Mary rejects suitors with witty barbs! The Dowager Empress serves up some bon mots to commoner Cousin Violet! Lord Grantham is Yorkshire’s Homer Simpson! The staff have little to no personal life so their self-worth is wrapped up in the Granthams and their problems!
In the first season, there was an immediate and important problem. Lord Grantham’s heir–and Lady Mary’s betrothed–died on the Titanic, and he had to find a new heir that Lady Mary could marry or the estate would be in shambles. (Lady Mary can’t inherit in her own right because she is female.)
The problem is resolved after World War I, albeit in an ridiculous fashion. The heir, who had fallen in love with Mary and proposed to her, was subsequently rejected by her. (Also Mary took on a lover who died in her bed in flagrante. It was fabulous.) He married someone else, went off to fight in the war, and came back to the hospital that the Abbey had erected to Do Their Part. The wife died of Spanish flu immediately after his return, and he and Mary married.
Nothing else interesting has happened. Not Bates’ past, not his courtship of Anna, not Barrows’ homosexuality, NOTHING. They tried getting rid of characters, killing off one of the the sisters and literally making another one into Jane Eyre. They tried introducing Shirley MacLaine into the cast. People were hoping she’d be like Ousier, her character from Steel Magnolias, but Fellowes hates the Americans so much (except when they marry the British to help save the aristocracy, like Cora Crawley) that she was a one-dimensional ignorant send-off. Lady Mary has taken on and rejected new lovers and has become a WORKING WOMAN. But she can’t manage without her brother-in-law, who tries to give his daughter a better life in America but then comes back and has resorted to helping out Lady Mary. Lady Edith has successfully hid a pregnancy out of wedlock and after her Mr. Rochester (I can’t even bother to look up his real name, so referring to him as his Jane Eyre character) is declared missing and then dead, takes over his paper and becomes a WORKING WOMAN. Maids try to better themselves, with some varying degrees of success. Staff get married. Everything old is new again.
All that being said, Downton Abbey helped PBS tremendously and for that I’ll be grateful. The network has wonderful shows and because so many people became interested, these shows, like Call the Midwife, are getting a much larger audience. But I’m ready for it to end.