Steal This: Downton Abbey

“They hired Chuck Pratt again? Surely you can’t be serious! I haven’t the words for it…..”

Show: Downton Abbey

Tenure: The sixth and final season of this wildly popular UK soap-as-prestige-drama will hit the UK this fall and US shores a few months later.

Prime property:

  • Social class and income differences have always been fiercely entertaining topics to cover, as well as great material for actors to explore, and those topics are at the very core of this show. US shows have been reluctant for a number of reasons to explore class differences or income differences in recent years. The reasons may be complicated (conversations about oppression and race, and advertiser reluctance to talk about money at all unless it’s flying out of someone’s pocket), but Downton uses these differences to create tension and tell a story, to great effect.
  • Downton hasn’t been afraid to have a character be the voice of disapproval, or the voice of duty. And they’ve mostly had that in the form of the Dowager Empress, whom the audience loves because (1) The Dowager is sarcastic and funny and often says what the audience thinks, (2) because Isobel loves her, and (3) because Maggie Smith is playing her. “Granny” gives the best reads and it’s always a total shadefest when she’s coughing up truths about her enemies or her loved ones.
  • A period piece is a really great way to tell a contemporary story in a way that allows for some narrative distance, and allows for subtle commentary on today’s world by the actions happening to characters in yesteryear. Some of the more interesting stories in this category: Edith’s child, and the lengths she had to go to in order to bear the child and raise her in an era with no reproductive freedom for its women; Thomas Barrow and the relative acceptance of him as a gay man (albeit an entirely closeted one), the examination of how the “downstairs” people would possibly care for themselves in their twilight years, the look at Judaism, pre-WWII, through both Cora and Atticus.
  • It is, at its best, a romance of the family, of feeling a place of belonging. Whether it’s a biological family, or the feeling of being a part of the Downton tribe, many of the characters declare their love for their home, as if it’s a character of its own.
  • A gloriously mature main cast, with Maggie Smith at 80 and Elizabeth McGovern looking glorious in her early fifties.

Potholes to avoid:

  • The first three seasons of the show were glorious, but these last two have been somewhat torturous, and one of the main reasons can be traced back to the deaths of Matthew Crawley and Sybil Crawley Branson. Killing off two main characters in a matter of episodes was jarring and brought the narrative to a complete, utter stop.
  • Even worse, the surviving spouses – Mary and Tom Branson – have been literally pedaling water for much of the last two seasons. After the first few post-Matthew episodes, his death seldom reads as having much of an impact on Mary’s life. The changes Matthew brought to Mary have disappeared, and while she may have a head for business now, she’s more often shown as a predecessor to today’s Kardashians, attending fashion shows, looking fabulous and being an all around bitch. As for Tom, if I had to hear him say some variation of “I don’t belong here” or “I’m going away” one more time I would have pushed him in front of a milk truck myself.
  • The writers have also beaten the woes of the Bates family into the ground. No one remotely cares at this point. The audience literally wants them to be caught and hung without a trial, because their woes have been ongoing for nearly the whole of the series now.
  • There’s been some fairly inconsistent character development, especially with characters like Daisy, who seem to be more symbolic than actual fully-formed individuals.

I enjoy the show, but I honestly feel like the last two seasons are a “what not to do” list for other showrunners. Telling a story slowly and deliciously is one thing, but Downton went to the well one too many times on many of its stories.

It must also be said that the story that gave the whole show its heart was the tortured union of Matthew and Mary. They were electric on screen together, and it’s important for shows to find some pairing – fraternal, familial or romantic – that makes people want to watch or gives the larger narrative a context or some grounding.

NOTE: The Tom and Lorenzo site is a must-read, and they focus on Downton as well as a Mad Men). Great analysis and a look at fashions and sets, too.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s