Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Down in Downton

While I'm on the subject of British television (yesterday's post was about Foyle's War), I thought I would air my views on Downton Abbey, another show initially introduced to me through Netflix.

Series 1 appeared on Netflix last winter, and as soon as it was available, Abby and I watched the first episode. The next day we watched the rest--a six-hour-or-so Downton Abbey fest, uncommon in our household, especially since it necessitated staying up past midnight. Needless to say, Downton Abbey series 1 was well received. What about series 2?

With series 2, we decided not to take the chance that it would appear on Netflix in timely fashion. In fact, leaving nothing to chance, we had preordered the series with express shipping to be certain it was on our doorstep the day it was available. And we watched the episodes on PBS in advance of the DVD's arrival, even forgoing the cultural shibboleth of the Super Bowl to discover what happened in the Crawleigh family.

So with all this build up, it was probably inevitable that Downton Abbey series 2 would disappoint.

Don't misunderstand me: it's still better than most of what's on American television. But that's not saying much.

I've tried to quantify some of the things I didn't like about series 2 (caution: spoilers ahead). Feel free to add a comment if you agree or disagree; I'd love to know your thoughts. Also, please forgive the ranting nature of this post. You can probably take what I say, remove the emotion, and be left with a legitimate critique somewhere in there. I've said many times that it's easier to rant than to offer a nuanced critique; I'm taking the easy way out today.

Perhaps the main thing I didn't like about series 2 is how little effect World War I seems to have on the Crawleighs. The previews each week--and, indeed, the hustle and bustle on screen--might lead viewers to believe that something of tremendous importance was happening. But really, when I look at where things were at the beginning of series 2 and where they are at the end, not much has changed. Things at the Abbey are very much as they were before. World War I blows through Downton Abbey, and much like the "very special episodes" of the sitcoms of my youth, the lessons learned don't seem to change much in the show; life moves on almost as if none of it had happened. Of course, in The Simpsons, every episode is just that--an episode--and is self-contained. It's part of the gag. But Downton Abbey has a grander arc to it (or at least has that illusion), so I was expecting something different. I suppose we'll know for sure in series 3 in what specific ways the war will have influenced Downton Abbey, but at least on the surface, the war seems more like an episode than a defining event.

Which brings me to the next point: series 2 teased too many changes and didn't follow through with them. Matthew and Mary both have fiances! Matthew is paralyzed in the war! Thomas is in charge of Downton Abbey! Of course, the fiances leave the picture (by death or by jilting, respectively). But I was especially disappointed in the way the show handled Matthew's paralysis. What would have been an interesting road to travel down--even if he were miraculously healed farther down the line--is instead nothing more than a red herring. "He's paralyzed forever and can never have children! What will this do to the family line and the women he loves! ... Oh wait, wrong diagnosis. Sorry!" This brief interlude didn't give the characters a chance to test their, well, character, nor did it give the viewers a chance to discover anything new about them. This, in my estimation, was a large missed opportunity.

And a missed opportunity in the face of so many spoiled ones! Whereas series 1 felt like a classy period piece with occasional soapy scandal, series 2 felt like full on soap opera trash. And it's hard to have others take the show you like seriously when a character--with a straight (albeit half-hidden) face--returns from the dead with amnesia and attempts to seduce the gullible daughter of a wealthy family. (A brief side note: P. Gordon, if you're reading this, leave now, and never come back. Please.) Mrs. Bates might as well have been twirling a mustache, such was her evil intent (which seemed motiveless) and the shallowness of her character. And despite Bates and Anna's inevitable marriage, did we really need to see them in bed together? Their relationship required a suspension of disbelief before, but seeing them in that context made it seem all the more unbelievable and just...icky.

There were a few other events that seemed downright out of character. For example, Edith accepts that Sir Anthony Strallan has moved on without comment until the end of the series. For someone as desperate as Edith, I doubt, even in that age, that she would have been rebuffed for as long as she was, especially when such a simple misunderstanding could be easily mended. (Indeed, she has no qualms about visiting him at the end of the series, though by then he says he is too old for her--and the viewer certainly believes him.) It also seems unbelievable that Earl and Lady Grantham would allow Thomas to be in charge of Downton. Even if he were the last available military person around, after his conduct in series 1, it's ludicrous to believe that anyone would put him in charge of anything, let alone a rambling country estate. The only reason this might be deemed acceptable is plot convenience.

But the grossest offense against a character's own self is the Earl of Grantham's relationship with Jane. While I appreciate that he stopped the relationship before the point of consummation, it still seems ridiculous the steps that he followed to bring himself to that situation. Of course, his feelings of uselessness may have led to it; it just seemed, again, like a juicy red herring without regard for the overarching narrative of the story.

Whew! I had planned to write this earlier, but I was waiting for others to get an opportunity to watch series 2. Coming out all at once, wow, that's a lot of negativity.

Here are a few positive recommendations for series 3:

  • Less of Isobel, please.
  • More of Violet.
  • Put the P. Gordon storyline in the garbage can.
  • Stop introducing new characters; we like the ones we already have.
  • Give Bates a reason not to be such a sour patch.
  • Leave Lady Sybil and Branson in Ireland. (Just like the Crawleighs, I'm fine with Sybil, but Branson should stay behind if she comes home for a visit.)
What are your recommended improvements for series 3?


  1. Stick with Jeeves and Wooster. :D

    By the way, I'm glad to see you posting more.