Wretched Excess: Downton Abbey

We all know a good thing when we see it. And we all know there can be too much of a good thing. Season 3 of Downton Abbey combines both axioms into a single sad thought: we knew Downton Abbey was a good thing when we saw it, and now there’s too much of it.

Last year it became apparent that, following the runaway success of Season 1 in 2011, the minds behind the series were a little flummoxed about where to go with the plot in Season 2. It was as if the fact that the audience for a show — a show produced by a public broadcasting entity — had exploded into the millions meant that the universe was now a topsy-turvy place and that the normal Masterpiece Theatre rules no longer applied. So the writers looked to their commercial brethren for inspiration, stuffing the series with tried-and-true tricks of the soap opera, sometimes combining three of these tricks into one character: amnesia, a paralyzed heir, a disfigured potential heir, an imposter of an heir, a few ludicrous marriages (including the last-minute deathbed wedding of two servants, complete with elaborate floral arrangements) a few convenient deaths, a few inconvenient love affairs, a near-miss love affair, battlefield heroics, battlefield cowardice, a murder trial and a missing dog.

This year I knew we were in trouble when Laura Linney, the host of Masterpiece Classic, delivered an introduction to Season 3 that went beyond her usual slow-paced, dimple-laden manner and entered into weird territory (even for her) when she referred to Downton Abbey as being “so addictive, it should practically be considered a controooolllled suuuubssstance”.

Say what? A drug reference in the introduction? The show hadn’t even started and I was already disoriented and painfully aware that watching it meant that I was part of some sort of pop culture phenomenon, like the Superbowl. Not exactly compelling to PBS viewers like me.

No series, no matter how fantastic, can live up to the sort of hype that has come to engulf Downton Abbey. And not only is Downton Abbey not that fantastic, it was never that fantastic. It was good enough, and certainly enjoyable from the start. I admit to watching it from the first minute it came on air a few years ago, as I specialize — like so many white middle class American ladies — in British period dramas. And to me, what makes a period drama compelling is the depiction of past lives in detail — the clothes, the houses, the interiors, the social structure. But what makes a period drama transcendent — one to return to again and again (and again…) is the story. The Story. And that, my friends, is where Downton Abbey seriously suffers. While making its viewers suffer along with it.

Laura Linney’s knowing introduction was followed by a show that gave us the rare sight of Shirley MacLaine — playing the role of the Crawley girls’ American grandmother — dressed as an aging flapper. When she descended from the horseless carriage and promptly launched into a string of bizarre insults toward her own, rarely seen grandchildren (in what apparently was an attempt to upstage the Dowager Countess) I knew the show had run its course. Because nothing about the way her character was written made any sense. In contrast, the Dowager Countess is never rude without subterfuge (and a reason), clearly loves her granddaughters and for heaven’s sake dresses her age. Still, we had to watch as Shirley MacLaine rambled around the house while continually being honest rude, all without a hint of wit to sharpen the boredom of her scenes. She must have referred to being modern, rich and American approximately one hundred times. At least it felt like one hundred. I don’t know about the rest of you people, but I don’t watch British dramas to see Americans traipsing around in the wrong clothes, condescending to broken-down aristocratic English families. The Crawley family couldn’t wait to see her (and her obnoxious lady’s maid) go home and neither could I.

The series continues with Episode 2, showcasing Our Dear Bates shuffling around prison, glowering at everyone and making us think that maybe he really did off his creep of a wife. He certainly looks capable of it. Sweet Anna is no longer paying attention to what is actually happening at Downton, instead running to and fro doing some amateur sleuthing. Edith is thwarted — then not thwarted!! — then thwarted. But wait! Oh nevermind, she’s still thwarted. Matthew is nearly overcome by his bizarre scruples. Mary speaks for all of us when she is at a loss to understand why in the world he won’t open the letter from Lavinia’s father. I have rarely felt more embarrassed for a male protagonist than when Matthew said he couldn’t read the letter “because the words would stay with him forever”. I think Matthew is in need of some serious therapy.  He managed to survive The Great War, temporary paralysis, the death of his betrothed and the news that his beloved found a Turkish diplomat dead in her virginal-ish bed, yet he is fearful that he will be haunted “forever” by a few words scribbled to him from a man he believes held him in false regard. What? Even Lavinia’s father, lying dead in the grave that Matthew — in such gentleman-like fashion — made sure he was honorably buried in, is shaking his head at Matthew’s stupidity. Just open the letter Matthew! Guess what? It will say that you are absolved of any guilt about the money, as Lavinia’s father knew that you had thrown her over when he made you one of his three heirs.

It turns out that’s what the letter did indeed say, more or less. Only it took Mary, the man of the family, to finally open it. THEN she had to race around below stairs looking for proof the letter was actually sent by Lavinia, asking the servants about who-did-what the day Lavinia died, because Matthew, before rolling over to his side of the bed in a huff after the letter’s contents were revealed, decided that it must have been forged by his husband wife. Yes, that’s it! She forged the letter that you refused to read to get you to stop refusing the inheritance that would save the Old Home Place. Oh Matthew. You don’t deserve Downton. And guess what again? In my ‘umble opinion, you aren’t going to get it, because one the other heirs — the one who supposedly disappeared in the wilds of India — will no doubt turn up to claim the fortune and deprive you of saving Downton yet again. I’m sure he will be disfigured (most likely from a tiger attack. Or perhaps from the excess consumption of chai) and it will take at least an episode to sort things out before he dies. Or marries Edith. Or dies before he can marry Edith.

Can you tell I’m bitter about Downton Abbey? I admit it. I’m bitter. A perfectly good enough period drama has been ruined by success. I’m going to keep watching Season 3 though, as at the very least I am deeply interested in what happens with the O’Brien vs. Thomas feud, which has me worried for everyone else in the house as these two randomly evil people fight to the death. And I want to be around to see if Matthew finds his manhood — with that wild-eyed Irish Republican brother-in-law around as an example, ready to engage in fisticuffs with everyone from Carson to Lady Sybil, he may have a chance at it. And I’m going to keep watching because, as we all know, the show is so addictive, it should be considered a controlled substance.


12 thoughts on “Wretched Excess: Downton Abbey

  1. You have expressed my thoughts EXACTLY!! I really knew that no TV show could live up to the hype DA had received. Similar to the Titantic movie which was hyped to the enth degree (I was disappointed in that, too). But, like you, I will continue to watch. It’s still the most interesting, entertaining show on the ‘boob tube’.

  2. Having not watched either prior season, I succumbed to peer pressure and the barrage of “You don’t watch DA?!” remarks and I tried the first disappointing episode. The all to familiar problem of not knowing when to stop continues to haunt the media in about all forms!

  3. Never could get past the first episode. I know…a professional Victorian caroler who went to London on her honeymoon, has a small fascination for the royals, and savored almost every Merchant & Ivory production. It’s sad but true. This anglophile does not follow them, despite a monthly subscription to Netflix. Oh well. I do love the shark/servant juxtaposition against the floral motif….brilliant! Please come visit soon so that you can convince me to start watching over tea and scones with devonshire cream.

    • Paula, I’ll never convince you to start watching but I would love to share tea and scones with you. And yes, if someone with your interests can’t make DA work then you know the show has fallen short.

  4. I couldn’t agree more. I, too, was weirded out by Laura Linney’s introduction and then have said multiple times since that I was bored of this or that story line. It is tired, and struggling to keep us engaged. I was also disappointed that they made MacLaine a parody. But still, I love the costumes and set design, and while I now know that watching it is more akin to One Life To Live over Sense and Sensibility, I can watch with dumb enthusiasm to see what they’ll conjure up next.

    • Yes, I still feel the dumb enthusiasm you describe, now that my expectations have altered and totally agree about the set design & costumes being worth the price of admission (my intelligence). But it could have been a sort of Sense and Sensibility, and that knowledge pains me every time another goofy plot twist occurs…

  5. I think a large part of the problem is that all the other ” Masterpieces” were written completely or at least adapted from completed bodies of work, whereas Downton is being written as they go along and it is suffering both from being rushed and from being effected by public and critical opinion, just like a government being run by pollsters.

  6. Addendum: Just saw Episode 4 and it nearly killed me, it was so sad. Overwrought plots aside, this show has the power to captivate, no doubt about that. I don’t know how long it will take me to recover from this turn of events…

  7. This is why I found season one so exhausting. I love English period dramas when they aren’t trying so hard to be American. I wish they’d just stop but then what other TV trash would I be addicted to? Let’s face it! The medium is designed to string you along for indefinite periods of time and keep you hopeful that’ll it will improve. It never does.

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