Tag Archives: PBS

End of Season Report – Downton Abbey, Season 3

26 Jun

Sisters Downton

I’ll admit I wasn’t particularly excited to watch the third season of Downton Abbey.  I waited until long after it aired in both the UK and the US to watch it.  While I never doubted I would get around to it, after the second season I was a lot less excited with the whole prospect. Saying I was disenchanted with the show is far too strong a word for a show that didn’t really change its essential stripes, but I was hardly looking forward to it either.

I’m making this point only to turn around and give Downton Abbey the backhand compliment that while the third didn’t exactly return me back into a state of excitement about the show, it also didn’t continue to deflate my expectations as much as it might have.  It represented a plateau-ing of Downton Abbey, as the third season was at least as consistent as the second season.  While I’m still not super excited about the fourth season, I probably won’t wait as long to watch it.

Everyone who watches this show should know this by now, but Downton Abbey is a primetime soap opera thinly disguising itself (and not even really disguising itself at this point) as a show about the dynamics of class politics in early 20th century Britain.  Watching Downton has made me think there could be a place for a really piercing drama about these class politics, but this certainly isn’t it.  It’s not entirely politically vacant, and to Downton’s credit, while they smooth most conflicts over fairly quickly, they don’t entirely ignore their existence.  Still, every seemingly political content is generally just used as a vehicle for personal drama.

Downton does cycle right through a series of issues which could really be reckoned with, but these difficult issues are generally introduced just to provide fodder for short term conflict between two or more main characters, and then solved an episode later, after which tea will be served.  Sybil’s marriage to a chauffeur was the stuff of scandal, but by the end of the third season, Tom has joined the family and just about entirely quelled his controversial talk about Irish independence.  The Catholic-Protestant conflict is solved in about 45 minutes after Lord Grantham eventually gives in.  Poor Lord Grantham has to play the conservative heavy in almost every conflict this season, counting on all the charisma and love he’s generated in the early seasons to prevent him from coming off as a total villain.  A scandal revolving Thomas Barrow’s homosexuality (which I had totally forgotten about) nearly ruined his life before a surprising number of empathetic parties, who have had their qualms in the past with the generally villainous Barrow, put pressure on the servant who was doing the accusing. The accuser was motivated less by hate than by the machinations of the scheming O’Brien.  Ethel, the maid who had given birth to the child of a solider who was recuperating at Downton (I had also totally forgotten about this) returns, as the always virtuous Mrs. Crawley hires her so she can rehabilitate from her life as a prostitute (things did not go well for her after Downton).  This sets off a major conflict but all’s well when the Dowager Countess helps get her a new job working for a family near where her child is being raised by the kid’s grandparents. Everybody wins!

I’m making these points not to vent against these happy endings; they’re quite fine, but rather to much as to make sure we’re clear on what we’re watching.  It’s a visually gorgeous soap opera that happens to involve some really rich people and not rich people who work for them in their awesome house.

As I pointed out above, poor Robert serves as the unchanging conservative force who is having trouble adapting to the new times, more than his wife, and even more than his mother.  It’s kind of sad watching him fight against everyone else, especially when he’s usually the only one on his side.  His poor decision making is evident, after earlier in the season discovering he lost all of his money in bad investments, he tries to argue for reinvesting in the fund of a one Charles Ponzi.  Even Downton Abbey can’t resist a pointed historical joke from time to time.

Fitting for a show that’s really about personal drama rather than political conflict, the most moving moments by far involved the death of youngest daughter Sybil right after she gives birth to a daughter.   While the political conflicts often like they’re lacking juice, the reaction from Sybil’s death felt authentic by all parties. After Sybil’s death, there’s a bizarre turn in Edith’s character in the second half of the season when I felt the strange sensation of rooting for her, which made me entirely uncomfortable.  That said,  kudos to whoever decided they wanted to make Edith stop being horrible.  Shows aren’t served well by characters that are irredeemably terrible, and Edith has never been quite that bad, but she’s come close.

There’s lots of little drama between the characters that is hardly edge-of-your-seat suspenseful but is enough to care about at least for as long as the episode is.  There’s a love quadrangle among the servants as Daisy likes Albert who likes Ivy who likes James who likes, well, who even knows.  In filling up just eight episodes, it seems like sometimes the writers don’t have a ton of ideas left but Downton is surprisingly watchable for a show where a lot of the subplots aren’t particularly captivating.  It is, if I haven’t said, a really fucking nice house.

This season was definitely a little bit looser and more relaxed now that Matthew and Mary are finally married.  The will-they won’t-they between the two of the them was charming initially, but got tiring as it seemed like the show was just inventing excuses to keep them apart.

I don’t want to leave without saying how hilarious I thought the impression of Americans was on the program.  Shirely MacLaine plays Cora’s mother and makes constant quips about quaint British traditions and how allergic to change the British are.  In the last episode, we’re introduced to a new young female character named Rose for some reason.  I think Rose is introduced only to help portray the ‘20s as we Americans know them with loose women and flappers doing the Charleston while black musicians play.  When it’s discovered she’s visiting these clubs with a married man, Rose has embroiled herself in s a scandal that everyone at Downton can agree on!

Show of the Day: Downton Abbey

12 Jan

I’ll admit, I had no idea what Downton Abbey was about other than being an English period drama until earlier this week.  In fact, I kept reading it incorrectly as “Downtown Abbey” which conjures a very different idea in the mind.  After watching the seven episode first season though, I’m certainly glad I know more about it now.

Downton Abbey is about the residents of the titular location, an estate in Northern England, including both the aristocratic family who run the Abbey, and the serving men and women who make the Abbey run.  A third economic class is introduced in the second episode when an upper middle class lawyer and his mother move into the Abbey because the lawyer has become the new heir to the title and estate after the old heir died in the Titanic disaster.

Downton Abbey is about as British as British gets.  It’s like Gosford Park without the murder.  (Note: I had absolutely no idea it was from the same writer as Gosford Park until I had finished five episodes, but it makes perfect sense.)  One of the essentially European aristocratic core issues at hand is the secession of the estate and title, as well as the marrying off of the three daughters of the current Lord and Lady of the estate.  Downton Abbey takes place at a crucial junction in time at which both love and position count in constituting a match, and the battle between the two occurs throughout the show.

Downton Abbey is a soap opera at its heart, a less serious show than critically acclaimed series of the period such as Mad Men and Breaking Bad.  However, it also deals with the class structure in an interesting, albeit generally unrealistically sunny and positive way.  The lord and lady of Downton Abbey are generally benelovent, but can’t avoid their learned feelings of noblesse oblige.  Even between the Lord and Lady, there are issues, as the lady is an American who Lord Grantham originally married for her money, which was necessary to save the estate.  The men and women of the serving class deal with vastly different problems than the aristocracy, largely, but also some similar programs.  Downton Abbey takes place at a similar time as far more serious show Boardwalk Empire, when the times are changing rapidly, but the characters largely try to change as little as absolutely necessary to adapt.  The biggest rift, aside from class, is generational, as the three daughters, to various degrees, are far more ready to embrace the less stratified world than their parents and grandparents.

I knew I was on board for good when I started rooting for and against characters, even yelling at my TV, and not in the angry at the show way, but in an angry at the characters way.  As far as the rogues gallery goes, Maggie Smith is fantastic as the cantankerous matriarch of the house, mother to the current lord, the Dowager Countess Violet.  She’s quick with an insult and is a protector of all things traditional, proper and conservative in the wake of attempts at forced changes to the social order from outside the estate.  Her foil is lawyer and new heir Matthew Crawley’s mother, who is the one character who is extremely progressive for her generation, and is the only character stubborn enough to not give in to the Dowager Countess, much to Smith’s dismay.

The most villainous characters are probably footman Thomas and maid Mrs. O’Brien, who are constantly scheming to get their personal nemesis valet Mr. Bates fired.  Bates, a newly hired footman at the beginning of the show, harbors some sort of secret, but seems a much better sort than Thomas (just one season of the show has me describing people as a “sort”).  Thomas is cruel to the other footman, William, and constantly flirts with cook’s assistant Daisy who is just about the only character who doesn’t realize that his affections are reserved for men.

Eldest daughter Mary I wouldn’t quite call a villain, but it’s frustrating watching her constant immaturity on display through the first season, as well as the way she treats her youngest sister Edith, drawing every man’s attention even when she’s not interested, just because she can.  Edith reciprocates with immature behavior to get back at Mary.  There are characters to root for as well.  Middle daughter Sybil is by far my favorite of the three (though the  other two have grown on me over time; it’s a sign of a good show when it’s able to make you like the characters you hated at first).  Sybil gets less screen time than Mary in the first season, but she’s the most political and most willing to attempt to break free from the social restrictions of the time.  Lord Grantham is better 1910s version of Tim Allen’s character in Last Man Standing.  Inherently conservative, but well-meaning, he’s caught between all the women in his life, including his daughters, wife and mother.  He wants to do what’s best within the narrow parameters he’s grown up with, but often ends up mediating a dispute between the women and takes a compromise position.  Matthew Crawley, the new heir, is a middle class lawyer, who struggles to fit into an aristocratic lifestyle.  He doesn’t always succeed, but he manages to turn general resentment from the family when he first arrives to sincere affection.

One note before I finish up: The strangest aspect of Downton Abbey is how quick it skips through time between episodes.  In the vast majority of TV shows, a season takes place over a single season or year, with episodes reasonable close together in time to one another.  Downton Abbey defies that convention.  The first episode takes place in 1912, but the show is in 1914 by season’s end, and the second season jumps even more.  This is hard to compute, given my understanding of traditional TV scheduling, and left me slightly discombobulated.  Eventually I was able to just accept that the primary reason for this seems to be to move into certain historical events (World War I!), and that nothing really important happens on the estate during the months we’re not seeing.