Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Downton Shabby: the betrayal of the audience

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t seen the last episode of Downton Abbey for season three and don’t want to know how it ends, stop reading now.

In retrospect, when Sally and I saw Matthew Crawley expressing such joy and bliss at the birth of his son we should have braced ourselves. But we didn't; we had been lulled into a false sense of complacency. Moments later when we saw Matthew grinning and motoring along with only seconds left in the final episode of the season, we looked at each other and we both knew it was going to be bad.

To give Julian Fellowes, the “fellowe” who writes the popular British soap, a little slack, it came out after Matthew is killed by a lorry that actor Dan Stevens (Matthew) had asked out of his contract. He claims he was only going to stay three seasons, anyway.

 Matthew Crawley and Lady Mary (Dan Stevens, Michelle Dockery) in happier times.

Sometimes things like that are said when it could be the actor just made salary demands the producers could not, or would not, meet. The show has a large cast, each of them having their own fans. If everyone wanted more money they might just have to end the series abruptly by having the Royal Air Force fly over in a training mission and accidentally drop a bomb on the house. (Are you glad I’m not writing the show?)

Season three was sort of a bumpy ride for us viewers, with the characters going from one improbable situation (Lady Edith being left at the altar) to another (Thomas Barrow coming out as gay). My patience was tested when Lady Sybil died, which seemed a cheap way of wringing emotion out of the audience. When the prison doors flew open for John Bates, based on some hearsay testimony from someone who knew his late wife, I was exasperated by how easy that whole situation was resolved. I thought it could have gone on until the beginning of next season, and created more suspense (but not too much longer, lest the show lose its audience with their impatience to get him home to faithful Anna).

Copyright © The New Yorker 2013. From the February 25, 2013 issue.

Downton Abbey is an epic that will follow the family through a period of time, and things that happen in the show also happen in real life. Women do die in childbirth, some men are homosexuals who make advances on straight men, just as people are killed in car wrecks. I understand that. But as an ardent fan I felt betrayed by some of the plot twists.

I guess I couldn’t expect some events for the family not to be tragic, or scandalous. Or plot elements contrived. I thought it seemed somewhat pat in season one that the man with whom Lady Mary spent her night in bed died (conveniently), or that in season three Matthew would come into a large fortune and be able to save the estate, based on the season two death of his fiancée (with whom he wasn’t in love).

The main reason I followed the series so avidly was not because of those events, but because I found the actors pleasing, from Maggie Smith as Violet, the dowager countess-granny, to Elizabeth McGovern as the American-born Lady Cora Grantham, to the British actors with whom I was not familiar when the show began. The star-making turn of Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary is a real revelation. Another aspect of the show I like is the costuming. I feel transported into that bygone era of nearly 100 years ago. (There are anachronisms: Matthew’s hair, for instance, would have been slicked down. In the Victorian era the word “pregnant” would have been considered impolite, with the words “expecting” or “expectant” replacing it. But those were minor to me compared to the accuracy of the clothing for the period.) Dockery, especially, who has been described as being contemporary yet simultaneously classic, is an object of fascination for me. She said there was a Twitter account called “Lady Mary’s eyebrows.” I didn’t think it odd at all, when for me those eyebrows have a life of their own on Dockery’s expressive and beautiful face.

Despite my fascination with Michelle Dockery and her eyebrows, my love of Maggie Smith’s snarkiness or the period costuming, I think television serials have a lifespan. I’m not sure what the lifespan of Downton Abbey is, and ratings will tell us if it should stay or go. Personally, I think a show is most effective at two or three seasons, and then I drift away. I start losing interest when I feel the stories are repeating themselves, or actors make contract demands. Or frankly, when a show jumps the shark: the point at which any show crosses a line where it ceases to be relevant, or fun, and begins its slide, quick or slow, into its own demise. Because of the worldwide interest in Downton Abbey perhaps the whole planet will be over Matthew’s death by the beginning of season four, and its loyal fans will be sitting in front of the tube watching to see what joys and tragedies are visited upon the Crawley family. I haven’t decided yet, and my initial reaction to the finale of season three was like Sally’s: “I’m not going to watch this ever again.” But given time to heal and  for my outrage to fade, I will probably be one in the masses of fans who will have by then forgiven the writer and the producers, and will again spend my Sunday evenings at Downton Abbey.

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