Monday, February 11, 2013

Downton Abbey: Some Thoughts

So, we've caught up with Downton Abbey around the Williams house,  and the verdict is still, all in all, favorable.  Rhonda loves period narration, the Austen-like feel of the show, the nuance of character, the visual sumptuousness.  I agree with much of that (for some reason, I've never been as big a Jane Austen fan as a number of my friends, though I'll immediately own up to her brilliance), but for me, the first two seasons were (so far) preferable to the one we are currently watching.

Here's why.

The first two seasons I found more centered on history, the approach and disaster of the Great War.  It might be just my own interests—I'm fascinated by the event, and have expressed its crucial importance in every damn Modernism class I've ever taught—but it was important to the show as well, in that historicity is what makes it rise above soap opera.

Oh, the history is still there—Branson's Fenian fervor and Edith's budding feminism—and I'm still hoping those situations will blossom in the story line rather than remaining clever window-dressing.  And the show's treatment of slow democratization and British class bigotry (present then, present now) always makes for good story.  The broad characterization that is one of the strengths of British comedy holds up well here reminding me how many British actors are versatile and genuine pros, and how we don't see enough of that on diva-haunted American television.  And yes, I know, this is some of the better programming out of Britain, that a large portion of their television diet is as bad as ours, but they don't have hundreds of channels—hundreds!—filled with complete crap, thank you, and at least they can put forth some literate scripts that you can see performed without your having to pay a small fortune for HBO or Showtime.  I do, by the way, succumb to the PBS-watcher's mythology that the Brits are more literate than we are, because when it comes right down to it, they are, along with the rest of the industrialized world.  It's more evident to us because we speak their language.

So that's the praise: historicity, acting, a verbally attractive script.  But I'm concerned in this third season that it's less and less distinguishable from, say, Falconcrest (which I didn't watch, but saw trailers where well-dressed women were slapping each other. I think it was Falconcrest.  Perhaps Dynasty.  The point being that, at least to my tastes, there's a vanishing point in soap operas in which one is indistinguishable from another).  Soaps are a different form of storytelling from historical fiction, and when you bring them both together, when you cross genres, each should be schooled by the other.  Here's hoping that the rest of this season, and all of the one that follows, bring Downton Abbey back to what I was liking so much as it gathered speed.


  1. There's only one more episode for this season. I agree that the previous seasons were far better and yes, I see it turning toward a soapish storyline now too. I love the Edwardian period, which is why I started watching it. You've got to love Maggie Smith though. She has the best lines. From the spoilers I've read, I don't believe it's going to return to the quality of the first two seasons. Hopefully, I'm wrong about that.

  2. I agree totally about Maggie Smith. And about the Dowager Countess she plays. I've always had a soft spot for sharp-tongued, dreadful old women, though.