It was Benjamin Disraeli who said, "How much easier it is to be critical than correct." It is with this caveat in mind that I say what I have to say here about the beloved - until now - Downton Abbey.
The PBS series appears to have lost its way
Yes, I’ve read and even tweeted that the premiere of Season 4 had the highest rating of any episode in the series so far. But with the possible exception of the last episode of Season 3, with its jarring, ill-timed killing-off of Matthew, the Season 4 premiere was a disappointment. It felt contrived and somewhat robotic in places, and when it was over I felt I had wasted two hours watching it. But you know how it is when you love something. You cut it some slack. After all, series creator Julian Fellowes had been thrown a nasty curve when Dan Stevens, who played Matthew Crawley, refused to return for even one episode of Season 4. Killing him off so abruptly (and it seemed vengefully) at the end of Season 3 would require a lot of rewriting, new scenes and situations—the drag of Lady Mary’s depression weighing heavily not only on the family but the viewers too. So okay, I thought. We’ll give you time to sort it out. But let’s get things back on track by the second episode—okay?
Sadly, this did not happen. If you watched the Golden Globes on Sunday and have not yet summoned the episode from your TiVo hard drive, there will be no spoilers here. I will simply try to point out as discreetly as possible why I feel the series has lost its way.
It Is No Longer Giving the Audience Anything to Hope for
In the first three seasons, we were introduced a beautiful but flawed world just as it was about to fade from existence. The series did such an excellent job of bringing us into that world that we fell in love with it. We hoped that Lady Mary would not lose the inheritance that seemed rightfully hers, that her mother’s fortune given to the estate as dowry would not be handed over to a complete stranger, and that she and Matthew would find a way to work things out. We hoped Matthew had not been killed in World War I; and we hoped he would walk again. We hoped that Bates did not kill his awful first wife, that he would be freed from prison, that he and Anna would be united in lasting wedded bliss, and that the evil-doers would get theirs. We hoped Sybil would not die in childbirth and that Branson would be accepted into the family.
Three hours into Season 4, all of that is gone. Yes, we hope Lady Mary will be healed of depression and grief. But all the main drivers in the first three seasons have all been resolved. And no new ones have taken their place. We may hope for some resolution of the terrible thing that happened in this past week’s episode—that incident for which viewer discretion was advised—but this is not the hope of the earlier Downton. This is at best the hope for revenge. Which is on an entirely different level from the anticipatory hope this series has always managed to inspire in its viewers. Hope and inspiration. We Americans are keen on it. After all, we elected a president whose campaign turned on the inspiring message of hope for change.
The Inherent Limitations of the TV Series
As Art Form Have Begun to Drag It Down
Just as we know that death is a certainty, we know in advance that a television series is a limited art form. Unlike a film, whose purpose is to create a unified whole in which all the parts contribute something to the theme in a balanced and harmonious way, the purpose of a TV series is to string us along from one season to the next for as long as possible for the purpose of selling us soap. PBS operates on a different business model, but it does the same thing. It's selling us the world of Ralph Lauren, cruise lines, and itself. Probably the most egregious example of this is the ABC series, Lost, whose contrivances seemed to be a metaphor for what must have happened to the writers—and which eventually became fodder for Saturday Night Live.
It’s only when some enlightened consciousness is at the helm that a TV series manages to stop before it reaches the tipping point. The place where, as in Spengler’s Decline of the West, the high point of culture declines into mere civilization. This is why the 2002 six-part version of The Forsyte Saga is superior to the 26-episode version that began in 1967. The tighter arc made for a more rewarding experience. Poor Downton seems to be relying on our memory of the culture it established during the first three seasons to hold onto us in Season 4. It wants us to “keep on keeping on” for old times’ sake. Perhaps I’m wrong. Maybe the series will manage to halt its downward slide. And since I’ve loved the show from the beginning, I really do hope it manages to get itself found again.
Note to Self
As someone who is in the process of publishing a novel series, I look upon all this as a cautionary tale. Note to self: don’t hang on, stupid. Exit gracefully when the tale is done.
Jimmy Fallon to the Rescue
Since there is no more to be said on this for now—and since the last episode of Downton left me feeling so down—I have no choice but to call on Jimmy Fallon to set things right. Here he is with Episode 1 of Downton Sixbey, the hilarious 2012 spoof of our once beloved series.
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