jim o’donnell
#4: rio bravo (howard hawks, 1959)

downton abbey, season two finale

This is not the kind of show I usually watch. I didn’t get around to the first season until the second was about to begin, when I decided to see what all the fuss was about. I was drawn in from the start. I know little about the English class system of the pre-WWI era, so I found the details of the daily life of the house to be fascinating. I wasn’t sure I liked the perceived attitude of the show (servants know their place, but it’s OK, because the Earl is such a nice guy), and it bothered me that the servant most interested in breaking through class barriers was also the Bad Guy. But the characters were all interesting, and while the first season was brief, there was just enough of a hint that those characters would have surprises in the future that I looked forward to Season Two.

For the most part, those characters in Season Two are the same as the ones I liked so much. But that’s part of the problem: there wasn’t much progress. Yes, WWI changed things on the surface, but in a dramatic sense, the Earl was still a pillar of humanity (he even experienced temptation, only to set it aside), Thomas was still a Bad Guy, Maggie Smith still had a way with words, Cora was still just there, Lady Mary and cousin Matthew continued their will they/won’t they, Lady Sybil was still the Rebellious Sister, Bates and Anna were still a touching, heartbreaking couple, and Carson and Mrs. Hughes still ran the show with style, grace, and a human touch.

All sorts of silly plot shenanigans were thrown at these characters: the returning beau with the disfigured face who left almost as soon as he arrived; the crippling of Matthew (followed by his miraculous recovery); the Snidely Whiplash antics of the evil Mrs. Bates the first; the Spanish flu. That it was at all tolerable was due to the excellence of the actors (it would be pointless to single anyone out, they were all good, but special props to Michelle Dockery and Dan Stevens, Brendan Coyle and Joanne Froggatt, for making their star-crossed romances believable).

So count me with those who think Season Two wasn’t as good as Season One, although, much like the majority of those critics, I still found plenty to enjoy in the second year. The introduction of World War I and the resultant disruption of class society gave Season Two a solid basis. There is still more than enough good acting to make up for any deficiencies elsewhere (especially useful when characters are asked to do stupid things). And Maggie Smith still gets all the best lines.

But it could be so much more. Imagine if Sir Richard wasn’t turned into a villain, if his love for Mary was made clearer. Imagine if Mrs. Bates the first wasn’t Evil Personified but instead an aggrieved wife who loved her husband. Imagine if Bates really did kill her in a moment of passion (this, admittedly, may still turn out to be true). Imagine if there was more to the Earl than his essential niceness, more to Sybil than The Rebellious One, more to Edith than The Ugly One. Imagine, in short, that there was more to these characters than the stereotype, that we actually knew them better at the end of Season Two than we did at the beginning of Season One.

Mo Ryan once again gets it right:

It frequently sacrificed the characters on the altar of plot, and that's incredibly frustrating, given that the unexceptional plots are not what we tune in for. We watch quality programs to see the characters react to frustrations, to rise to challenges and to explore possibilities. … Fellowes seems to think that piling on more stories is how you create more drama, and he seems to believe that creating increasingly contrived obstacles to characters' happiness is what storytelling is all about. No, the point of the stories should be making the audience care about the people in the house. The point of every plot should be to shed light on who they are, what they want, why they want it and what compromises they'll have to make to get it.

Later, in what reads almost like a manifesto, Ryan writes “Dear television writers of the world, we care about your characters. Do not mess them up for the sake of storytelling expedience. Do not give incident pride of place over people.”

There is something else about Downton Abbey that puzzles me. Why has it become such a cultural marker? Why does “everyone” watch it? Saturday Night Live has parodied it, a sure sign a series has crossed over from high-class PBS fodder to “if we had a water cooler at work, we’d meet there every Monday to talk about it”. Why?

I could just say that it’s a quality show and be thankful it found an audience, but there’s more to it than that. I’m speaking of the American audience here: why are we devouring a show about the upper and lower classes in early 20th-century England? Why is it that people who would never deign to watch popular mass entertainments, who would look down their noses at soap operas, fall in love with Downton Abbey? For that matter, why am I watching it, when I’ve admitted it’s not my type of show?

I don’t have an answer, but I’m not the only one asking the question. It feels like a week doesn’t go by without my reading another piece about the puzzling popularity of a PBS Masterpiece series. And again, the answer is not as simple as “it’s a good show”, because there are plenty of good shows, many of which should, on the surface, better connect with American audiences than Downton Abbey.

Grade for season finale: A-. Grade for Season Two: B+. Hopes for Season Three: A. Expectations for Season Three: B-.