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Shows that went on way too long
"Californication" (seven seasons)
NEW YORK (AP) — The third season of “Downton Abbey” ends this Sunday with a bang.
Exactly what that bang is, we’re not going to say, in deference to the maybe half-dozen “Downton” fans who still don’t know the shocking truth.
The larger point remains that after Sunday’s “Masterpiece Classic” (airing at 9 p.m. Eastern on PBS), viewers must suffer “Downton” withdrawal until next season.
But until then, we’ll have our memories.
And what a season this has been! The beloved valet Mr. Bates was sprung from jail and a trumped-up murder charge to begin married life with his bride, the plucky lady’s maid Anna. Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, has gotten Downton Abbey back on its feet financially with an able assist from his son-in-law and presumptive heir, Matthew Crawley. Matthew wed his true love, Lady Mary Crawley. But another of Robert’s daughters, Lady Sybil, died tragically during childbirth.
Through it all, Robert’s mother Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham (played by the sublimely scene-stealing, Emmy- and Golden-Globe-winning Maggie Smith) delivered a barrage of withering, hilarious rejoinders to virtually every narrative twist.
“I remember my very first scene with her in Season One,” says Hugh Bonneville, who plays Robert, lord of the manor. “She’s complaining about the new electric lights, and suddenly she put her fan up to her face to shield herself from ‘the glare,’ and spent the entire scene like that. It was so funny, and I was just, ‘All right! There’s no point in my even being here. She’s just marched off with the scene!’”
Now, as then, “Downton” is a plush, penetrating peek into the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and their household servants in an English castle of a century ago. With a cast that also includes Michelle Dockery, Elizabeth McGovern, Dan Stevens, Jim Carter and Brendan Coyle, the series this season has drawn an average 11 million viewers each week while spurring another surge of “Downton”-mania, even from first lady Michelle Obama, who pulled strings to get episodes of the new season before it premiered.
“Downton” has even been parsed for its political underpinnings. Last month, Fox News host (and native Brit) Stuart Varney declared that “Downton” celebrates rich people, who “in America today are reviled. They’re dismissed as fat cats who don’t pay their fair share.” Yet on “Downton” the rich people are “generous,” ”nice,” ”classy” and “they’ve got style,” he said, “which poses a threat to the left, doesn’t it?”
It is rare when public television is accused of threatening left-wing orthodoxy, especially on “Fox & Friends” (whose co-hosts Gretchen Carlson and Brian Kilmeade expressed surprise to learn the show isn’t called “Downtown Abbey”). But “Downton” has a way of engaging people, both the 99 percent and the 1 percent alike.
And, yes, as the wealthy, patriarchal Lord Grantham, Bonneville does indeed exude classiness and, at crucial moments, generosity.
But that’s not the whole picture. Robert Crawley is also confounded by the modern world of post-World War I as it upsets the social hierarchy. Meanwhile, despite his indulgence of underbutler Thomas Barrow’s shame (it seems Thomas is gay!), Robert isn’t always the most tolerant of men.
“I don’t want thumbscrews or the rack, but there always seems to be something of Johnny Foreigner about the Catholics,” he sniffs to one of his kind during an exchange about religion.
“I don’t think I’d have a huge amount in common with Robert if I met him at a dinner party,” Bonneville says. “But I like the guy. I like the fact that while he does bluster and he’s pompous sometimes, and he makes mistakes, there’s a decency and a love for his family underneath it all.”
Impeccably clad in a three-piece gray suit and pink tie for this recent interview, the 49-year-old Bonneville, even firmly planted in a 21st-century Manhattan hotel, looks to the manor born. Nonetheless, he brands himself a member of the British middle class — the son of a surgeon and a nurse who once imagined becoming a lawyer — and his roles have strayed some distance from the lofty likes of Robert Crawley. For instance, Bonneville has been affable and bumbling in “Notting Hill” and “Mansfield Park,” and downright villainous in “The Commander.”
And coinciding with his “Downton” duties, he also played the addled Head of Deliverance for the Olympics commission in “Twenty Twelve,” a riotous BBC miniseries that spoofed preparations for the London Olympics.
“There are people who think I’ve been doing nothing for 25 years, and then suddenly I get this role on ‘Downton Abbey,’” Bonneville says with a laugh. “But I’ve had a really lovely time for 25 years! I’ve played everything from Shakespeare to sitcoms to period dramas to modern serial killers. I consider myself a character actor, and I do love playing different instruments in the orchestra when I get the chance.”
Of course, Bonneville realizes that “Downton” is a good bet for the lead citation in his obituary. He has finally acknowledged it: This show is a cultural phenomenon, not just a fleeting fad. And he has many theories why.
First, the savory writing by series creator Julian Fellowes. Besides, the cast is splendid. The production values are luxurious. And the premise remains rich with possibility.
“This is one of the few settings, alongside a hospital and a police station, where you can legitimately find a real cross-section of society under one roof,” notes Bonneville. “But underneath it all, this series is about romance rather than sex, it’s about tension rather than violence, and it’s about family — both the literal family and the staff as family. It explores the minutiae of those social structures, the nuances of the system as to whether someone’s in or out.”
Not that he would want to be part of it. He doesn’t sentimentalize that long-ago era any more than “Downton” does. And yet …
“These days,” says Bonneville, “we have relationships that are forged, consummated and brought to an end within 24 hours. Back then, the pace of life was slower, and I think we like to breathe out and enjoy that world — albeit for only an hour or so, on a Sunday night.”
Just one more Sunday night, for now.
Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier
"Californication" (seven seasons)
"Entourage" (eight seasons)
Much like “Californication,” this man-centric show started strong and buzzy -- a perpetual nominee at the Golden Globes and Emmys, and a perceived gender-swapped “Sex and the City.” Then it ground on and on, and what might once have been read as a sophisticated satire of Hollywood materialism became a grinding conveyor belt of self-congratulatory guest-star appearances.
"Will & Grace" (eight seasons)
Hey, did someone say “self-congratulatory guest-star appearances?” Look -- it’s Jennifer Lopez, and Cher, and Janet Jackson, and Madonna! The latter seasons of “Will & Grace” effectively ruined the fun of watching the show in syndication now -- will it be a fun and jaunty early episode, or a later episode in which title characters enact an Ibsen play about having a baby together (really) while Jack and Karen meet one pop star or another? The fact that the show hastened a widespread acceptance of gay people that, then, made the show something of a throwback by the time it ended is one thing; the fact that the show itself seemed uninterested in relying on its actors’ sharp comic timing is quite another.
"The King of Queens" (nine seasons)
This CBS stalwart just kind of kept going, exactly as long as was needed to launch Kevin James’ film career. In the show’s final minutes, a formulaic sitcom became a mile-a-minute soap, with the central characters considering divorce and then having two children.
"Frasier" (11 seasons)
Though it ended strong, "Frasier" had something of the opposite problem as “The King of Queens”: While the CBS comedy chucked a whole bunch of plot at viewers toward the end, NBC’s Emmy magnet stayed stuck in familiar ruts, with Frasier questing endlessly for love and Daphne and Niles in fairly unthrilling domestic bliss. The jokes stayed good, but this maybe could have gone one or two years shorter.
"Weeds" (eight seasons)
As “Homeland” viewers may be learning, Showtime isn’t particularly good at keeping its shows coherent over time. (Maybe this is “Californication”’s issue -- we wouldn’t know!) This show changed settings and, effectively, organizing conceits so many times that by the end, it had few earnest defenders.
"Nip/Tuck" (six seasons)
This FX series, too, changed settings midway through, moving from Miami to Los Angeles four seasons in for no compelling reason. The show’s most gripping subplots had a way of petering out (remember the anticlimactic solution to the mystery of the Carver?), and its bizarre tendencies overtook any sense of fun.
"Glee" (five seasons and counting)
The series has, like its sibling show “Nip/Tuck” (Ryan Murphy created them both), switched locations, moving in large part to New York once its core cast graduated high school. But what’s the point of a high school series when the stars graduate? Despite some lovely moments, the show’s heat seems gone, and attempts to get back into the conversation (the school shooting episode, for instance) have been more desperate and tone-deaf than effective.
"Grey's Anatomy" (10 seasons and counting)
Here’s the thing: By all accounts, “Grey’s Anatomy” is not a creative failure. And it’s still widely watched. But when you begin your life as a world-beating hit, anything else seems somewhat marginal. “Grey’s Anatomy” has shed more regular viewers than many shows will ever hope to get in the first place (same’s true of “Survivor” and latter-day “ER,” to name just a few). Those who stopped watching once the Golden Globe nominations petered out may wonder why the show is still on; loyal viewers know better.
"The Simpsons" (25 seasons and counting)
Like the “Grey’s” doctors, the Springfield clan and their neighbors still draw a crowd. But “The Simpsons” is so omnipresent in syndication and in pop culture that the first-run series seems besides the point (not least because, though there are good episodes here and there, the show’s best days are universally agreed to be behind it -- like way behind it, in the 1990s).
"The Office" (nine seasons)
There was a natural break for this show, where it ought to have ended -- with the departure of lead actor Steve Carell in Season 7. The latter years were a creative fugue state, and as NBC’s Thursday night lineup continued to flatline in the ratings, one-time fans could be forgiven at their surprise that the adventures of Jim and Pam kept on unfolding.
"The X-Files" (nine seasons)
Once one of the show’s leads departs and has to be replaced -- as Steve Carell did on “The Office,” or David Duchovny did here -- the show faces a reckoning; if the lead is so central to the show’s plot as to make people wonder how the show could possibly go on, maybe the show shouldn’t. And even “X-Files” superfans might have been happier with fewer seasons of drawing out the conspiracy string toward a famously unsatisfying ending.
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