"Downton Abbey": Hard times hit the estate

The series, like Downton itself, once provided an abundance of riches. But nothing lasts forever

Published January 3, 2013 5:37PM (EST)

                 (Masterpiece/Carnival Film & Television Limited)
(Masterpiece/Carnival Film & Television Limited)

A few nights ago, I dreamed about “Downton Abbey.” Mr. Bates had taken Matthew Crawley hostage and was holding him at knife point in some soignée drawing room, a costume dream remake of “Misery.” Other people’s dreams — particularly the ones that do not contain the existence of you — are, as a rule, dull, so I won’t go on about the drapery patterns or the motive or Bates' strange expertise with knots. The basic outline makes my point: Over its first two genteel, delectable seasons “Downton Abbey” has sunk its well-manicured hooks in me, lodging so deep that my subconscious now spews out alternative story lines in which the pious Mr. Bates has been made over into a villain (which, not for nothing, would make him a whole lot more interesting).

In other words, I have been a dinner-jacket-wearing member of the “Downton Abbey” hysteria club, a person who has spontaneously giggled many a Sunday afternoon at the thought of the new episode to come; a person who would purr at the sound of the opening credits' soaring string section and plinkity-plink piano notes if she could; a person who has gotten into bar fights about Lady Mary’s relative merits compared to Elizabeth Bennet’s (given Mary’s treatment of sad-sack Edith, please imagine what she would do to a sibling such as Kitty, and then wish you had a video camera). Basically, I'm a person who, despite the admitted inanity and insanity of much of last season, has found myself totally helpless to hate this particular confection, a throwback not just in content, but in form, a show about good guys with posh accents operating in relative safety and immense luxury.

Alas — and in direct contravention of the Granthams' view of their position in the universe — nothing lasts forever, especially on a show that seems to be powered along by its status as a phenomenon more than any particular storytelling urgency. The new season of “Downton,” which premieres this Sunday night on PBS, is more controlled and less patently ridiculous than last season, but it is also less delicious. It is the third pint of ice cream — it just does not taste as good, it is making you a little sick, and on closer examination maybe those quippy and delectable one-liners are really made of ersatz chocolate? The hook is still in, but it is starting to fester.

“Downton’s” new season is in many ways a direct reaction to the overabundance of the second. Last year, there was the amnesiac burn victim who was maybe a Titanic survivor and the rightful Downton heir, or maybe a Canadian con man, but who knows because he was only in one episode. There was the zany blur of Matthew Crawley’s magically vanishing paralysis, Lady Edith’s temporary smooch fest with a married farmer, Thomas’ fistfight with a roomful of flour, and Lord Grantham’s infidelity and terrible sun hat.

This season concerns itself with the much more reasonable possibility that Downton may go belly up. The benevolent Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) has his heart in the right place, but his pockets are a disaster, and he has foolishly bet all of Cora’s (Elizabeth McGovern) fortune on an unlucky Canadian rail company. The family may have to leave Downton. There are still many highly dramatic moments — “Downton” could be called “Four Weddings and Four Funerals” at this point — but insolvency is not as boldly ridiculous as a self-healing penis.

The specter of bankruptcy allows "Downton” to gesture at the present-day reality it has previously eschewed (but which goes at least some of the way toward explaining this rich show about rich people’s especial appeal), the global recession. If only it had not. This timely story line ends up asserting “Downton’s” fundamental conservatism more overtly than it has ever been asserted it before. While Brits are forced to cut social programs and consider austerity measures, Lord Grantham can not afford to hire a second footman. Woe is he!

“Downton” has always suggested that life was simpler way back when, when people knew their place, and the lower classes were looked after in general by the upper classes, and upper classes were looked after in every particular by the lower classes, a mutually beneficial symbiosis. But this season we are expected to feel for the Granthams as they grapple with the possibility of moving to a smaller estate that will only require a staff of eight, thus losing face and shirking their true aristocratic duty, to provide employment for the working classes. When Cora tells her daughter Mary (Michelle Dockery) that many people have done more with far less, Mary replies, “That just goes to show you are American and I am British.” The moment is played like Mary has gotten in a proper put-down — it just made me feel patriotic.

Moreover, the show is called “Downton Abbey." Putting the house in peril is about as threatening as putting the named star of any show in danger. (One could be sure that Buffy and Roseanne and Seinfeld would show up season after season.) And so all the belt-tightening and tsuris are merely canards, temporary serious difficulties far more sour than the temporary serious difficulties of past seasons. It’s one thing to promulgate a fantasy about a show’s romantic lead magically regaining the power to walk, but it’s another to suggest that serious fiscal problems can be resolved by a stroke of luck akin to winning the lottery: One is make-believe through and through, and the other is a flip resolution of a circumstance that is widespread and hardly make-believe at all. In this story line “Downton” is not sharing with its audience the vicarious pleasures of snobbery — it is actually being a snob.

Genuinely more disappointing than pushing wholesale the worldview of the super-rich is Shirley MacLaine, which just goes to show how grandiose my expectations for her were. MacLaine makes her much heralded appearance as Cora’s mother, Martha Levinson, and I am tremendously sad to report she is awful, fake and grandiose beyond plausibility or charm. She is not aided by the fact that her every single line is some on-the-nose, unbearably smug commentary on the Brits' inability to change vis-à-vis America. Over tumblers of whiskey, Lord Grantham tells Martha, “Sometimes I feel like a creature in the wilds whose natural habitat is gradually being destroyed.” Martha replies, “Some animals adapt to new surroundings. It seems a better choice than extinction.” Sorry, Julian Fellowes, but this is supposed to be 1920 (or '19 or '21, time is moving funny), and the destruction of animals’ natural habitats was not a front-of-mind metaphor for a man who hunts foxes and shoots skeet, but it was good of the insensitive American to further it anyway.

There are other missteps: the saga of Bates and Anna, the two most saccharine do-gooders kept apart by a CSI-plot in history, continues on and on and on. There are too many deaths. Lady Mary is, inexcusably, given nothing to do after her happy ending even though she is, along with the Dowager Countess, far and away the first among equals of this ensemble cast.

And yet— and yet!— while I mean all I have written above, I would be misleading you if I did not say that I still got a great deal of pleasure from this lesser "Downton" season, one that for all its mistakes and tamped-down energy I still enjoyed much of, one that I never really considered quitting (though let's discuss that after you've seen the Christmas special). Objectively, "Downton" is not that good and certainly not as good — well-made, well-wrought, reasoned, executed — as it once was. But objectivity only has a little do with it. TV shows are, in that way, like people. You like the ones you like, and sometimes you like the impeccably well-dressed, melodramatic, not quite as smart, definitely not as generous as it thinks one, and you don't interrogate your like every time you hang out. You just keep hanging out.

Scattered thickly throughout are delightful moments, performances of grace and restraint, the perfect cutting line. There's Mary’s continued, profound hatred of Edith, which she gives voice to at the all-time most inappropriate moment, a grudge so deep it can only be true. There's the Dowager Countess giving her new grandson-in-law Branson a lesson in how to get what you want, especially when it comes to matters of wardrobe. There's a rich late season story line about Thomas’ homosexuality, and the tragedy of Thomas and O'Brien's newfound enmity. The cast is, as ever, exact and precise, perfectly subdued even as the machinery around them trundles on slightly out of control. It's not what it was, but even an imperfectly composed tea service tastes pretty good.

By Willa Paskin

Willa Paskin is Salon's staff TV writer.

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