Shall we talk about Downton Abbey, or Dumbdown Abbey as I’ve taken to calling it as it spirals into the gutter quicker than one of cousin Isabel’s prostitutes?
Because, while it’s always been rather silly, it was always enjoyable nonsense, resplendent with beautiful frocks and handsome men in ridiculous collars. I’m a sucker for a period drama anyway, and the first series was (almost) perfect Sunday evening viewing. But, while I enjoyed it, I was surprised at how universally adored it was. As easy and entertaining as it was to watch, from the beginning Downton was too clunky for my tastes. All that sign-posting (Daisy: “Why do we iron newspapers, Mr Carson”; Mr Carson, “I’m so glad you asked me that, Daisy as all the viewers at home will also be wondering and as this is an ITV drama, these idiots will have to be told”). But at least things happened. A dead Turk in Mary’s bed! Thomas’ brewing secret! Evil O’Brien and the bar of soap! And, crucially, the will-they-won’t-they Mary and Matthew storyline, the engine that drove the whole soapy-show.
Rushed out to ensure it caught the golden wave of Downton-Fever, the second series was a largely badly paced mish-mash of implausible storylines where any dramatic tension was shot down quicker than a grouse on the Downton estate on the Glorious Twelfth. And for those (me) hoping that season three would recover as miraculously as cousin Matthew’s ‘severed’ spine, it’s, if anything, even worse, because, as well as being drivel, it’s now limp and boring drivel.
I’m beginning to feel insulted that Julian Fellowes is quite clearly just no longer trying. Does he think us plebs won’t notice the historical gaffs, the storylines that build only to be resolved before the next ad break? The plot holes and inconsistencies; why would an Earl in a financial quagmire be so against his youngest, least eligible daughter marrying a knight of the realm with pots of money because he was a little old and had trouble holding a knife and fork? Robert certainly didn’t have these quibbles in series one when he was hell-bent on marrying Mary off to Sir Anthony.
In fact, the script is the only consistent aspect of the show, but, unfortunately, not in a good way. The whole show is now held together by fine acting, beautiful frocks and Maggie Smith’s facial expressions.
But even the acting is looking limp; Dan Stevens seems to be wilting under all those dreadful lines he’s forced to utter, looking forlornly at that massive cigar permanently stuck between his fingers in this series, as if he knows that it has more charisma that Matthew. And Mary, who was so spirited and joyously bitchy – very much granny’s granddaughter – has descended into a boring nag. Michelle Dockery, so watchable in the first two series, practically sighs her lines out, fully aware of how tedious they sound. And while we’re on the subject, what has happened to Mary and Matthew? Once the emotional heart of the show, they had such great chemistry before they were married, and now all they do is bicker in nasty dressing gowns and make clumsy passes at inappropropriate moments. Perhaps Matthew isn’t quite up to poor Mr Pamuk’s standards.
Unlike the will-they-won’t-they Mary and Matthew storyline that almost outstayed its welcome, any major plot-development in the last couple of series has been quashed before it’s had time to brew. The Matthew rising from the wheelchair that barely an hour before he had been condemned to a life in, is perhaps the most famous example of killing a storyline before the kettle has brewed. But even the recent jilted Edith story has withered quicker than the wedding flowers. Stood up at the altar at the end of the last episode, sixty minutes later she’s a newspaper columnist. No time for sulking in Fellowes-land, young lady. I won’t even start on the whole Robert’s ruin/Matthew’s unlikely inheritance “plot” – what was the point?
The one storyline that has anytime to bed in, only to fall into a deep, and tedious slumber, is the Bates/Anna saga that limps on with interminable dullness each week (and talking of limps, where has Bates’ gone?) I’m longing for Bates to turn out to actually be an evil wife murderer and for him to escape, returning to Downton to par-boil Anna in one of Mrs Patmore’s giant saucepans.
I will, of course, keep watching, in the hope that this episode will be the one where at no point will I roll my eyes or shout “he wouldn’t say that” or (every time Bates makes an appearance – “just hang him”) at the telly. Although, maybe these are the reasons why I’m watching it, that, and the frocks of course.
by Suzanne Elliott