‘Downton Abbey’ Has Finally Become the Soap Opera Its Critics Always Said It Was


Like a town crier, I spent much of the year before Downton Abbey first aired stateside telling my friends and family, “You will watch this and you will love it.” And throughout its first two seasons, I remained a diehard follower. Should this not already be clear, I have quite the soft spot for British period drama, particularly when it takes place in a glorious Great House, is rife with class overtones, and oozes sentimentality and snobbery.

And for a while, Downton more than sufficed. It permeated so deeply that, upon sitting down with friends, we’d launch into a discussion of which Grantham daughter or other character on the show best encapsulated our personality (I was bloomer-wearing, chauffeur-courting Lady Sybil, of course) and quote Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess’s withering putdowns.

So last night, when I tuned into the Season 5 premiere after missing a whole bunch of episodes over the past few years, I was anxious to recapture the magic and fun. After all, so many of my literary pals were live-tweeting things about #TeamEdith and Lady This and Lord Whatshisface, and I relished the chance to join them. But sadly, as rollicking as the viewing and tweeting once was, the premiere only served to remind me of just how and why creator Julian Fellowes lost me in the first place.

To begin with the most obvious flaw of all, the show has killed off its absolute best characters. Now, with the most sympathetic “outsiders” in the Grantham family — rebellious daughter Sybil and rebellious heir and would-be son-in-law Matthew — gone to meet their makers, the show is simply overrun with obnoxious aristocrats. For these snobbish folks, there are no worthy foils, except for Sybil’s widowed husband Branson, who has become muzzled by grief and loyalty to his in-laws.

The lack of good opponents to the Grantham old guard in the wake of Matthew and Sybil, I think, can be attributed to Fellowes’ lingering, irritating affection for the aristocracy. He echoes their yearning for the way things were, so much so that he makes all the less stodgy characters, from bereaved mother-in-law Isobel to various reformist elements in the family, into the show’s prats, moralists and fools. Meanwhile the cynical and cruel Lady Mary and her sneering grandma are the creator’s clear favorites. Take this lone bon mot from the Countess during the premiere, which sums up the show’s outlook: “Principles are like prayers. Noble, but awkward at a party.” This is funny, and true in part, but also rather depressing.

Still, even for the most progressive-minded viewer in me, a show with aristocratic sympathies would by no means be terrible or unpalatable if it weren’t so deadly dull. Or, as lady Mary would say, drily, something of a bore.

I skipped much of the last two seasons, yet had no trouble catching up with the plot last night, because so much of it was exactly the same as it had been in 2013, with a few replacements. Bates is under a cloud of suspicion for maybe murdering someone? Check. The scheming Thomas is ineptly yet cruelly scheming against an under-housekeeper of some sort? Check. Lady Mary is considering whether to bone one of her suitors? Check. Lady Edith is having a sad? Check. Lord Grantham and his momma are huffing and puffing about newness and shifting notions of decency and people wearing the wrong ties to dinner and saying actual things instead of bland witticisms? Check. Daisy is crying about the unfairness of it all while Carson harrumphs? Check and Check. There’s a point when beloved characters doing their beloved thing turns into a sort of character-arc treadmill, and Downton has certainly arrived that point faster than loose morals and flapper-era laxness stormed the gates of August Country Estates in Britain.

And that brings me to my biggest quibble with the show. The dialogue has become so ham-handed, period-incorrect, and self-explanatory that it almost kills me to listen to it. My blunt imitation of last night’s key bits is as follows:

“Indeed, your father is very offended by not being included in the memorial committee, for he places great stock in his own importance, yet time shall heal this not-so-grievous slight.” “I am worried that if I sleep with this man, I will lose my reputation. Yet it seems that sexual compatibility is important to a relationship. What to do?” “Your upstart ways are very offensive to me even though I sense that you are correct underneath it all, for I am a stickler for propriety.” “Allow me to provide some comic relief by pointing out the under-Butler’s blackened hair!”

Precious little room is left for real feeling and momentum to emerge from beneath this stifling verbal blanket.

Of course, there’s certain television category for shows that recycle plots ad nauseam, are conservative with character arcs, and feature unimaginative, flat, and simplistic dialogue but keep viewers hooked: It is, indeed, a Soap Opera. And the very delicious soapy quality that set Downton apart from other series of its type and made it popular in the first place has now gone around the bend, and wrapped a veneer of staleness around the latter seasons.

Will fans (including me, occasionally) still tune in and enjoy the show? Of course. Yet it has to be said: there’s nothing about Downton that remains good television, except for Maggie Smith. Although I do have a radical soft spot for Branson, particularly if he decides to return to his IRA roots and blow something up — preferably the storehouse where next season’s scripts are kept.