The Downfall of “Downton Abbey”

[SPOILER ALERT: If you have not seen Season 4, Episode 2 of “Downton Abbey”, which was shown last evening on PBS in America, and intend to watch it, you may wish to bookmark this post and read it later.]

There comes a point in the life of a television series where you have to ask yourself, “Why am I bothering?”  Americans often refer to said moment as “jumping the shark”, the origins of which you can learn here.  One can get into lively, often heated debates as to when beloved television shows started to go down the tubes.  For example, did “The Cosby Show” begin its decline when Denise returned home with her step-daughter Olivia, or when Cousin Pam came to live with the Huxtables?  Did “Roseanne” go off the rails when Darlene became a goth, or when Becky eloped with Mark? For me, last night was the definitive moment when “Downton Abbey” strapped on the water skis, and flew off into oblivion.

The season premiere of “Downton Abbey” a week ago here in the U.S. was hyped considerably on PBS, the American network which screens it after it has been shown in Britain, in the weeks leading up to its showing.  In fact the network commissioned a retrospective on the first three seasons of the program, with a few clips from the impending fourth season, tied into a fund-raising campaign.  The event was hosted by the well-known, Oscar-winning actress Susan Sarandon.

At the time, I wondered why an actress of such considerable standing in the film industry would have been asked to present such a thing.  I now suspect it was done because PBS had seen what was coming.  When executives at the network screened Season 4 of “Downton Abbey”, and realized that many Americans were going to sour on it, they further realized they had better get their wagons in a circle and start the pledge drive now, rather than wait for the inevitable fallout.

While the two-hour premiere last week was awful, in a saccharine sort of way, leaving me and many others wondering why we had bothered to tune in, for PBS it was a resounding success on the numbers.  “Downton Abbey” drew 10.2 million viewers that night, the highest for a season premiere in PBS history.  Although my British readers may not be particularly impressed by that figure, keep in mind that PBS in general does not have nearly as many regular viewers as do the American commercial networks, since many Americans view PBS as a predominantly leftist, elitist organization (and rightly so.)

However mediocre the premiere, I suspect that the aforementioned, preemptive “Downton Abbey” retrospective program, tied into a fundraising campaign for the network, was put together because the executives anticipated the reaction that I and others had last night to Episode 2.  Anna Bates – one of the decidedly admirable and decent characters on the show – was brutally raped down in the kitchens of the great house, while the rest of the household was upstairs, attending a concert.  Some of the comments I read on Twitter last night included various expressions of profanity (which I shall not reprint here); observations that the series was “a sincere disappointment”; and even a shocked “No, no, no #DowntonAbbey” from a prominent conservative commentator.

Regular readers will recall my initial aversion to “Downton Abbey” when it premiered on “Masterpiece” here in the U.S. several years ago.  Despite all its attention to detail, the fundamental problem has always been the unbelievability of the series.  No matter how often the creators and producers of the show talk about how many of the stories and incidents were drawn from real-life experiences, the collective Achilles’ heel of the program is the on-screen relationship between employer and employee.  While today a countess may choose to be close friends with her servants, or allow them to speak to her in a familiar fashion, such behavior is still unthinkable in some aristocratic houses – and would have been wildly inappropriate a century ago, when “Downton Abbey” is set.

Yet like others who rolled their eyes over the liberties the servants were taking with the family, and the family’s seeming inability to behave like titled aristocrats, by Season 2 I decided to suspend my disbelief because “Downton Abbey” was simply a good soap opera, rather than an accurate, historical reenactment or a great piece of literature.  Like in any melodrama, the twists and turns, the eavesdropping and intercepted letters, and the surgically-altered imposter evil twin princess locked in the boathouse with a bomb about to go off are what keep you hooked on such programs.  You try not to stop and think too much about the reasonable assertion, “This couldn’t possibly happen,” because you are being entertained.

Unfortunately, what happened to Anna Bates last evening was not only brutal and pointless, it completely destroyed the illusion of the show.  How the rape itself occurred, and how Anna and Mrs. Hughes each behaved subsequently, were all so utterly unbelievable, so completely out of character with these people whom we have come to know from the beginning of the series, that I was snapped out of a stately home in early Jazz-Age Britain and back into early 21st century America.  The whole thing would have been laughable, had not the action in question been so crude and so deadly serious.

I am told by several friends that there is good to come in Season 4 of the series, and that there is even a solid, pro-life message to boot. That is all very well, but I’m afraid the spell has been broken. I no longer care what happens to the characters on “Downton Abbey”, and that is fatal to the continuation of the series.  Without that element of fantasy to keep me and others who were as appalled by last night’s program as I was, hooked, I suspect that there will not be a Series 5.  Frankly, at this point there doesn’t deserve to be one.

Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt) on "Downton Abbey"

Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt) on “Downton Abbey”

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6 thoughts on “The Downfall of “Downton Abbey”

  1. I didn’t like this plot development (to say the least). It was upsetting. It added insult to an already slighting use of the fabulous Dame Kiri as a guest star. It spoiled a fun light bit of entertainment. That said, when I was kept awake for a couple of hours thinking about it last night, what I was thinking about was how this dislike and upset and feeling of having something good spoiled was just one tiny miniscule facet of the feelings of the many women who really survive sexual assault. So there is a part of me that thinks that it was “done right” in a way, because I think it’s better that if you’re going to have a character be raped it ought to be upsetting rather than handled too lightly. Gosh, the world can be so awful. People can be so cruel. (I sincerely hope there were no women watching for whom this episode reopened wounds, although it seems likely that there were.)

    However, on a bigger level, I think this was a terrible story choice. It seems to me that this awful thing that’s happened to Anna is actually all about Bates: it’s practically the first thing out of her mouth. It’s not, don’t tell anyone because I’m so ashamed, or, I can’t stand to tell anyone because I can’t bring myself to believe this has actually happened; it’s, don’t tell my husband because he might commit a crime. Now the boring lovey-dovey couple has a plot for the season and it’s all, will Bates figure it out, will Bates get revenge on the man, will Bates get caught? What will Bates do? So it seems like this woman has been hurt and has been given this pain and trauma for the sake of a male character having something to do. Maybe I’m presuming too much. Anyway, there were many better ways to develop this couple’s story other than the manipulative and childish plot twist chosen here.

    The fact that she was so beaten up, and that her attacker was a stranger who people already didn’t like (not to mention that she’s a married woman with a spotless reputation), made it hard for me to believe that Anna and Mrs Hughes would try to cover up what happened rather than trying to seek some kind of justice. Nevertheless, I’m willing to say it’s not totally beyond belief. Still, let’s be honest, this is a pretty dumb show. I don’t think it has the credentials to claim some kind of hard-hitting look at the trauma of rape victims or the history of sexual violence. And so I stand by my initial reaction that this was a really exploitative intrusion; which actually *is* pretty much in keeping with the show’s track record in general.

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  2. Funny. I couldn’t bring myself to watch the first episode of this season. I don’t know why. I think I’m just over it. This blog post has convinced me there’s no way I’m watching it. That just stinks.

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  3. For me it has been DOWN TURN Abbey since the first series, but it is still compulsive viewing even though totally unrealistic and growing ever more so. We are doomed to at least one more series (it is already being made) and no doubt it will continue on until the Grand Funeral of the Dowager Duchess, aka Maggie Smith, all black plumes and snorting horses, tossing their heads in the frosty morning, with the family solemnly walking behind and the servants gathering beyond the bounds of the graveyard in respectful, if grieving silence.

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  4. Pingback: When Downton Abbey finally jumped the shark | Enough of this Tomfoolery!

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