[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.