Stumble through time – Downton Abbey
Downton Abbey is a period drama that came highly recommended. Everybody I know who has seen this TV series raves (positively) about it. After debuting in 2010 it has only taken me four years to finally watch the first season. Being a British drama, this meant only 7 episodes.
First reaction was a sense of general enjoyment, enough that I then borrowed season 2 from the library. So, what did I like about this series? Well, first response would be to adamantly celebrate the two old ladies dominating the cast: the amazing Penelope Wilton and the incomparable Maggie Smith. These two women steal every scene they grace with their presence. I liked the visuals, it is a very pretty set. The costumes are gorgeous. The actors do a good job with what they are given. I quite enjoy the concept of following both the upstairs and downstairs of a very well to do country estate during the early decades of the 20th century.
However, some discussion has presented several very real and substantial issues I have with the program. My mother’s first reaction to the first season was, ‘This is so Pride and Prejudice’. Of which I quite agree. However, Jane Austin’s work took place over a hundred years earlier. Does this mean that English society did not change one bit over the intervening time? I am not an expert in English history (far from it), but even I feel things must have changed even a little during that time. Instead, so much seems to have been borrowed from those classic stories, the plots, the petty trials of the upper class men and woman, the cadence of their speech.
The scenes in Downton are supposed to be snapshots of daily life. Unfortunately I am left confused about much of what happens during the day – primarily for the Earl’s family. Do the women really spend 14 hours dressing, drinking tea and eating dinner? The script makes tantalizing suggestions of philanthropy activities beyond the walls of the house. Why do we never hear about them?
I like the everyday drama’s they make the best stories for the setting and visuals. They also make some of the best episodes; such as when Mrs Crawly is searching for an occupation in the village, the day the fair comes to town or the flower show. All of these are everyday sort of events taken from the perspective of the Family and Staff. Unfortunately not nearly enough time is spent on these little things.
In fact I have several complaints about the writing. First, why is every relationship a love triangle? Seriously! If a romance is teased between two characters, a third is suddenly introduced. Does this mean that the only desirable partner in life is one that another already covets? When one party loses interest in pursuing the relationship, will the other person lose interest as well? I get that we are watching a TV series, but not every relationship on the planet is a love triangle or quadrangle. Sometimes, two people meet, become friends and fall in love. They can have all sorts of tiny disturbances as personal opinions and biases are bound to colour their perspectives on various life things. The current set up is simply too melodramatic for me to maintain my suspension of disbelief.
Second, why does everyone like Mary? She is a selfish, self-centred bitch and yet no one (except the middle daughter) seems to recognize this. In fact, if a man is introduced to the scene he instantly is attracted to her. Does she produce a particularly intoxicating mix of pheromones? Now, I don’t have a problem with the concept of dislikable lead character. I even appreciate the idea the creators have in giving Mary some sympathetic scenes to create a more balanced character. I don’t think they were successful in what they did, but that is me. Still, more of the other characters should be able to see her for the bitch she is. Really, this illustrates a greater problem of not fleshing out the characters. Edith the second daughter is as bland as board. Their mother’s American background has never had any bearing on the character. I think the writers have been a little more successful with the great Lord Grantham and his recently chosen heir. Similar to the Family, many of the servants are one dimensional stock characters fixated on their good or evil perspectives.
Third, what is the timeline? So, the first seven episodes span a two year period. The problem there is no sense of time flow as the episodes occur. The stuff that happens in the first episode or two is still fresh gossip by the end of the season. Really, do people have so little happening to cling to the petty gossip two years old? Perhaps things are spread out more? The problem is I cannot tell. There are not clear markers to indicate the changing of the seasons. For all intents and purposes all the episodes could have occurred over a four month period. There is nothing wrong with spanning a two year time, just make sure that comes out in the dialogue. The characters should have been referencing new scandals and incidents (that we obviously didn’t see).
This brings me to one of my brother’s greatest complaints and soon to my primary issue – Mary and the Turkish Ambassador. This episode has everything that is wrong with the series in it. It creates a love triangle/quadrangle with Mary and her consortium of male admires. The Turk is instantly taken with the eldest daughter of the Earl’s house. So much so, he goes beyond the acceptable flirting to convincing her to have sex with him during his one night stay. Then, in keeping with the ridiculous series of improbable events he dies upon her. Melodrama at its best, I suppose. So, of course, Mary cannot be found out. She enlists the help of her maid and mother to move the hefty Turk to his room where he will be found in the morning. Naturally, this is scandalous. Naturally there is a witness (of sorts). What is not natural is that it continues to be a threat to the family. At first it is one of the footmen that starts to spread the rumour of Mary’s misdeed. Then Mary’s own sister writes the Embassy about what she has overheard to have happened that night. Ok, footman is an ass and stirring up trouble – whatever. Edith however has as much to lose from the scandal brought to the family if this is flung around town. Also, the threat of such a scandal is still potent nearly four years later, when it is brought out once more in the first episode of the second season. What was a stupid plot to begin will not die. For an important diplomant, whose signature was supposedly necessary for peace with Albania – there were never any political ramifications. The only lingering plot device is the potential to tarnish Mary’s reputation – which shouldn’t be that great as every should already know she is a bitch. I simply do not care! I am tired of this thread and wish it would finally get buried beneath a mountain of granite never to see the light of day again.
The second season commences two years after the end of the first season. I still don’t understand the purpose these time jumps have. Well into the First World War there is much you could talk about. Instead, the writers are busy trying to ramp up the drama between all the couples in the story while only paying passing homage to the struggles of the times. I am not impressed and just about ready to wash my hands of the entire series.