Why Downton Abbey has lost its charm – TV review

Mike GristBook / Movie Reviews, Life Leave a Comment

For 5 years I have loved Downton Abbey- getting excited weeks before it came on, getting all tremulous when the gorgeous and haunting theme music came on, reading up about it and being on tenterhooks to find out what was going to happen next. But now that feeling seems to be gone, and I’m sad, puzzled, and wanting to know why.

Yesterday I turned on the TV and saw on the Guide Downton Abbey? What? I thought it had to be a repeat. No, it was episode 4. EPISODE 4?!

How did I miss that it was on? Even in Japan, which is where I was for the last 5 seasons, I knew it was on from advertising on the net, talking to my mom (who also loves it), and just somehow getting in the know. There used to be interviews with cast members everywhere. They were on the fronts of magazines. Now here it is up to episode 4 and if not for a chance sighting it would have passed me by completely.

So- we settled down to watch the opening episode of season 6. And, pfft, there was nothing. It didn’t stir the blood. I hardly enjoyed it. Every old trope we’ve seen before was repeated (the Dowager Countess enjoys needling her staff and competing with cousin Violet, staff gossip, Tomas is misunderstood, the estate needs managing, men are chasing cousin Violet, the Bates’ are on the hook for murder (three seasons later!) and etc…).

In short it kind of sucked- feeling dull, draggy, and poorly conceived. It was just a bunch of stuff happening, with no real threat introduced except the blackmail woman who was seen off at once, a vague threat to the estate going bankrupt again, and my favorite character Tom gone! Who am I supposed to root for now? Mary is a spiteful bitch, her sister is a simpering lackey, Tomas is not even evil anymore, Lord Grantham is so understanding and liberal he’s useless for nothing bar ponying up for Mary’s sexcapades, the Dowager and Violet are embroiled in endless meaningless disputes, and on it goes, churning endlessly forward.

What happened?

I start to think, how was it before? I remember reading plenty of reviews where people said it had ‘lost it’ or devolved into ‘sitcom/soap-hood’, but I never shared those feelings until now. I think back to season 1 and the opening of the news of the Titanic sinking, followed sharply by Grantham near-bankrupting the abbey. Season 2 was World War 1, and later seasons dealt with the rape of Anna, a bit of suffrage for women, and tidying up loose ends from previous stronger seasons.

I remember there used to be a palpable sense of dread in the show. There were large, terrifying events happening out there in the real world, and in many ways our Downton crew were at the forefront of them. They were closely tied to the Titanic, they led in the War, they led their community. Grantham was an important figure, torn between duty to tradition and a desire to see things go on the right path. Essentially, the lives of all these people were IMPORTANT. Even the littlest things mattered, because in a way they were a microcosm of what the whole country was facing.

There were soap-opera-ish movements amongst all that, of course. There was romance and class strife too. Mary’s long courtship with Matthew was a big draw for many. Her later ‘efforts’ just confirmed how annoying, spoilt and self-satisfied she is. The world has moved on from Downton, and this keeps being a theme in the show. The characters realize they are not important any more, and so the things they do are not urgent or pressing. They are just normal human lives.

Of course there are things going on in the world. Suffrage is rising up. There will still be issues of race and class that are truly bloody and divisive. Germany is getting on the path to World War 2. The world is changing for bad as well as good, but our characters in the sweet old Downton bubble don’t feel it all. They just get on with their petty soap-opera schtick without any of the content of earlier seasons.

It would be like Star Trek: The Next Generation, where the whole episode was on the Enterprise and nothing science-fictiony happened. It was just a regular day. Guinan served people in ten-forward, oh, someone got drunk! No problem, they didn’t get in trouble. There were some Tribbles in the air ducts, but don’t worry, Geordie collected them all up, neutered them, and handed them out to the Enterprise kids as cute little pets.

There is no threat. The palpable sense of dread is gone. With Anna’s rape, rather than just stringing out the investigation, couldn’t we have crashed hard into women’s suffrage? Why isn’t Edith rocking out passionately for the vote? Why is she so wan and whimsical after 6 damn seasons of being downtrodden, and not driven with a fury to change the way single mothers are seen? She’s got a whole bloody newspaper. Why is Grantham so liberal and accommodating it defies explanation, when he would be the perfect foil for railing against?

There’s no conflict now. It’s like watching porridge, warm and goopy and a waste of time. It’s the primitive heaven that was the first version of The Matrix, that was so perfect peoples’ subconsciouses kept trying to wake up from it. It’s warm and muffling and safe as a muffler pulled up round your face.

Will I watch more? I don’t know. If it’s on. It’s a shame to see the mighty so fallen. The worst thing is- the whole episode didn’t seem to set up anything at all for the coming episodes. It’s all so blah….

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