Saturday, March 12, 2016

The End of Downton Abbey and the State of Prestige TV

Hugh Bonneville and Michelle Suzanne Dockery in Downton Abbey.

The end of Downton Abbey was hardly the sort of dramatic, divisive event that has characterized the conclusions of so many shows from the so-called Golden Age of Television. There was no climactic shootout with neo-Nazis, no ambiguous ending scored by Journey, no revelation that ended in a Coca-Cola ad. Instead, we got a glimpse of a happy family, still completely intact from the start of the season (if not the series) and enjoying a moment of happiness amid Christmas decorations and falling snow. The finale, which aired on Christmas in the UK and this past Sunday in the States, was upbeat to an almost absurd degree, pairing off almost all of the potential romantic couplings and avoiding virtually anything that would darken the mood. In this regard, it was a fitting end to a series whose initial success and enduring popularity eventually sat at odds with general dismissal from critics.

Rather, I was struck, in the run-up to the Downton finale, by the fact that a number of critics whom I respect were so dismissive of the show, which they mostly seemed to have tuned out on seasons ago. In some respects, that’s understandable: the show had a number of flaws, most notably creator Julian Fellowes’ tendency to keep throwing his characters into the same basic situations over and over again. Indeed, Fellowes seemed to acknowledge this propensity in the finale; when Robert, the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), begins telling his wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) some news about their hapless and often-miserable middle daughter Edith (Laura Carmichael), her initial reaction is to ask: “She’s pregnant again? She’s been arrested for treason?” Just as Fellowes kept throwing new miseries at Edith, so too did he find new complications for the virtuous servants Anna and John Bates (Joanne Froggatt and Brendan Coyle), or new schemes for the nasty footman Mr. Barrow (Rob James-Collier) to hatch, and the repetitiveness of this tactic became exasperating at times.

Nevertheless, I’ll miss Downton Abbey. Aptly enough, given its concern with depicting how new mores and values slowly replace older ones, that’s partly because it feels like it represents some qualities that aren’t as valued in the most prestigious shows on TV at the moment. Downton was unapologetically a soap opera and, as this smart farewell from The New York Times’ Mike Hale points out, Fellowes and the rest of the creative team behind the show were a little surprised to see it become so wildly popular. Perhaps they shouldn’t have been; at its best, the show achieved an almost Chekhovian quality, albeit one filtered through the sensibility of modern serialized television. At other times, it indulged some of its wilder soap opera impulses: recall, for instance, the post-coital demise of a Turkish diplomat in Lady Mary’s (Michelle Dockery) bedroom.

Wherever a given episode or scene ended up on the spectrum between those two poles, Downton was always a welcome chance to watch an impressive assembly of actors do enjoyable and often very good work. Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess was far and away the most popular character, due to her steady stream of one-liners (to say nothing of Smith’s almost infallible acting chops), but even most of the actors in less flashy roles were reliably watchable, such as Raquel Cassidy as lady’s maid Phyllis Baxter. As Carson, the estate’s butler, Jim Carter imparted a pseudo-paternal sense of solicitude for the often insufferable Lady Mary, which made for one of the show’s more interesting and unconventional relationships (the strange, friendly rivalry between the Dowager Countess and in-law Isobel Crawley, played by Penelope Wilton, was another). Allen Leech’s Tom Branson, who started out as the family’s chauffeur, eloped with the youngest daughter Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay), and ultimately helped to run the estate, also had a number of very good moments over the years, as well as another complicated but intriguing relationships (strictly non-romantic) with Lady Mary. And of course there was Hugh Bonneville, whose portrayal of Robert, the Earl of Grantham and the lord of Downton, was one of the most consistently affecting performances on TV.

The show did begin to sound like a broken record after a while when it came to reiterating its themes; there were only so many times that Carson could observe that times were changing before it began to wear on me. However, it still did an excellent job of evoking a lost era (a credit to the show’s costume and production design as much as the writing and acting), especially in its early seasons, when it moved from the sinking of the Titanic through World War I and the uneasy postwar years. That sense of history on the move began to peter out in later seasons, which moved into the early and mid-1920s in a manner that seemed less reflective of specific events (barring the occasional off-camera murder of a secondary character by roving bands of Nazis) than of a general idea that society continued to change. It was probably unrealistic to expect the show to end neatly around 1939, but bringing it to a close in 1925 for no discernible reason other than the fact that that was where the narrative was when the show ended still felt like Fellowes and his crew were leaving it at loose ends, especially in an era when we expect our television shows to reach a definitive endpoint, ideally one that the writers have had in mind for a long time.

Laura Carmichael and Harry Hadden-Paton in Downton Abbey.

In that regard, the end of Downton makes for an instructive contrast with the recent conclusions of some other, more prestigious shows. The obvious point of comparison is Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men, which wrapped up in May of last year. Like Downton, Mad Men seeks to evoke a specific time period – in this case, the 1960s – and to depict how individuals responded to the societal upheavals of that era. I was a big fan of Mad Men for much of its run, but comparing it to Downton raises some uncomfortable questions about what we’ve come to value most in the newly-dominant medium of the television.

For instance, Mad Men was much more self-conscious about its artistic ambitions, aiming to serve as an aesthetic statement first and a diverting entertainment second. Weiner and his writers adopted a much more experimental approach to storytelling, and the result was a show that often felt like a short story collection with a cast of recurring characters, rather than a more unified overarching narrative. That could lead to wonderful episodes like “The Suitcase,” which explored the dynamics between the show’s two central characters, Peggy and Don, but it also led to episodes like “The Crash,” in which the Expressionistic storytelling attempted, with mixed results, to mirror the amped-up but unfocused effects of the amphetamines that a number of the people in Don’s office had taken. There was also the entire arc of Season 6, in which Weiner seemed to be trying to make Don as unsympathetic as possible, almost daring the audience to give up on him entirely.

In fact, that periodic sense of clinical detachment from the characters is one of the aspects of Mad Men, and other entries in the canon of recent Golden Age television shows, that doesn’t match up as well against Downton’s more melodramatic approach. As repetitive as Mr. Barrow’s scheming could be, Fellowes always seemed to be using it to deepen our emotional investment in Downton and its other characters, rather than making a lofty statement about materialism and American values, as Weiner often seemed to be doing with the purposely unlikable Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser). Mad Men ultimately aimed a lot higher, and achieved lot more, than Downton, but in the process it sometimes sacrificed absorbing character dynamics, emotional warmth, and sheer entertainment value for the pursuit of Big Themes.

It’s that trade-off that seems, to my mind, to be increasingly prevalent in television as it shakes off the last vestiges of its former reputation as a “vast wasteland.” Viewers increasingly expect a show to cohere into a unified whole over the course of its run, and to attempt to tackle serious thematic concerns in ever more ambitious ways. That’s mostly an admirable impulse, and it’s produced a slew of shows in recent years that I’ve loved. At the same time, though, it feels as though there’s been a devaluing of some of the more basic pleasures of television that a show like Downton exemplifies: excellent ensemble acting, enjoyable (albeit soapy) plotlines, and a sense that we as an audience can connect with characters on their own terms, rather than having to see them as symbolic of larger forces.

Michael Lueger teaches theatre classes at Northeastern University and Emerson College. He's written for HowlRound and WBUR's Cognoscentipage. He also tweets about theatre history at @theaterhistory.

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