13 November 2011

Downton Abbey from drama to soap

Last year the first series of Downton Abbey saw a great, new character drama come to British television. It was the only reason I had for watching ITV (besides Back to the Future, Quantum Leap and Poirot - most of which are repeats anyway). I think the only reason I didn't blog about the first series at the time was because that was around the time my laptop stopped working.

The first series was a strong, character-based drama which really made us care for all those involved, even when they were at odds with each other. The programme, much like its Edwardian setting, was stately and reserved on the surface but full of interest and emotion underneath.

Though the series was framed by dramatic historical events, the sinking of the Titanic and the start of World War One,* it was most successful when it was about the characters. The most dramatic event of the first series (a socially inappropriate sexual encounter followed by a sudden death) was actually rather overblown and unintentionally got kinda funny -well I was weirdly amused by it anyway. As ridiculous as that plot seemed at first, it earned its place because the ongoing fallout led to plenty of great complications and interpersonal drama, which is the lifeblood of the programme.

Then we have the second series, which finished last week.
Being set during the First World War I suppose it had a fairly serious and dramatic backdrop to work against. A maid training to become a secretary and power plays between footmen and valets are not the things any programme set between 1914 and 1918 should be focusing on. A variety of war issues were introduced: the young men joining up; the older man being made to feel useless; the women pitching in to help; the young aristocrats rolling up their sleeves and mucking in even as the older ones try to shield their servants from conscription.

Unfortunately some of the character moments were somehow lacking and the plot, rather than being character-driven, seemed to rely upon a series of unlikely events. There were still very good performances and I felt the same about most of the characters, but events took a turn for the melodramatic and I found myself unable to take parts of it seriously. Below are some examples of the ridiculousness.
  • The unrequited love (which is unrequited on both sides, for no good reason) became a love triangle. This meant there were a lot of longing gazes and significant looks and people being awfully noble. Then the third part of the love triangle offered to back out, but she got killed off anyway so that the guy didn't have to make an ignoble decision, which was very unfair on her as she was the more deserving girl.
  • The middle sister (who is treated as though she is both ugly and socially inept, even though she isn't) starts helping with the war effort on a farm. After driving a tractor for what seems like a day (but is actually several weeks, or even months)* she ends up becoming friendly with the farmer and they kiss in the barn. Then she stops having to go to the farm and... well that's it. I think it was meant to show us that she can be likeable, but I never thought otherwise. All the mean stuff she did in the previous series was a direct result of her elder sister being bully.
  • A long-lost heir appeared. He was rescued from the Titanic and got amnesia and lived as a Canadian and got very badly burned in the war. Except it turns out he was probably a fake, and then he disappeared. And all this episode-long storyline goes to prove is that poor Edith (who is treated with nothing but pity by her family, for no real reason) is gullible, and that Julian Fellowes has been taking plotting advice from US soap operas.
  • The most cunning character (a man who managed to get invalided back to Blighty & put in charge of his former colleagues) spent all his savings on black market food, only to discover that the dodgy bloke he met in the pub had sold him substandard goods. It's like you can't even trust criminals! Seriously, this guy was the best schemer in the whole show, but apparently his IQ was damaged along with his hand. Incidentally he was keeping his black market stash in a shed with big windows.
  • The heir to the estate doesn't die in the war (though his much healthier-looking subordinate does die, of white makeup and coughing), but is paralysed and unable to have children, which leads to worry about the succession again. Until he miraculously recovers the ability to walk, which first manifests as he is heroically saving a dropped tea tray. He is improbably mostly recovered and able to walk quite well few months later. Though in fairness it might have been longer than that, it's hard to tell.*
  • There is an inappropriate and confusing near-miss dalliance between the lord and a maid. I'm not sure why this happened, except that her ladyship (who is normally loved by her husband) had been a bit stupid and self-involved just recently, presumably so that we wouldn't judge the lord too much for kissing a maid. Then the lord got very angry at his daughter for wanting to marry the chauffeur, even though she was conducting her socially-inconvenient relationship in the most reasonable and honorable way she could.

Don't get me wrong, there were some plotlines I really enjoyed and I'm looking forward to seeing continued next year. However I hope that next series, without having to go up against the First World War, the programme will go back to being a little more sensible.
Either that or they need to introduce a scandalous young cousin to be a Bright Young Thing and/or a flapper and have the roaring twenties invade the house in the form of ridiculous hats and people doing the Charleston. I can almost see the shocked disapproval on Maggie Smith's face, and I think that's the one of main things that kept me watching this series.

* Time in Downton moves very strangely.
The entirety of the First World war passes in about four episodes, meaning it's roughly a year per episode. A baby conceived part way through one episode, is big and thriving, despite greatly reduced circumstances, by the next episode. However the characters' relationships don't change in the time between episodes, and they seem to return to conversations they must have had months, or even a year ago. It must be the anti-Narnia because despite all the time that's passed it is never, ever winter.


  1. "It must be the anti-Narnia because despite all the time that's passed it is never, ever winter. "

    Good quote :D It's a very, very strange show at times. Having recently watched Atonement I can see what they're aiming at. Sadly they missed and seem to have become Dynasty in period hats...

  2. Hah! Yeah. :)
    Though it'll be the 1920s soon, so the period hats will be much more amusing.

    I've not actually seen Atonement, but I think I know what you mean. The first series mostly hit the right note (hilarious, midnight corpse carrying aside), which is why the second series seemed so overblown.

    Also I was really confused when war were declared because I thought it was still 1912, maybe 1913.