soap operas

Why It Doesn’t Matter That the Second Season of Downton Abbey Was Mediocre

Downton Abbey Season 2 on MASTERPIECE Classic Part 7
Photo: Giles Keyte

Downton Abbey ended its uneven second season last night with an almost perfect finale. All the missteps of season two — from the amnesiac, burned, maybe-Canadian, maybe-heir, to the incredible walking Matthew, to the endlessly repeated plot points (how many times can Sybil and Branson meet in the garage and discuss their future?) — are forgiven, because the Dowager got her quip on; Cora and Lord Grantham had some heartfelt, realistic conversations; and, most of all, Matthew and Mary got engaged as God and man intended. Sadly, this means we are about to enter a great Downton drought. It will be months, if not a year, until we get season three and the much-anticipated Shirley Maclaine–Maggie Smith smackdowns it will contain. The time to grapple with all the big, extant Downton-related questions is now. Here’s mine: Why does nobody care — myself included— that Downton Abbey was a mess this season? At various points, it was wildly inconsistent, consistently maddening, melodramatic beyond reason, and seemingly paced by someone who needs three minutes to count to four, and four seconds to count to a million. And yet, all of this had a negligible effect on how lovable, enjoyable, and pleasurable it was. How can this be? How can it be that it doesn’t matter that it was so middling? My working theory: It’s not because of what Downton shares with other, great, prestigious, well-crafted, critically acclaimed TV shows, it’s because of what it does not.

Let’s start with this season’s most obvious flaw, the melodrama. Outlandish plot twists have always been a part of Downton’s métier; in the first season, a dashing Turk died in a virgin’s bed, after all. But the Pamuk incident, jarring as it was, was written into the fabric of the show — no event has had more far-reaching implications — whereas most of this year’s absurd plot twists were picked up and tossed aside, like the dirty shirt in a messy room that’s not the one you’re looking for. There was Thomas’s blind, gay, suicidal soldier friend, Edith’s short-lived affair with a married man who you could barely tell was married, the aforementioned amnesiac heir, and Matthew’s magically evaporating paralysis. Other great TV show’s have plot twists that are crazier than this — if you were to write down the plot of Breaking Bad in one place, this would look reasonable — but none execute them in such a slapdash, throw it against the wall and see what works, or, rather, throw it against the wall even though it obviously won’t work, manner.

In this age of continuity obsession, Downton’s creator and writer, Julian Fellowes, seems to have regularly written story arcs he almost immediately got bored of, but rather than excising them, he filmed them instead. That married guy Edith snogged was a bore: one episode and done. Matthew couldn’t possibly stay paralyzed, but rather than think of realistic way to un-paraylze him, Fellowes just called it shock. On the one hand, this is sloppy. On the other, how refreshing! Isn’t it sort of great we didn’t have to launch an Internet campaign to explain to Mr. Fellowes that the nonsense with the Canadian in the mummy bandages was ruining the show, because he realized it first? Furthermore, the casualness with which these story lines were adopted and abandoned, again and again, also taught us how to watch the show itself: Yes, these arcs were irritating, but if the series didn’t seem to think they matter, well, why should we?

It feels relevant to point out here that, while, yes, Downton is coming from the long storied Jane Austen–Merchant Ivory tradition, it is also coming out of an East Enders one. Brits, unlike Americans, still love and watch their soap operas, and not only the ones gussied up with corsets. Downton may have all the signifiers of both quality television and intimidating Britannia — the setting, the costumes, the dialogue, the impeccable acting, and all those eviscerating accents — but it comes from a place (and was originally aired on a channel, ITV) where audiences are still open to soaps and the simpler pleasures of just wanting to know what happens next, however absurd what’s next happens to be.

Downton’s great strength is on this soapy, what happens next, will Mary be okay level. We Americans, who now prefer our soap operas to be enacted by “real” people, may have needed the costumes and accents to get over our innate skepticism of the form, but Downton has those in spades. Downton is a posh, semi-historical, drawing room fantasy about the symbiotic relationship of the British classes, and, boy, is that just the right pedigree to Trojan Horse into American living rooms a glorious pulp in which rich girls run off with Communists, Marys get their Matthews, and Grandmothers always know exactly what to say.

And speaking of that grandmother, look around Downton Abbey. There’s one thing you absolutely will not see there, and only a little because the Dowager Countess wouldn’t stand for it: antiheroes and antiheroines. There are none of those around. Yes, there are prickly, flawed folks at Downton, but if Mary Crawley is an antiheroine then so is Elizabeth Bennet. Thomas and O’Brien may be sympathetic at times, but they’re bad guys in an older school mold. Not that long ago, Matthew Crawleys may have been a dime a dozen, but his type doesn’t show up all that often in TV shows we take seriously anymore, and it’s nice to see him. On Downton, there are no sociopath mobsters you care about despite yourself, or adulterous, lying ladies’ men you are attracted to, or admirable but murderous drug dealers, or increasingly psychotic and pathetic chemistry teachers, or any other sort of semi-good but maybe really bad person with deep-seated psychological issues. It is about lovely people with lovable flaws who are trying to do the best they can most of the time. This is a universe in which poor, unlovable Edith passes for a jerk. And, honestly, it feels good — easy, pleasant, joyful — and also fresh to have so many people to root for. Don Draper and Stringer Bell, you are men among men, but if you ended up paralyzed in a wheelchair with a broken penis, part of us would know you deserved it.

Downton is not just an antidote to now — to blue jeans and horrible table manners, to class warfare and unemployment, to unvarnished ambition and the anxiety that it will never again be possible to live a simple, fulfilled life with one’s place in it clearly defined — it’s an antidote to having to work so damn hard when the TV goes on. Please come back soon.

Why It Doesn’t Matter That the Second Season of Downton Abbey Was Mediocre