It was while watching the previews for next week’s episode of Downton Abbey that a familiar feeling scratched the back of my head. That estate, with all of the beautiful scheming people, it seemed familiar. And then I realize: Update the show by about 60 years, transplant the abbey to Texas, and change the accents, what you have is a much classier version of Dallas.
Downton Abbey is nothing but a gussied-up version of Southfork Ranch, it turns out.
The show has always been a soap opera, of course, but this is the season I went from watching it with genuine pleasure and began, for lack of a better term, hate-watching it. Lord Grantham, Mary Crawley, Tom Branson, even Bates: I’m tired of all their stupid faces, all their never-ending crises.
Here are (possible spoilers!) the Top Five reasons why:
• THE CONSTANT DUMPING ON EDITH: We get it. She’s (supposedly) not all that attractive. And not all that nice, either, judging by the note she sent about Mary’s activities in Season One. But everybody else in this show gets fleeting happiness once in awhile; Downton seems to take perverse pleasure in showing Edith the possibility of joy, only to have it snatched away from her in (increasingly) the most public and humiliating methods possible. Is Edith a fictional character? Sure. But that character seems to be hated by her creators, and it’s unpleasant to stomach. (On the other hand: You gotta love fan-made montage videos.)
• TOM BRANSON, THE TAMED REVOLUTIONARY: Increasingly, Lady Sybil’s husband has been a plot device in search of a character. He hates your way of life! Only he keeps surrendering to it! He’s a revolutionary! Only he never quite participates in the revolution! He’s a republican … who wears white tails to dinner after a stern face from the Dowager Countess! Downton wants to have it both ways with Tom—they want him to challenge the stuffy ways of the old aristocracy, but not too much, since we’re having such fun hanging out in their mansion. Lord Grantham called him “our tamed revolutionary” this season, and that’s right. Pick a side, Tom! Set something on fire, or go away.
• BATES. I used to enjoy his long-suffering dignity. But he kept suffering, and his storyline feels like an entirely different show within the show. Set him free and send him back to Downton, or let him get shivved in prison. Either option is preferable to spending any more time with this plot line.
• ONE-DIMENSIONAL VILLAINY: This has always been a problem for the show: Miss O’Brien and Thomas the valet are obviously malevolent forces who never quite get around to anything more evil than mildly childish pranks at each other’s expense. (On the occasion Mrs. O’Brien did something really bad, she was redeemed on the show by feeling really, really badly about that one thing.) Their evil seems to have no purpose or end, except to throw up obstacles in the story’s path. The show’s only truly multifaceted villain is Mary Crawley. If Downton Abbey is Dallas, then Mary is J.R.
• LORD GRANTHAM’S INCREASING INCOMPETENCE: I enjoyed the Lord Grantham of earlier seasons, a nobleman trying to be a noble man even if stymied and perplexed by modernity. Sure, he had to marry into Cora’s money to keep the estate, but stuff happens. We’ve seen him increasingly plagued this season by bad decisions about money and bad decisions about his daughter’s health, and worst of all: plainly arrogant in the making of those decisions. I’m rooting for him to lose the estate at this point, because he deserves it.
That incompetence, it appears, is leading to a reversal of character by him and Mary. They spent the first two seasons trying, passive-aggressively, to hook her up with Matthew so the estate could be saved. Now that it has been—twice!—it appears they’re going to go to war with Matthew for control, all because he is attempting to do what they’ve done for the last two years and perpetuate Downton Abbey for the family’s future generations. It makes no sense.
Unless you’re in a soap opera.
Downton still has some saving graces, touches of humor now and again. Foremost among these graces is a great actress, Maggie Smith, who gets all the best lines, but her range is of course broader than that. This week, she had to mourn a loved one: The camera just followed her as she walked, haltingly, into the hall to meet her family. It was a silent scene, and she played it beautifully.
Those grace moments are fewer and farther between. Downton Abbey is, in some respects, about the death of Great Britain’s old aristocracy. We’ve known that all along. It used to be charming and fun and just smart enough not to make a viewer feel smart, too. Now? It’s just a soap.