You Can Always Go...Downton

Soap operas have never held much appeal for me, and I'm not just talking about daytime melodramas like Days of Our Lives or whatever. I never really got into things like Beverly Hills, 90210 or Melrose Place, either. The first season of Revenge is on my to-watch list, so we'll have to see how that goes. No, the only soap opera to ever grab my attention and hold it in its vise-grip is Downton Abbey. That's probably because it mixes soapy elements with highbrow period drama so well. No matter what the reason it holds me (and a huge number of other Americans) in its thrall, it's definitely one of my favorite shows of the past ten years.

Which is weird when you consider how inconsistent it's been. The first season was pretty much flawless. The second season was all over the place, but still managed to snag a spot on my Best of 2012 list. The third season did a lot to resolve the snags of the second, but introduced a couple of its own. See that picture below? Any text after that has a good chance of containing spoilers, so watch out. You've been fairly warned.

One of the things that confused me is which storylines had a lot of time devoted to them, and which ones were glossed over. With such a large cast, it can be difficult to make sure everyone gets airtime. So why did we spend ten minutes on Matthew and Mary's wedding - an event two seasons in the making - while the boring adventures of Ethel the Prostitute Maid got a multi-episode arc? Why the media blast about Shirley MacLaine being cast as Cora's mother if she's going to have such a limited role? And if we're going to stick all of my problems in one paragraph, we should probably talk about the slog of Bates' stint in prison as well. The characters simply aren't as interesting when they're removed from Downton and off on their own. It would have been fine to raise the specter of Bates being sent up for his ex-wife's death, and maybe even him being convicted could have led down some interesting roads. They just didn't. His seemingly endless languish in jail didn't work within the context of the show as a whole at all, so scenes of his cellmate being mean or Anna running around conducting Law & Order-style interviews were a real grind.

Oh! I have one more bone to pick, but this one is more about writing and presentation than storyline. When Dan Stevens made it clear that he wouldn't come back for the fourth season of the show, not even for a couple of episodes, the only option left was to kill off a major character. I have no issue with the necessity of Matthew's death, but it was laughably telegraphed. After meeting his son and heir, it's tellingly announced that he should drive himself home, and as he scoots along with a beatific smile on his face, not paying particular attention to the road, the other characters explicitly tell each other how WONDERFUL Matthew is and how IMPORTANT and WHAT WOULD THEY DO WITHOUT HIM? I mean, come on. That's what an seventh-grade drama student would turn in for an assignment about foreshadowing.

All of this grousing makes it sound like I hated this season, which is far from the truth. Everything aside from the problems mentioned above was spot-on. The build-up to Edith's wedding and the subsequent disaster (Hey, did she just agree to have an affair with her editor? Did I interpret that correctly?). Robert's mismanagement of the Downton finances and his unwillingness to change his accounting practices. The heartbreak of Sybil's childbirth and possibly preventable death. Mrs. Hughes' cancer scare. The love quadrangle down in the kitchen. Thomas being outed to the staff. Everything having to do with O'Brien. And those are just the big stories - there were plenty of delightful fleeting scenes, from Mrs. Patmore's ill-intentioned suitor to Mrs. Hughes catching Jimmy and Alfred lounging on the family sofas. I may never be a fan of most soaps, but Downton Abbey proves that with enough care, any genre can be riveting television.

Downton Abbey - Season 1: A+
Downton Abbey - Season 2: B-
Downton Abbey - Season 3: B


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