Series five of Downton Abbey premiered in the UK on Sunday night, which normally would have had ISPs across the US humming as people furtively downloaded the hit British drama. Yet, something curious happened instead: In the UK, only 8.5 million viewers tuned in for the premiere episode — the lowest since the programme debuted — and my Twitter was oddly silent on the subject of Downton Abbey when I checked it in the morning.
It would appear that the bloom is off this particular English rose.
What happened to Downton Abbey? As we look at the first episode of the fifth season (which viewers in the US will officially be seeing in January of next year, assuming there are any with enough interest to do so by then), it’s worth casting our eyes back over the previous series, which, many argue, is when the show really began to go off the rails.
While the first two series were tight, masterful, trenchant commentaries on society with splendid costumes, elegant storylines, and fascinating characters, something began to happen with the third and fourth series. Put bluntly, the show began to struggle to find a reason to keep airing, which is always a sure ticket on the path to disaster for television.
Some shows need to be allowed to quietly run their course and end on a high note, leaving viewers, if anything, longing for just one more series. Instead, Downton Abbey has been allowed to drag on, and the writing has become lazy, formulaic, and at times actively irritating. The programme’s lustre has faded as the writers cast about through soapy plots, cheap shots, and utter lack of character development, with people both upstairs and down feeling frozen and stiff.
In series four, viewers were subjected to a growing list of indignities, perhaps the lowest of which was the utterly terrible plotline surrounding Anna and Bates. The two characters, once the darling of television for their delightful and fascinating love story paired with their deep devotion to each other, have become horrible parodies of themselves. What happened to Anna in the last series wasn’t a nuanced, carefully thought out incident that would add to the story — it was a cheap, lazy attempt at sparking reactions from viewers and forcing more people to tune in to see what happened next. The growing discord between Anna and Bates as she grappled with her rape also wasn’t intended to be a commentary on the aftermath of rape and recovery, but was instead a cheap plot device.
To see beloved characters used for nothing more than driving lazy plots is frustrating enough, but Downton Abbey didn’t stop there when it came to insulting viewers. This series opens with an episode that seems like it would have been a better fit on HBO or some squalid Downton Abbey After Dark-esque programme — and I’m hardly a prude about sexuality.
While the show hasn’t shied away from sexuality, sex, and its potential consequences, in the past, it’s been relatively reserved on the subject. Apparently it felt the need to ring in the mid-twenties with an episode resembling a French farce, with sex every which way but sideways (except for poor Isis). It’s perhaps the oldest and cheapest appeal to television viewers; if you can’t make a show interesting, you may as well tart it up to see if people will tune in for that. Viewers don’t seem to be impressed, and many reviewers in particular had nothing but sharp words for the Downton peep show that appeared on ITV over the weekend.
While the 1920s did mark a shift in attitudes about sexuality and relationships and it would have been interesting to explore that, Downton didn’t take on the challenge in a meaningful and interesting way. It obviously did it for shock value, to spark reactions from fans, and while it may have accomplished that goal, it also seems to have backfired, because many viewers are seeing right through the cheap ploy.
Downton Abbey was a fantastic show at its peak, and now it feels like a sad, tragic ghost of itself that’s being slowly and painfully flogged down the lane on its way to the knacker’s. Viewers and many former fans recognise that the programme has run its course, but Fellowes and ITV apparently have not, though this series may mark its ultimate demise if viewer numbers do not perk up, and I cannot bring myself to be terribly sad about that. While I once loved Downton, I’m not sure I need to venture back through its halls again, either above or below stairs.
It may be that Fellowes is best suited to film (Gosford Park was and remains one of the greatest period films of all) or tight miniseries of one or two seasons; had Downton had a limited run from the start, perhaps he would have worked better with constraints in mind. It’s time for Fellowes to put this one to rest and consider moving on to new projects.
He can be credited with sparking the huge and sudden resurgence of period shows, with multiple networks having their go at trying to capture the sense of nostalgia that seems to be especially acute right now, as we all long for something of an era when the economy is not collapsing and we’re not being subjected to growing political turmoil. That’s no small beer, all things considered; and this is Fellowes’ chance to take what’s left of his credibility and appeal and bring it to something fresh and new.
Dare I say it, it’s also time for him to move beyond this particular period, as well. While Downton Abbey and Gosford Park were both fine explorations of their era, Fellowes needs to expand his creative range; he’s milked what he can of the turn of the 20th century.