What went wrong with Downton Abbey?

General spoiler alert for all six seasons of Downton Abbey, and a smattering of other period shows.

With the Downton Abbey movie to be released next month, I thought it might be fun to post something lighthearted by looking into this tragically popular television series.

I am an unashamedly passionate fan of period pieces, and I believe Downton Abbey is worthy of discussion for two reasons:

  1. No TV show has ever made me (and others) both love and hate it quite so intensely
  2. It helps to illustrate a point about the rising trend of anachronistic modern intrusions into pre-modern historical adaptations

I was totally wowed by the first season of Downton. That awkward scene in episode one aside, it was love at first sight and I was truly astounded that such a well-written period drama wasn’t based on any novel or literature from the period.

Like a crack addict, I consumed all seven episodes in a matter of hours. (I might have stretched it over two days but I can’t recall now.)

Excited and a little anxious about whether they could repeat such good, addictive television a second time round, I eagerly bought season two. I found it just as good as, if not better than, the first, and I spent several days happily mired in the atmosphere of upper-class rural England in the early 1900s. The season two Christmas special was so perfect I really didn’t see how they could improve upon it, or where the show would go from there.

I had to wait a year or so for season three, during which time nothing else really hit the spot in the same way, and I found myself rewatching the first two seasons so often I could quote half the episodes by heart.

At last the first episode of season three aired… and it all went downhill from there.

What had happened? Why did it feel so different? I couldn’t put my finger on it, but kept watching each new episode, hoping that the first few might just be a bit off and eventually the show would return to that good, old Downton “feel” I’d been craving.

Of course, it never did. Not really. Mind you, I still watched the following four series (gritting my teeth getting through season five in particular). Why, though? Nostalgia? Residual addiction? The vague hope that the show would get “good again”?

To be fair, it did redeem itself slightly in season six. For one thing, they finally hired an actor with some actual chemistry with Michelle Dockery (Mary), but admittedly Matthew Crawley is a hard act to follow.

downton-abbey-season-6-christmas-finale

So what went wrong with Downton Abbey?

Could it be, as has been suggested, because the show moved away from the overarching theme of the gradual decline of a classist society to focus on the characters and their relationship dynamics?

Certainly this is one reason, but I think it goes deeper than that.

By the time season three came around, Downton was an undeniable hit, and the creators knew it. Thus there developed what I can only describe as a self-consciousness in the dialogue and direction that seasons one and two were blissfully free of.

It was as though the writers suddenly became aware of the show’s hefty following and felt the need to pander to it. Rather than unapologetically portraying situations and conversations accurately – one of the show’s greatest strengths up until this point – Downton’s plot points and character decisions began to feel unnatural, forced, over-explained or over-the-top. In short, the show lost its authenticity.

It was as though the writers were trying to depict what they thought the viewers wanted, rather than just portraying things as they would have been. This meant the loss of such wonderfully non-PC lines between two male characters as “we must have a care for feminine sensibilities. They are finer and more fragile than our own”.
Just brilliant.

One of the main things that made Downton so good in its early stages was its believability. Soap opera aside, it did a marvellous job portraying the way people thought and behaved in the depicted era. I firmly believe this contributed greatly to its enormous appeal. And there can be no doubt this is the very thing that was lost as the series continued.

As each season progressed, the show descended into the unlikely, to the improbable, to the downright unbelievable.

The crowning moment, I think, is when Lady Mary decides to spend a week in a hotel sleeping with Lord Gillingham because “what could be more important, to make sure that side of things are right before we tie one another together forever?”

Uhh… what?

This moment was possibly only topped when her father, Lord Grantham finds out and, far from being angry or upset or ashamed, brushes it off almost immediately, essentially telling his daughter that, hey, in these ‘modern times’, it ain’t such a big deal. 

Please.

These are postmodern ideas shoehorned into a different century, plain and simple.

I’m not denying that men and women from all classes engaged in the odd dalliance throughout history; married men have always kept mistresses, and raunchier behaviour certainly became more socially acceptable from the 1920s. But the modern notion of “sexual compatibility” simply did not exist at that time. And if anything like it did, it was certainly not a mainstream notion. It rings so false it’s laughable, if not cringeworthy.

I found myself wincing at painfully obvious postmodern slogans forced into the mouths of characters who just never would have thought, let alone said, such things.

Downton Abbey is not the only show that is guilty of this kind of historical incongruity, however.

Outlander (spoiler warning) has also begun to tread down this path. In season three, we are expected to believe that Jamie, A, couldn’t get himself out of emotional blackmail by a woman who wanted her “first time” to be with a young, attractive man – even though he’s slipped through far stickier nets in the past – and B, was actually willing to sell his body to another man so he could continue seeing his son.

AS IF!!!

I haven’t read Diana Gabaldon’s books but whether this came from her or the show, it is just bad and inaccurate writing.

Call the Midwife (set in the 1950s) is similarly guilty of this sin. It started out so wonderfully, when it was just based on Jennifer Worth’s books. Yet as soon as this material was used up and the writers made up the stories, it went down the same, dreary, well-trodden road as the rest.

It’s as if the writers sit down at some point and think, now, how can we make this show relevant to today?

Period pieces are perhaps more popular now than they’ve ever been, and certainly have never been so varied or ubiquitous.

Ten years ago, who would have guessed that a medieval fantasy series would become one of the most popular shows in television history? I remember having an argument in an online forum (back in the pre-social media days) with a guy who sneeringly suggested that the only people who liked The Lord of the Rings were lame fantasy nerds who had posters of wizards and dragons on their bedroom walls. The fantasy poster that happened to be on my own bedroom wall at the time notwithstanding, I was outraged at the slight and certain he was wrong.

I would like to think (as I generally do) that I was right after all. The Lord of the Rings movies grossed $3 billion, not including The Hobbit franchise, which is certainly evidence of their mainstream appeal. The success of these films paved the way for shows like Game of Thrones, with fantasy television firmly carving out a place for itself in the mainstream.

Why do I mention all this? Because I think this is good evidence that people really enjoy being immersed in a time period that is not their own. Obviously contemporary films and shows enjoy similar appeal as well, but no-one can deny the popularity that has led to the plethora of period pieces emerging all over the screen – big and small. Even shows like Stranger Things – set in the recent past – have exploded in popularity, and I believe this is in part because people love nostalgia, and feeling what it was like to live in a different time. (Plus the lack of mobile phone technology adds suspense to a plot.)

Sadly though, even Stranger Things began to tread down the “relevancy” road in its latest season. And don’t even get me started on Mary Queen of Scots

As with the rest, I believe Downton was, at least in part, so popular because it successfully immersed its viewers into a different era. But by anachronistically forcing modern narratives into historical periods where they do not belong, it shatters that immersive experience and thrusts one back into the present.

I imagine this is intentional on the part of the writers, as this sort of thing is generally underlined by the condescending attitude that the class, race and gender-related problems that existed in earlier times have been resolved by the enlightened thinking of our own present day. However, what the writers of these shows and films do not seem to grasp is that these very differences add enormously to their appeal and popularity.

If our own times are so enlightened, why do people so enjoy watching and learning about eras and civilisations that are not similar to our own?

One show worth mentioning that so far has remained completely free from this sort of forced wokeness (as far as I can tell) is The Crown, and its critical acclaim is utterly deserved, as far as I’m concerned. I only hope that it remains like this, and avoids falling into the trap of so many other pieces of period television, that seemingly seek to glorify the present day, to rewrite history, rather than present stories in an accurate, objective and unbiased fashion.

Having said all of this, I will probably still go and see the Downton Abbey movie. Why? Because I’m curious. Have they learned their lesson? Will it actually be a decent film? Will they stick to historically accurate dialogue, mentalities and character decisions?

Probably not. They will probably bow to the 21st century political agenda in some way or other – and if so, I will be disappointed. And I’d like to think that, in their heart of hearts, everyone else will be, too. To the writers and producers, I say this: stop trying to rewrite history and shove your political agenda down our throats. For pity’s sake, let television just be television.

Image caption: Mary and Matthew, played by Michelle Dockery and Dan Stevens. Copyright: ITV Studios

18 thoughts on “What went wrong with Downton Abbey?

  1. Astute observations, Anna. My wife didn’t like Season 2; she said it had too much WWI “action” in it. Season 2 was my favorite season precisely BECAUSE it had so much WWI scenes. WWI isn’t really talked about as much here in the US because it was dwarfed — historically speaking — by the WWII effort (4 million personnel mobilized, 100K deaths for WWI; 16 million personnel mobilized,

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  2. 420K deaths for WWII). I recognize, though, that WWI is MUCH more central to the histories of modern Australia, NZ, UK, Germany, & Turkey. That makes Season 2’s focus on WWI much more central to the Downton characters’ lives.

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  3. News flash Anna h has just hung ,drawn and quartered the incursion of political correct sentiment in classic TV’s style. As you quiet rightly highlighted the appeal of such classics is in their ability to remove us from our everyday reality,and take the viewer to at least in perception to a gentler world of finer sense, I believe the resonance of appeal here is monocultural.A really pleasant read .

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  4. Downton was definitely a melodrama, and definitely patchy. Julian Fellowes can’t write crime to save his life. There are whole episodes that should have been scrapped, including anything to do with Bates possibly being a criminal. The writing in those episodes was so bad and boring that the only thing keeping me watching was Pretty Things to Look at on the Screen. Same goes for anything involving the York hospital.
    One redeeming story arc of later seasons was the Edith crisis, but they were still reaching with that.

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  5. Oh! And the stupid “Matthew can walk again! Yay!” plot point. Instead of actually adressing the reality of crippled returned soldiers. I think that was a missed opportunity.

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  6. I think the authors have one or two good stories lined up and the show takes off in popularity they quickly run out of ideas. Stranger Things was a prime example.
    Shows run until the ratings fall off, so even great TV series always last 2-3 years longer than they should eg: Walking Dead, The Office, etc.

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  7. I wonder if part of the reason this is done is also to prop up a popular progressive narrative: everyone was always exactly the same as they are today; in pre-“enlightened” times they were just repressed and hid their vices from the public (not that postmodern productions would call these things vices.) To my mind Jane Austen’s treatment of adultery and fornication gives the lie to that particular misconception. On a different note, I will fess up to quite liking the most recent “Stranger Things” season. I rolled my eyes at the coming out scene, and even the girl power stuff felt a touch too “woke” at times, but as for the first, it was so superfluous to the story, and as to the second, ultimately I thought giving Eleven a real female friend was too sensible a move to gripe about too much.

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  8. How many TV shows had only a few good seasons before jumping the shark? The Simpsons was great until the late 1990s, and has been terrible (in my opinion) for much longer than it was good. King of the Hill had several great seasons. When the show started to go down the tubes, the creators had enough sense to end it.
    I’ve never watched Stranger Things. But I’ve seen photos of the mall where some scenes from the show were recorded. Nostalgia is a powerful thing. I’m big into old malls and department stores, because those are some of the places I remember best from the 80s.

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      1. When do you think it jumped the shark? Years ago I remember having read that the episode The Principal and the Pauper was seen as the starting point of the decline of the show.

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  9. If it’s very likely going to be promoting historical inaccuracy, postmodern falsehoods, and bad ethics then you shouldn’t go see it. Curiosity isn’t a sufficient reason.
    And most of the shows you’ve mentioned contain at least some (Downton Abbey, Stranger Things, the Crown) is not copious amounts of (Outlander, Game of Thrones) pornography (https://timfinnegansite.wordpress.com/2017/05/24/pornography-roundup/). They are objectively evil for that reason, in addition to being offensive to pious sensibilities in other ways (for some of these shows).

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  10. Thanks for this Anna! You’ve hit the nail on the head. I watch many British shows and movies… (I’m sure I’ve written about this before)… I love the old Ms Marple with Joan Hickson vs any of the later 2000 versions. Ugh. Awful! Changing plot lines, characters… and modernizing the stories?! Same goes with Call the Midwife; I don’t even have to bring up why I was aghast at this show. I fast forwarded full character plot lines because it had nothing to do with the original characters or stories.
    And both Sherlock and Endeavour did this famously in their Season 3. S1 and S2 for both were big… small but mighty. S2 was a bit different but they were chugging away… suddenly S3 for both series came and I thought, Who are these people?!!? These story lines make no sense! They got pompous and arrogant and threw story lines at us that were awful. Non-sensical.
    But.. back to Downton. I started watching it in S1, week after week. Loved it. Even got S1 and 2 on DVD. S3 was oookkayyyy. Then. WTH. S4 It felt way too modernized and soap opera-ish. I think it was at this point I saw the (North) American market wake up and fell in love or lust or whathave you and heyyyy let’s try every ill conceived plot line out there! Edit became Eeyore personified… anything bad that could happen to this lady did. Agonizingly so. Stupidly so! Bates was just accused of every small thing even if there was no proof and he actually was a decent man. The cook had a cancer scare?! What?! I think she was scared of glasses too? And what’s up with Mary having a small procedure and then she’s pregnant?! It became silly and stupid, but because it was dressed up nicely and everyone had British accents, it catapulted itself. This was not smart TV, this was only well-dressed TV. Well-dressed worshipped TV that people could “now relate” to. Alas.
    I still love Brit TV to this day… but hello, plot lines! I’d really like to hear your thoughts on Grantchester… speaking of Brits and TV and faith. It really let me down in S3… painful really (spiritually that is).

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  11. Ever seen the horrible film The Shape of Water? In one scene an ignorant restauranteur kicks out a homosexual and denies service to black people. The scene adds nothing to the movie. It must be a virtue-signaling gesture by Guillermo del Toro.

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  12. You’re spot on. Lots of virtue signalling in the movie – of the homosexual kind. Seems to be a mandatory ingredient of every production these days. We get it.

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