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:
- No TV show has ever made me (and others) both love and hate it quite so intensely
- 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.
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”.
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?”
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.
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.
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