Sunday, January 11, 2015

Downton Abbey Season Premiere Review: "Episode One" - The Wheels of Time

Nothing much has changed on Downton Abbey so I don't feel bad reusing an old picture.

What is Downton Abbey about?  It seems like such a simple question: Downton Abbey is about the people living in a Victorian mansion in early-twentieth century England.  Things happen.  Characters fall in love, get married, have kids (not necessarily in that order), and die.  But those things are just plot points; they’re the stuff that happens.  Instead, I’m much more interested in what Julian Fellowes, who has written or co-written every episode, has to say about this time period and these characters.  And I kind of need to know because, frankly, at this point, none of the “things that happen” are of any interest to me.

At this point in Downton Abbey’s run, it’s become pretty clear that Fellowes only has about five or six plots that he keeps recycling again and again.  Oh, Bates might have killed a guy.  Did he really do it?  Did he not?  Prepare for five or six episodes of back and forth until we ultimately discover that no, he did not kill Mr. Green.  Thomas is up to his old trick again, blackmailing Mrs. Baxter about her past indiscretions.  People are having illicit sex and getting caught because nobody on Downton Abbey can have sex without something terrible happening.*  Edith is once again making terrible, terrible decisions that can only end in heartbreak.  And Molesley is trying to become something different only to get crapped on yet again.

* Off the top of my head: Cora loses her baby, Mr. Pamuk dies, Sybil dies in childbirth, and Gregson disappears in Germany.

Recycling plots isn’t something new.  Lots of shows do it.  But this isn’t The Simpsons, with close to 600 episodes to its name.  This is only the 35th episode of Downton and already the show feels stale.  I actually thought the beginning of last season showed some promise, at least with the possibility of Mary and Branson taking over the running of Downton, only to find it recycling the same “which suitor will Mary choose” storyline yet again.  I won’t get fooled again.  Downton has always been a show that is most interesting when its characters are most progressive, but it is also a show that consistently shies away from any hints of progressivism.  Robert and Carson spend the first act complaining about the new Liberal government while Barrow’s schoolteacher potential paramour Sarah Bunting is introduced as a walking, talking strawwoman for Robert to berate and belittle for her socialist views.  But nothing comes of it.  It's just a passing thought or a funny story from dinner.  None of it lasts.

What’s most disappointing about what Downton Abbey has become is that it is a show bathed in change it just can’t embrace it.  For two years, the Crawleys were obsessed with finding a male heir because whatever would happen if the estate were left to be run by a woman?  Well, we found out last year that Mary is more than capable of running the estate, at least when she’s not getting distracted by boys again.  But this year, Downton seems to have forgotten all about money, and pigs, and anything else that mattered so much last season.  Instead, it’s all parties, romances, secrets, and all the other things we’ve seen over and over again for four years now.

I return, then, to my initial question and wonder what Downton Abbey is about at this point in its run.  Obviously, this is only the first episode of the season and things could easily change moving forward, but if Downton is only going to be partying and matchmaking, I don’t know how much I’m going to enjoy it.  The 1920s were a period of great change, but something tells me the Granthams will remain largely the same.  Robert will be staunchly conservative until his daughters do something progressive.  Mary will let men get in the way of her doing anything interesting.  Edith will continue making bad choices and Molesley will be the butt of everybody’s jokes.  I’d like to be proven wrong but, as we’ve seen, change is slow to come to Downton Abbey.

A couple of spare thoughts –

Despite my trepidations about the path of the show’s stories, it still remains quite funny.  “Take steps, Mr. Molesley” may have been the best line but “I’m going upstairs to take off my hat” also had me in stitches, intentional or not.

For some reason I find all of the interactions between the Crawleys and the staff to be intensely uncomfortable.   Even when Sprat is being a dick, he doesn’t deserve to be talked to like a child.

Tyler Williams is a professional librarian and an amateur television critic. You can reach him at TyTalksTV AT gmail DOT com or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.