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Dumbed-Down Abbey: Mysterious Character Reboots for Season 4

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The following was originally posted on Kevin's blog,

In great peril from my family and friends, I write the following on a beloved, quality show...

To jump-the-shark is a term coined from the infamous Happy Days episode when the series started heading south. There aren't many sharks, leather jackets or jukeboxes on the moors, but Downton Abbey could use an inspiration point.

Granted, Season Four is only a couple episodes old (here in the U.S.), but a passenger can still not like the way that iceberg looks looming in the distance. In sitcoms, characters are two-dimensional more than three. You don't expect Norm in Cheers to suddenly weep into his beer because he misses his invisible wife, Vera. Fonzie can't become a feminist, even if he is on water skis over shark tanks.Modern Family's Phil doesn't turn into a thoughtful, sullen guy. The last thing we want in a sitcom is for characters to change much. Even at the end of M*A*S*H's long run, it was painful to see Radar and Klinger featured as protagonists.

But in a successful drama, particularly one with such deeply written and beloved characters as Downton Abbey it hurts much more to see the personality-lobotomies that have occurred since Matthew's reckless driving/acting career move.

Season Three was terrible on its audience, losing Sybil and Matthew. (But at least we can see Jessica Brown Findlay with Colin Farrell in Winter's Tale on Valentine's Day, appropriately for fans.) So the writing-trust decided to reboot rather than lick the wounds more realistically -- at least so far. Any readers from the United Kingdom, please excuse the ignorance of someone only exposed to two episodes of Season Four. It's as if the Titanic never sank and suddenly we're back to 1912 again. I've enjoyed Julian Fellowes' series immensely for its sweeping vistas, Edwardian nostalgia and great British accents. But the character-development has always been its strongest draw -- until the past three hours. Here are some disappointing rewinds...

Robert Crawley, Earl of Granthem: Poor fussy old Robert has had his time adjusting to the 20th Century. But he's got a good heart and has been bailed out by his American wife until he speculates the money away. Then he's bailed out by Matthew, his modern son-in-law who actually worked for a living as a lowly attorney. But with Matthew's death, the tax-man is coming and Robert has forgotten all that he's learned about modern farming, dangers of gambling, sensitivity to his daughters' suitors and how to share -- reluctantly letting Matthew's semi-will dangle in his hand a little too long before turning it over to Mary -- at the urging/scolding of his mother.

Cora Crowley, Countess of Granthem: Cora has always been irritating in her blind-trust of the conniving, cranky O'Brien. She hated the thought of ever parting with O'Brien, but when her maid up and leaves in the shadows in the opening moments of Season 4, what does Cora do but follow the tip of her dingbat niece, Rose, this year's eye-candy replacement for Sybil (or worse, Cousin Oliver), whose zany antics already had her pose as a maid in order to go dancing in town. The replacement for O'Brien, Edna, is up to something -- and it doesn't seem very clever, considering Fellowes' past plotlines. But when Cora believed Tom's lie, blaming Anna for a ruined do-dad and supported the unknown Edna, a general, "Oh come on," was heard across the PBS nation.

Thomas Barrow, Under-Butler: Tom has been generally hated for most of the three seasons, but his role has been developed enough to make it a good hate. He's been to the brink of good a number of times -- or at least sympathy. He was swindled into poverty after his black marketing scheme failed. Prior to that, he lost a patient he was caring for and it genuinely moved him to a crying jag. And when his cowardly ways drove him to become a medic, he found himself paralyzed with fear in a fox-hole and he sacrificed his hand to a German sharpshooter. He's a survivor and he's wormed his way back into the good graces of the clueless Crowley family and his 1912 mean-streak returned to default setting when the series resumed. Oddly enough, he was actually correct when he warned Cora about the nanny. We figured it was just mean ol' Tom, but his unexplained dislike of the nanny was somehow vindicated when Cora caught the Nanny calling Baby Sybil trash in the nursery.

Anna and John Bates: After moping about, waiting anxiously for her husband John Bates to find some way out of prison, Anna suddenly turned into a flirt and was cranky with her husband when his own sixth sense told him that the visiting manservant, like the nanny, shouldn't be trusted. Bates fussed and hovered over her whenever she was smiling with the flirter, until the moment she left the free opera concert for the abandoned kitchen. Bates didn't even notice, or care, when Anna left on her own and the subject of his suspicions left right afterwards. Bates has always been the voice of reason and portrait of patience. His kind eyes and smile have carried the Abbey through some tumultuous times. But suddenly he's a cranky, short-sighted jealous husband.

Mary: At least Mary had a good reason to hit the reset button. The loss of Matthew makes sense, even after six months. And she was back to the cold, callous ice-queen that met Matthew when he arrived on the scene and actually chose to dress himself. She even snapped at her surrogate father, Carson, and put him in his place. Later, she repented, decided to take a step forward and challenge her father for duties to the estate. But after the ever-emotional hug with Carson, which has buoyed many seasons, she goes riding with a suitor and tells him that she was "so happy" with Matthew and maybe that was a mistake. Their Season Three marriage wasn't perfect. Mary was mostly her usual controlling, snide self while Matthew was dueling with Robert over the management. Their marriage wasn't "so happy," instead it was, well, a marriage. It was real and Season Three did a good job portraying that--despite the silly, "I'm so happy to be a daddy that I'm going to drive like Lawrence of Arabia off the road and into a ditch" stunt.

And The One Character Who Should Change -- Mr. Molesley: Where to start with this sad-sack? He's always been a pitiful washcloth of a character, pouting because he's not a butler for Matthew, sulking because Anna is interested in Bates instead of him. He's a whiny sot who gets drunk on duty. Even his father dresses him down and yet Julian Fellowes devotes so many minutes to his silly sideshow. Please, can we at least just have those minutes filled with the Dowager Countess's one-liners instead?

This mailed-in feeling (so far) from the script is a bit alarming, indicating a staleness from the creative team that may be figuring out how to expand the grounds to allow for the shark pool.