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'Downton Abbey' Season 3 Review: The Case For And Against The Period Drama

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downton abbey season 3

This court will now come to order.

In the dock today, we find "Downton Abbey" (Sunday, January 6 at 9 p.m. EST on PBS), a phenomenon whose popularity rivals that of Justin Bieber and "Homeland" put together. (If you get bored as you read this brief for and against the British import, you're allowed to wonder what "Homeland" would be like if Bieber guest-starred on it. You're welcome.)

You probably won't be able to avoid the third season of "Downton," even if you'd wanted to, so we might as well review the show's strengths and sins together. Oh yes, there are sins to be found, or rather, a series of mostly avoidable mistakes that are almost up there with mistaking the shrimp fork for the dessert fork.

I kid, because I know what "Downton Abbey" is -- it's unquestionably one of television's most contrived confections, and there's nothing wrong with contrivances as long as they serve a greater purpose. But what is that purpose, exactly? I wish I could ignore those questions and concentrate only on frolic among the footmen, but, especially this season, "Downton" insistently puts a certain kind of social system front and center and asks all the characters how they feel about it. As the granddaughter of an Irish housemaid, I'm both able to escape into the fantasy land of earls and ladies without forgetting the elbow grease and financial sacrifice required to make those frivolous lives possible.

Though Season 3 of "Downton" is somewhat stronger than Season 2 -- which made "90210" look like a model of narrative coherence by comparison -- there are still times I mutter darkly about the drama, I must admit. When it keeps on stumbling over the same easily avoidable obstacles and when it keeps stacking the narrative deck in preposterously lopsided ways, I react about as well as the Dowager Countess would react to finding a dirty hippie in the shrubbery.

And yet, just because the show shamelessly and sometimes shallowly manipulates me doesn't render all those manipulations ineffective. There were "Downton" moments that made me laugh and cry this season; there's no doubt that the show's mixture of rich-people voyeurism, light-opera follies and serious emotional business can be greatly satisfying when it works. Fair warning: It tends to work a lot better as the season progresses -- like a 19th Century train, this polished piece of machinery starts slow and needs to work up a head of steam in order to be enjoyed in all its Victorian glory.

Years from now, well after television transmitters are implanted in our brains and we are all making robot footmen do our bidding, I will still be watching this pleasurable, annoying, moving, picturesque, predictable period drama. What it does well is worth the price of admission, and the actors in this cast are a continual treat, yet I feel compelled to list the problems and pleasures I find in the drawing rooms and the servants' quarters.

The Crimes of "Downton":

  1. The deck is stacked in frequently ridiculous ways in favor of the Old Ways and the Earl, who has never struck me as a model of intelligence and foresight. One thing has become clear over three seasons of "Downton": Creator Julian Fellowes is not all that interested in human nature as such and he has an upper-class Englishman's horror of [withering Dowager Countess voice] "psychology." Fellowes is interested in people in so far as he can put them in situations that force them to react in certain ways; probing the depths and complexities of those reactions just isn't his thing. Though the cast does a tremendous job with the material they are given, the show is usually quite eager to briskly move on to the next thing, and the next thing, to an almost comical extent, and is often designed to make Robert, Earl of Grantham, look correct, right, proper and in all ways a Capital Fellow. Fellowes is willing to press anything and everything into the service of that goal, continually, and this would be amusing were he not so deadly serious about it. Just one example: The show's token Irish patriot, former chauffeur Tom Branson, is put into a situation in which he appears to be a cad, merely for being true to his beliefs. The issue of Irish independence, what goes on in Branson's head and the reasons for his decisions -- those things are not interesting to Fellowes in the slightest. The two men's interactions are all about making Robert look like a magnanimous and unerringly well-intentioned man -- because, as we all know, people whose main accomplishment is inheriting wealth are unfailingly generous, kind and intelligent, right? Uh, sure. In any case, after three seasons of this, Robert would be insufferable if Hugh Bonneville wasn't such a good actor, so thank goodness for his delicate and excellent performance. But Fellowes doesn't do Robert any favors by having him petulantly declare, whenever anyone opposes him, "You're against me too!" Take it down a notch, my lord. You'll be fine. If nothing else, the creator of the show is firmly in your corner.
  2. That damned house is starting to seem like a malevolent monster interested only in its own survival. I don't care how strong a "Downton" fan you are -- at some point during Season 3, especially in the early going, you may find yourself muttering "Would you shut up about that bloody house already?" to one of the characters. Lady Mary has always been a traditionalist, but this season she's the We Must Save the House cult's most vociferous recruit, and both she and Robert can be tiresome on the topic. Despite Michelle Dockery's versatility and skill, Julian Fellowes has never seen fit to give Lady Mary anything to do aside from trying to snag a husband, and now one of her only functions is to serve as Robert's clone, at least where the legacy of the estate is concerned. (Some of Mary's dialogue in the season finale is positively ridiculous on this score, but Dockery miraculously finds a way to smooth out the rough edges). In any case, the arguments that the show presents for the preservation of Downton Abbey as a family home feel increasingly threadbare these days after three seasons of frantic propaganda on the subject. Yes, the estate is a sizable local employer, but the staff is so competent and energetic that we all know they'd have new jobs within a week if they needed to leave. We get it, Julian Fellowes, we know that your life philosophy boils down to, "English Aristocracy, rah rah!" For the love of God, find another topic or two to add to your arsenal in future seasons.
  3. The biggest stakes are kind of silly. We're all used to a certain amount of "Downton" laxness by now -- stories can be affecting and thoughtful, but they can also be silly, extremely convenient, unsubtle and repetitive, and characters who've shown growth will suddenly revert back to type should the plot require it. But the biggest problem with "Downton's" third season is that it hangs a huge amount of importance on "stakes" that wilt under even the mildest examination. The big problem during a large chunk of the season amounts to the following, more or less: "Oh no, a very rich man is having to face the possibility of being slightly less comfortable!" It's fun to escape into a world of lush privilege when times are hard, but the tenor of the times also make it quite difficult to care about a well-to-do family having to trim its budget a bit. Buck up, chaps; we all have to manage with fewer footmen these days.
  4. Shirley MacLaine's guest stint is, it's sad to say, a stilted and a disappointing misfire. MacLaine is a great actress, but, as Cora's mother, Martha Levinson, she's not allowed to play an actual role on "Downton." Julian Fellowes wrote a tepid, flat caricature for MacLaine to play, and that's part of a bigger issue on the show -- characters on "Downton" are frequently forced to stay within very narrow limits (the Irishman always talks about Ireland's troubles, the flapper who likes to party is usually in search of a party, Americans must always refer to their American ways and must be somewhat uncouth if not intolerable, etc.). The role of Martha straitjackets the Oscar winner, and the occasional exchange of barbed witticisms with the Dowager Countess doesn't really make up for the deflated quality of her scenes. I'm sure we all thought of delicious ways in which Cora's rich mother would be fun to watch, but the storyline goes nowhere. Fellowes has a beautiful canvas to paint on, but sometimes the very conventional limits of his imagination mean that large swaths of it go unfilled.
  5. It's continually difficult to tell how much time has passed between episodes or even between scenes. Time passes in stop-start chunks on "Downton," and the show is remarkably bad at explaining whether a month or a few days have passed since the last time we saw the Crawleys. (A couple other nitpicks: The Bates-in-prison storyline drags [a lot], and the repetitive nature of the plinky-plonky score drives me a little mad.)

The Pleasures of "Downton":

  1. The cast is uniformly terrific. Right about now, you're saying, "Good lord, woman! You're being far to hard on the old warhorse!" I don't think I am -- I hold any show to the highest standard it has set for itself, and when it's firing on all cylinders, "Downton" is believable, beautiful, lean and not lazy. There are substantical chunks of the third season that work -- affecting moments are scattered throughout -- and an episode around the midpoint of the season moved me to tears. I can't fault Fellowes in the casting department: The actors are marvelous and are often able to elevate slapdash and preposterous material. When the material is restrained and moving, they're simply spectacular. It's especially heartening to report that Elizabeth McGovern, whose Cora has often been shunted to the side in the past, gets to do her best work this season, and cast members such as Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith), Rob James-Collier (Thomas Barrow), Dan Stevens (Matthew Crawley) and Allen Leech (Tom Branson), among others, get quite a few moments to shine. And it can't be repeated frequently enough that Jim Carter and Phyllis Logan, as butler Carson and housekeeper Mrs. Hughes, are not just the indispensable mainstays of the house, they're the pillars on which the entire show stands. They're invariably wonderful.
  2. Long live Maggie Smith. The Dowager Countess is too often reduced to the role of bon mot dispenser this season, but in the moments in which she's allowed to behave like a human being -- and even experience pain -- Maggie Smith is unsurprisingly tremendous. Of course Maggie Smith gets her own bullet point because you do not lump the Dowager Countess in with the domestic staff and former chauffeurs. Harumph!
  3. Once the season has set up its busy tapestry of plots and truly gets into gear, it generally becomes more enjoyable. I find that there's usually one sub-plot that bores me at any point in time, but that's alright, because this season, Lady Edith, Thomas, Mrs. Crawley (Penelope Wilton) and even Mrs. Hughes get actual stories of their own. "Downton" sprawls a bit as it heads into the second half of its third season, but I find that's a good thing; characters get to move beyond types and predictable behaviors and into messier, more difficult territory. That can only be a good thing for this drama, which shouldn't be as organized and polished as the family's silver.
  4. "Downton" isn't an ambitious show, artistically or thematically, but it can be both gorgeous and efficient. I'm going to melt your brain now by comparing it to "Sons of Anarchy," another show that likes its mechanical plots and works hard to keep its characters within certain narrowly determined orbits. Both shows are small-c "conservative," in the sense that they don't like to take too many real risks, they delineate fairly rigid hierarchies and they generally travel along very well-defined and predictable paths. (Here's more potential brain-melting material for you: I've also compared and contrasted "Downton" to "Spartacus" in the past.) And yes, "Downton's" specific pleasures are as irresistible as a really good Harley-based action scene. Seeing "Downton's" characters outlined against a Scottish landscape, luxuriating in what they wear and eat, observing the craftsmanship of every room and object they encounter -- all these moments offers a series of treats for the senses. These vistas allow one to enter another world, one of upstart housemaids, grumpy butlers, beaded gowns and white tie. The show is, essentially, "The Secret Garden" for adults, and there's a lot to be said for that kind of simple fantasy. When it works, the show provides both aesthetic and emotional escapes, and that's why I don't see "Downton"-mania dying down any time soon.
  5. Fellowes may not be an imaginative writer, but he's a canny one. When an episode is chugging along toward a goal -- a wedding, a ball, a fair or some other group event -- it has a flow and momentum that savvily pulls the viewer along. The swirl of energy that follows every arrival, journey and happy event is infectious, and even the sad sequences are often orchestrated well.

The five points above mean that, yes, the show once again pummeled me into submission this year. But am I grading "Downton" on a curve? Is it because I'm a sucker for well-appointed costumed dramas? Am I giving it a break because the show depicts a bunch of good-looking rich people exercising their privilege in exclusive, well-appointed surroundings? Should I be giving it a break because of that, or should I question it more thoroughly for those very reasons? Should I probe more deeply into the extent to which Fellowes' anti-subversive show has co-opted the logic centers of my brain (as it was no doubt designed to do)?

The show is a souffle, I'll grant you that, but there's a part of me that finds it hard not to wrestle with bigger questions about the entire setup. "Downton" appears to want nothing more than to avoid political questions, but is it not a political act to posit once again that those with titles, inheritances and a deep dislike of change are best positioned to lead the lower orders?

Like a housemaid who wants to be a duchess (or vice versa), my head is full of competing ideas. You know what that means.

Time for a spot of tea.

"Downton Abbey" Season 3 premieres Sunday, January 6 at 9 p.m. EST on PBS.

'Downton Abbey' Season 3
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