If you”re looking for excuses not to watch “Downton Abbey,” the show has given you plenty over the course of its four previous seasons. The show has careened wildly from disappearing heirs, to in flagrant expirations, to its wanton wholesale killing of members of the poor Crawley family; from magically resolved murder plots to unfortunate sex crime subplots.
Despite all this, “Downton Abbey” deserves one more chance from those who loved it once, not without cause. It”s flaws have been many but like the old pile the family occupies, its charm stands untouched.
To start with “Downton Abbey” may be merely a soap opera but at least it wears its sudsiness on its sleeve.
In these days of niche TV, what falls under the quality-banner is expected to do more than mere story-telling. A show is considered Highbrow if it ignores telling stories in favor of brooding, elliptical meditations around the inconclusive meanderings of a morally damaged antihero.
That, to put it mildly, isn”t Downton”s bag. From the start the show was far more “Dynasty” than “Sopranos.” To many who were first lured in by the top drawer cast, period setting and fancy costumes, the dawning that this was just a pot-boiler seemed a breach of faith with the Golden Age of Television code.
But while the Emmy-baiting prestige shows of high end cable make every effort to bury their storylines under layers of brooding, these shows are far more soap opera dressed up in Neitzschean garb than they like to admit. For all the philosophical ruminating on “True Detective” the basic question that animated fan discussions during its first season run was the good ol” Who Done It? “Sopranos” and “Mad Men” conversations during their air times never went far before turning to who would make it alive to the end of each year.
Watching too many of these shows, one senses the high school jock who signed up for honors classes to prove he”s not merely a meathead – then pays the nerd to do his homework for him. With “Downton,” its amnesias, unsolved murders and scheming footmen, at least we have a show that takes pride in telling a darn family drama.
And why should it be ashamed? Soap operas – particularly one”s revolving around the trials of a wealthy family – are one of the perennial forms of the culture for a reason, just ask Tolstoy, Trollope or Larry Hagman. “Downton””s missteps, as mentioned above, came from its trying to pack in more emotional fireworks than it was able to competently juggle.
But not only does “Downton” make no bones about merely telling a story, it also does that incredibly outdated thing of telling you who to root for. In prestige programming these days, protagonists drift along in this moral netherworld somewhere between damned for eternity and deeply compromised. Good guys and bad guys are television dinosaurs that have been relegated to “CSI” and police procedurals.
Lord Grantham is having none of that. The Crawleys may not be perfect, and we”ve seen through the years how most of the family and their attendants give at least an inch to temptation. But they remain, nonetheless, unambiguously decent people trying to do their best in changing times, where the roles are no longer quite so clear as they once were, new inventions fall on your head like rain and nefarious suitors and unscrupulous footmen alike plot for your family”s demise, or at least embarrassment.
While that might not satisfy some critics' literary expectations for high-faluten drama, it is nice in a television universe that often seems gone crazy, to have a little corner of old fashioned drama; told if not always flawlessly, at least lavishly, dressed and acted as if fit for the Queen.
And beneath it all is one of the great stories of our age; the demise of the British feudal and its centuries of traditions before the 20th Century”s headlong dumb crush of modernity remains both a spectacle and a dilemma worthy of much pondering. Though its depiction of these changes can be hamfisted – to say the least – over the course of the seasons the march of this drama told from the vantage point of modernity”s chief victims, is a story that unfolds with as much heartbreak as the event”s deserve, and in the end, as much of an open moral question as “True Detective” could ever hope to capture.