'Downton Abbey' Returns to All Too Familiar Territory

Richard Lawson
January 7, 2013
'Downton Abbey' Returns to All Too Familiar Territory

There's a point in the life of every iteration of Bravo's mega-hit reality series Real Housewives when the show turns a crucial corner and becomes tiresomely self-aware. It's when the cast members have suddenly figured out that they're famous, that certain storylines get them more attention than others, that they could be making more money than they already are. The crossing of this particular rubicon usually comes around the third season, when the show has gained cultural traction and a devoted following and word of their power has sufficiently seeped into every Housewife's head. It's usually at this point that, to me anyway, it's time to shut the show down. But, of course, they never do. And now, way on the other side of the television quality spectrum, we have the third season of Downton Abbey, a Masterpiece Classic presentation that has, despite its elegance and period delicacy, perhaps entered into its own version of that perilously self-aware phase, too keenly cognizant of the Downton craze at the expense of fostering what created the craze in the first place.

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Which is to say, didn't last night's premiere feel awfully meta, especially for a delightfully earnest soap like this one? There was so much talk of the meaning of Downton Abbey, the actual physical place, and were so many indicating nods to all the classic Downton stuff we've come to love — Dame Smith's droll bons mots, Matthew and Mary's push-pull love affair, Thomas and O'Brien's frowny scheming. It felt in some ways like the show was doing a pastiche of itself or putting together some sort of greatest hits album. Though there was a lot of talk — and I mean a lot of talk — about time moving on, it being 1920 now, this first installment of season three played a lot more loudly as a rehash of the past. It read, to me, like Jullian Fellowes and company have been cowed or maybe even corrupted by their huge success, making the show a presentational procession of the stuff they think we want rather than further developing and expanding their story. It struck me as an interesting, though unsettling, variation of third-season reality show malaise, which, coming off a sometimes overly grandiose and soapy second season, could mean trouble for Downton.

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Or maybe I just need a little acclimation time. Watching Downton Abbey is a very particular activity, one that requires us to resize our TV expectations, to shift from racing furiously after Abu Nazir to stressing about the disappearance of some fancy dinner shirts. And it's been a long year of obsessive Downton chatter since we last actually glimpsed our upstairs/downstairs crew, so it's possible that the whiff of cliché-peddling I detected last night was owed to the fact that I'd let all the blog buzz and whatnot drown out my memory of the actual show. Yes, some of last night felt like a strained attempt to be the archetypal Downton Abbey of public fascination rather than its own organic thing, but in reality it's maybe not that Fellowes was pandering by ladling out all those Lady Grantham one-liners and giving us yet another Trouble For Matthew & Mary moment. It's simply that that's what Downton Abbey always has been! And it is why we liked it in the first place, after all. So, going forward I will try to keep that in mind; damning a show with its own success isn't really fair, especially when it's still so solidly entertaining.

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It certainly was that last night, wasn't it? I found all the American talk a little unseemly — it played like the cast was hokily waving to the show's ever-growing audience here across the pond — but otherwise the arrival of Shirley MacLaine, playing Cora's hard-charging American mother Martha Levinson, didn't overly unsettle the milieu. (The real States-related clunker came from Cora, with her "I'm an American, have gun will travel" line.) And it was undeniably sweet to see Matthew and Mary finally find a concrete moment of happiness, now that they're married and able to do more than furtively look at one another from across the drawing room. It was also nice to see Sybil and Branson again, though that plot line's heavy focus on pointing out the rules and strictures of Downton added to that awkward, troublesome meta sense. Having a character be skeptical about this meticulously ordered world is fine, but we at home don't really need that much reminding that this is an overly fastidious and vaguely oppressive social system. Society was, of course, swiftly changing in those days, so wanting to illustrate that somehow is understandable, but Branson's speechifying last night felt more for our benefit than the story's.

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Of course we are all terribly worried about Lord Grantham's finances and the future of the Crawley's residence at Downton, but I suspect something will save them in the end. Or not! To the show's credit, it does not always deal in easy fixes and happy endings. One need look no further than the increasingly grim fate of Mr. Bates for proof of that. (Violence! On Downton Abbey!) But I think that it would ultimately be too much of a downer to end the series with the Crawleys out of Downton for good. No, I suspect they'll figure out a way to stay, even if things get rather uncomfortable in the process. Speaking of uncomfortable, I have high hopes that Alfred, the new tall and ambitious footman, might be a love interest for Thomas, but it doesn't seem that way at the moment. Quite the opposite, in fact; so far, they're mortal enemies. That tension might all be set-up for a some grand switcheroo, but Fellowes has never seemed terribly interested in Thomas's happiness, so let's not hold our breath. Alfred's romantic intrigue with Martha's American maid will have to do instead, I suppose.

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So yes, I am once again invested in this stiff but never undramatic world, even if I have some slight reservations about just how very Downton last night's episodes of Downton were. I hope the show can remain humble amid the hype, and be confident in its own storytelling rather than trying to play for the cheap seats. Let's not begrudge the show reveling in its success a little bit. Some extra bowing and glad-handing is likely harmless. But if the rest of the season doubles down on all this pointing and navel-gazing, I will start to worry that an Andy Cohen reunion special can't be too far behind.

Sadsack of the Week: While Molesely's entire existence could win this title in every episode, poor Edith standing there awkwardly while all the other ladies giggled about being married made me sigh pityingly more than anything else last night.

Best Loaded Look: Thomas gazing at Alfred as he walked off following their first introduction made a wicked hope bloom in my cynical heart.

Best Maggie Moments: Every bewildered, frustrated, delightfully muppetish look she gave Martha reminded us why Smith is a Dame.

Biggest Groaner: Lord Grantham's bit about his chest exploding with happiness to a pre-wedding Mary was corny even for this show, but Cora's "have gun, will travel" line will likely (or hopefully) echo throughout this season as its worst.