Tuesday, February 21, 2012
'Downton Abbey' Finale: What The PBS Hit Did Wrong (And Right) In Season 2
It's been strange to watch so many people and publications succumb "Downton Abbey" frenzy in the last two months. There are still things I love about the PBS drama, which concluded Sunday, but it's weird that "Downton"-mania swept the land just as it became clear that Season 2 was not as good as Season 1.
As I said in my review of Season 2, I thought the first half of the season was almost unbearably choppy and badly paced, but things smoothed out a bit as the season progressed, and I very much enjoyed the season finale that aired Sunday night. It was the most satisfying "Downton" outing of the year, and I wonder if that's because it was conceived of as a Christmas special that aired in the U.K. a couple of months after the regular season ended. Obviously it was strongly linked to what came before, but almost functioned as a standalone movie, and its conclusion was wonderfully romantic and moving, even if we had to endure a lot of contrivance to get to Matthew's lovely proposal and and Lady Mary's emotional acceptance.
Would that the rest of the season had been that good. Julian Fellowes, the creator of "Downton Abbey," is good at writing movies, at depicting a specific social world and at creating barbs for Maggie Smith to wield like an aristocratic ninja. What the second season of "Downton" has proved is that he's much less skilled at writing for television. The second season of "Downton" was longer than the first, but it was much more ungainly and contrived, because Fellowes didn't have a firm grasp on how to ladle out pleasing portions of story and character development within each episode. Season 1 was shorter and more manageable; it was about the length of two feature films. Season 2 was longer, and far less satisfying, because Fellowes' sense of pacing was really off much of the time.
"There was no need for all of this crap to be stuffed into roughly one hour of story time," the critics Tom and Lorenzo wrote after last week's episode. "We're not saying everything would have been totally believable and not at all a crusty old cliche if he'd just spaced it out more, but he could have sprinkled the silliness throughout at a confident pace." Exactly.
The problem is, like another refugee from the world of film, Frank Darabont, Fellowes doesn't know how to knit together believable incidents and compelling character development and form that into a consistently interesting season of television. I know, it's weird to compare a costume drama with a zombie horrorfest, but both "Downton" and "The Walking Dead" stumbled in their second seasons. Each show would merely repeat information about characters (Daisy feels bad about her relationship with William, Shane is a troubled hothead, etc.) without developing those individuals in interesting ways. You're not really learning how to cook if you cook the same dish the same way a dozen times.
Stories and incidents are obviously necessary for any kind of filmed entertainment, but Darabont didn't give his show enough of either, and the characters suffered. Fellowes threw a lot of incidents and accidents into his show, but the results were often contrived, and the characters suffered. Are you sensing a theme here?
Here's the thing: Stories should be interesting and make sense and have peaks and valleys and all that, but their main function should be to shed light on the people in the story. Too often, Season 2 "Downton" stories felt like underdeveloped attempts to kill time. For instance, we got lots of scenes of the disgraced housemaid, Ethel, but that story didn't actually go anywhere until very late in the season. Ditto Mr. Bates' "psycho ex-wife" story, which went around in circles for two-thirds of the season.
At least it did go somewhere, which can't be said for a few other Season 2 stories. Here's a rule of thumb: If a story could be removed entirely from a season and it wouldn't matter because it had no real effect on the characters, it's a not a good story. This season in "Downton Abbey," we had the story of Patrick the pretender -- the disfigured soldier who claimed to be the heir to Lord Grantham's estate. He was hurriedly wheeled on stage, he lingered long enough to seem preposterous rather than pathetic (Really? A Canadian accent developed out of nowhere?), and then he was abruptly hustled away when the show was done using him to stir up a strangely ineffectual bit of drama.
The Patrick story wasn't just disconnected from everything else and didn't just have little impact on the characters, it was also another waste in a season that had more missed opportunities than zingers from the Dowager Countess. What would it be like to be a grievously wounded man trying to re-integrate himself into an appearances-obsessed society? We never found out, because we didn't get to spend enough time with Patrick for his plight to emotionally move us. He was just there to revive the by-now threadbare inheritance storyline, and that was that.
It's not that I expected "Downton" to become a grim accounting of the psychological and physical costs of World War 1, but the house was quite literally chock full of injured men, none of whom we got to know in a significant way (true, we did spend some time with the troubled Lang, but Season 2 had so many stories whirling around that it didn't have much time to spare for his PTSD). The Great War was an event that changed the course of the 20th Century in myriad ways, but the only real evidence of the war's effect on society and the class structure was Lady Sybil's chemistry-free relationship with the chauffeur, which was about as exciting as a bowl of lukewarm oatmeal. (If nothing else, shouldn't running off with the help be at least a little bit sexy? Is that asking too much?)
Of course, the second season featured Matthew's grave injury, but that was miraculously cured in what felt like a matter of minutes (did they get Maggie Smith to whip out the magic wand she used when she played a Hogwarts teacher?). Thank goodness the show has such an incredible cast: What might have been deeply silly stories were saved time and again by nuanced performances. As Matthew and Lady Mary, Dan Stevens and Michelle Dockery gave their characters specific, complex personalities and often brought more texture to the Matthew-Mary relationship than Fellowes' scripts provided. In one of several storylines that were never fully fleshed out, Lord Grantham's sadness and lack of purpose would have seemed petulant and pointless had anyone besides Hugh Bonnevielle played the straying aristocrat.
One frequent refrain I've seen from some online commentators as Season 2 has progressed is that the show has become "a soap opera." I take issue with that critique, in part because it's always been a soap opera -- as Tom and Lorenzo have wittily and accurately pointed out, every single storyline on "Downton Abbey" is something we've seen before on TV dozens of times. But familiarity isn't a crime if the execution of eash story is top-notch.
And that's where "Downton" went wrong this season. It frequently sacrificed the characters on the altar of plot, and that's incredibly frustrating, given that the unexceptional plots are not what we tune in for. We watch quality programs to see the characters react to frustrations, to rise challenges and and to explore possibilities. We watch to know what these people are going through and to identify with them on some level, even if, on the surface, our lives seem different from theirs. A good show will allow us to see ourselves in the characters, whether that program set in space, a cop shop, a chemistry lab or a grand estate.
With a show like "Downton," which hews closely to established tropes and traditional ideas, we know the plots are going to be familiar, if not mundane. But if the stories are handled elegantly and create interesting emotional and intellectual dilemmas for the characters, that familiarity wouldn't be a problem at all.
But Fellowes seems to think that piling on more stories is how you create more drama, and he seems to believe that creating increasingly contrived obstacles to characters' happiness is what storytelling is all about. No, the point of the stories should be making the audience care about the people in the house. The point of every plot should be to shed light on who they are, what they want, why they want it and what compromises they'll have to make to get it.
In that regard, "Downton Abbey" could learn a lot from the admirably disciplined "Revenge," which generally apportions just the right amount of story into each hour of television and creates believable obstacles even in a very heightened, soapy world. And as I said in this piece, "Spartacus," for all its excess, focuses with laser-like intensity on providing new information about the characters in every single scene of the show. It's insulting to shows that do these things well to call Season 2 of "Downton Abbey" "a soap opera." If we're going to be accurate about it, no matter how pretty it looked and how well it was acted, portions of the second season were like a bad soap opera, the kind that feature sigh-inducing evil twins and mustache-twirling villains (Sir Richard was well-played by Iain Glen, but imagine how much more intriguing that story would have been if he'd been a complex and realistic rival to Matthew?).
Whether it's soapy or gritty, any show that consistently draws our attention to "the Creaking Wheels of Plot" undercuts the characters in any number of ways. I borrowed that phrase from writer Jason Arnopp, who recently wrote a great piece called "Five Ways To Kill Audience Satisfaction." One of Arnopp's pet peeves (and I'm completely with him on this) is characters who do things that don't make sense because the story requires them to do those things -- even if those actions violate the rules of the world the writer has set up.
"If characters do stupid things because, for instance, the film would be over if they didn't, that's when the writer feels our wrath," Arnopp wrote. "We hear the Creaking Wheels of Plot and it's a terrible noise, reminding us that this is just a figment of someone's imagination and a slightly clunky figment at that. The spell is broken, even if only temporarily."
It's not as if "Downton Abbey" is the only show guilty of that kind of corner-cutting; it seems to be happening all over these days. The fourth season of "Sons of Anarchy," for example, ultimately betrayed the foundations of the show's world and, sadly, made its characters permanently less interesting. Despite the fact that all the characters reside in the brutal, unforgiving culture of a biker gang, the audience was supposed to believe that head biker Clay, who had done a series of terrible things that would absolutely require vengeance from his stepson Jax, would merely get a demotion. And speaking of Creaking Wheels, an entire season's worth of story machinations were waved away, as if by another magic wand, in the first 10 minutes of the Season 4 finale. The best way to get me to emotionally and intellectually detach from a show is to set up stakes that the drama then tells me never mattered anyway. All in all, the integrity of several characters, especially Jax, was sacrificed in the name of a story that not only wasn't dramatically satisfying, it didn't make much sense.
Here's an example from the other end of the television spectrum: "How I Met Your Mother" recently began the process of getting Robin and Ted back together again, and I wish I could say I was upset by that development (or in love with it), but I'm simply indifferent to it. The show has become so inconsistent about who the characters are that I've lost interest in them and their lives. Ted and Robin are like "Downton's" Lady Cora -- they are whoever the story needs them to be that week. At this point, the "HIMYM" characters' personalities are so arbitrary and vague that I don't have any investment in what happens to them (and I'm particularly disappointed in the way the show has depicted Robin, formerly a confident and complex career woman, as a self-described "mess"). And speaking of machinations, the CBS show could introduce the Mother tomorrow and I don't think that'd be enough to win me back, given how many pointless, time-wasting shenanigans there have been on that front.
Though I've more or less given up on "HIMYM" and the increasingly broad "Office," at least they have the excuse of being very advanced in their runs; it's hard to keep characters consistently interesting over six or seven seasons, and, as critic Linda Holmes has pointed out, that task is even harder for comedies, which put characters' faults and foibles at center stage.
But "Downton Abbey" is only in its second season; there's no excuse for it to be this sloppy and inconsistent. Hiring more writers would be a capital idea; Fellowes wrote every Season 2 episode himself, which was an insane undertaking and only revealed his consistent shortcomings as a TV scribe.