Thursday, February 21, 2013

Done With Downton



* Obligatory [spoiler] alert but honestly, if you don't know what happened on Downton Abbey this week you either A) Don't care or B) Have somehow managed to block yourself from pop culture for the last year, in which case, kudos to you.

During the very first episode of Downton Abbey in 2011 we were introduced the occupants – both upstairs and down – of an upper-class early-1900s British estate. The episode centered on two catalysts: First, the introduction of the injured Mr. Bates to the servant's hall and Second, the shock to the family of Lord and Lady Grantham that the heir to their title and estate had died during the sinking of the Titanic.

That episode, as all episodes do, established the central framework of the show moving forward, creating a universe and populating it with a host of colorful and distinct characters while also introducing the central concepts that would drive the story forward over the foreseeable future.
We learned many things in that first episode, such as 1.) The downstairs servants staff is comprised of friendships and familial bonds as well as bitter rivalries that would slit each others throats to get ahead and 2.) The ongoing fate of Downton as a physical location and business enterprise was in peril and the family that lived there was comprised of friendships and familial bonds as well as bitter rivalries that would slit each other's jewelry- and cravat-adorned throats to get ahead.

But then, in the waning moments of Ep. 1 we meet Mathew Crawley, a middle-class lawyer, distant relative to Lord Grantham and heir apparent to all of Downton. With one memorable scene it was made clear that Mathew was our hero and that moving forward this was to be his show.

Matthew: It's from Lord Grantham.

Isobel: Really? What on Earth does he want?

Matthew: He wants to change our lives.

In no time at all, Mary became the Rachel to Matthew's Ross, locked in a will-they-won't-they dance of hidden affection and sideways, wanting glances while Mathew's role as savior of Downton was cemented, giving us a singular character with root-for-him likeability and stranger-in-a-strange land relatability. Like Obi-Wan, he was their only hope.

Then he died.

People on TV die all the time. Death, birth and marriage are the three go-to strategies for injecting new blood into an ongoing series. But the demise of Mathew Crawley was not a strategic decision, made for the good of the story. Not only was it emotionally disappointing and narratively awkward– actor Dan Stevens simply refused to return, forcing the show's creator to make a mad dash to put the Crawley house in a semblance of order – but it is also an obvious departure from where the show was intended to go.

Matthew was meant to carry Downton into the next generation, navigating the turbulent waters of modernization, a global depression and second World War with the companionship of his lovely, albeit marginally awful, wife and children at his side. There would have been plenty of high drama and shenanigans, to be sure, but they would have been to further the evolution of a middle-class man thrown unexpectedly into position and prestige.

In a way it feels similar to the hasty replacement of Charlie Sheen on Two and a Half Men or the recent tonal shift on Community following the ouster of creator and mastermind Dan Harmon. In either case a blatant, jarring shift took place and it was almost as though the powers that be had whispered through to us "Yeah, it's weird, but let's just all agree to get past it, ok?"

But can we? Or at least, can I? Without the anchor of Mathew's character, the remaining elements of Downton Abbey – Maggie Smith's one-liners, Thomas' scheming, Edith's relationship woes, Bates' limp – just seem like hollow gimmicks. Mathew's plotline was truly the star that the Downton Abbey solar system revolved around and I worry that without it, everything will quickly spiral out of control.
On NBC, Up All Night is currently navigating the awkward departure of its lead actress. The show was already going through a re-imagining process but most industry insiders suspect that Christina Applegate's exit is the straw that will, once-and-for-all, break the camel's back and shutter the series for good.

Can Downton really go on without Mathew? Absent her husband, Lady Mary is really a terrible human being and as much as I enjoy Branson – who is clearly being positioned to shoulder more weight moving forward – or whatever other new additions Julian Fellows saunters out in season 4, the basic draw of the show seems lost.

This is all likely the mongering of a fan scorned and in all likelihood I'll be right back in front of my television to hear Laura Linney's introduction when the series returns to American shores. As the Dowager Countess would say, I shouldn't be so defeatist, it's terribly middle class.

That said, part of me thinks I've hung up my liveries for good.

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