20 February 2013

Downton Abbey Season 3

Downton Abbey Series 3 is Kind of a Hot Mess
By Kristin Battestella

It’s Spring 1920 and Lord and Lady Grantham (Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern) welcome the Countess’ mother Martha Levinson (Shirley MacLaine) from America while the family awaits the birth of youngest daughter Sybil’s (Jessica Brown Findlay) baby with her political motivated Irish husband Tom Branson (Allen Leech) – formerly the Crawley’s chauffer. Family heir Matthew (Dan Stevens) and eldest daughter Mary (Michelle Dockery) support Branson’s new role at Downton Abbey as well as middle daughter Edith’s (Laura Carmichael) new writing career – even if the couple disagrees on how Matthew wants to handle the financially in disarray estate. Unfortunately, sorrow looms upstairs and scandal brews downstairs between valet Thomas (Rob James-Collier) and ladies’ maid O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran) as positions high and low are shaken to their core.

The Downton Abbey PBS premiere wastes no time in getting to the long awaited wedding of Mary and Matthew and Downton’s dangerous financial rumblings, but there are a lot of unlikable, on the nose developments to start Series 3. These rich people who can’t handle their money, the wrongfully imprisoned valet – it seems heavy but not much is actually happening. It’s all too dry, and the pacing this year is uneven, slow, even wasteful. Previously, it was almost blink and you miss World War I speed, but now, plots unnecessarily linger on unimportant soap opera moments. These internal timing issues become a serious problem when the meat of the drama feels skipped entirely. After almost a decade of onscreen waiting, the culmination of Downton Abbey’s biggest storyline is cut away at the altar. There’s almost enough wrong with Year 3 for me to not bother continuing. Thankfully, the downstairs character focus is much more pleasant – although the below storylines are also too uneven. Their goods struggle with mismatched upstairs plots across the middle episodes and become stretched too thin, and it all magically ends up tidy for the rushed cricket finale.  The so-called Christmas Special further puts everything under the carpet by being set a year post hence. In effect, this tacked on holiday makes it appear as thought the traumas of Year 3 never happened – they are fresh in the viewer’s mind, but long done for the characters onscreen. We zoom through the earlier seasons two or three years at a time, yet now we dawdle month to month per episode only to end up fast-forwarding again. You wouldn’t write a book with this kind of piss poor timing and skipped juicy – why is it okay on Downton Abbey?

Now, about that long awaited Mary and Matthew wedding. Matthew has really taken a serious downturn this season with all over the place character motivations and attitudes. How does this one supposedly golly shucks guy get the girl, come in to Downton’s entail, and get in line for another possible fortune? The bad dialogue between Mary and Matthew doesn’t help his unbelievability – more often then not I just want to skip over their WTF scenes. I’m surprised by the audience shock in his exit, as Dan Stevens really looked ready to depart Downton Abbey thanks to obvious foreshadowing and phoned-in scenes. Matthew is a bit better as the family go between for Branson – brothers- in-law sticking together!  Unfortunately, even that relationship is run into the ground by these uninteresting tenant subdivision saving Downton legalese library scenes. Naturally, it is Mary who really suffers thanks to this default, uneven, ham-fisted writing.  Once one who rallied against marrying for an heir, Mary the expectant bride and rushed mom falls completely flat in Series 3 – where is the mention of her Turk scandal? Bad jokes, supposedly tense financial talks, and guilt trip conversations won’t do for the players that were the cornerstone of Downton Abbey.  
Likewise, always on the verge of ruin Robert Crawley has become somewhat of a fool. He puts their fortune into a bad venture, cries over it, and gets more upset by what the county thinks about their business. Lord Grantham gives information on the estate to Mary, but objects to Matthew’s sweeping changes whilst also wanting his son-in-law to accept his new inheritance to save Downton. He claims they must keep the estate running for the community jobs, but if the nobles can’t handle the money, then maybe they shouldn’t have it!  The Earl gains points when he helps the folks downstairs, but that’s just as much about avoiding scandal as it is kindness. Countess Cora unfortunately takes a backseat for most of the season, but she is correct in making Robert accountable on all his bull and his asinine preference for nobility over honest doctoring. Of course, all their troubles are too easily resolved in one or two episodes, and the Christmas Special plays them as a darling couple against this out of left field Scottish cousin Shrimpie angst. Didn’t we just see these same marital troubles and financial ruins?

Thankfully, Dowager Countess Maggie Smith is again wonderful at holding onto the old school class and wit, and the sassy honesty of guest Shirley MacLaine is refreshing. Though she dresses jazzy and correctly calls the Granthams as shallow, Martha Levinson is not as over the top as I expected, and MacLaine might be playing herself in some of the shakeup for the sake of it. However, I wish we had more of her and Penelope Wilton’s formerly get your heads out of your butts Isobel Crawley.  Mrs. Crawley seems too detached from the main family thanks to her unspeakable work in helping prostitutes, but her sincere moments with the Dowager are very touching. Her scenes with David Robb’s Doctor Clarkson in the Christmas Special are also more appealing then the forced introduction of Lily James as young and wild Cousin Rose, and Samantha Bond deserves more as Lady Rosamund. Series 3 leaves so many better family relationships unexplored – these older statesmen reflecting on the past and the decade’s changes seems more interesting then these in your face or merry go round plots.

In fact, the Sybil and Branson storyline is better than the Mary and Matthew over the top mooneyes. Branson’s political views are certainly understandable, and this unwelcomed, raised up son-in-law is relevant and realistic. The hot bed class and culture issues create both honest problems and quality principles for the couple, and though difficult, Branson’s legitimate societal points make things like dressing for dinner seem unimportant. Not surprisingly, the family is flippant and rude to the couple, their high up friends are downright cruel, and the uneven season long writing ruins the good in Jessica Brown Findlay’s departure.  Her exit is stupidly handled onscreen, and it makes me wish there were just episodic upstairs events or weekly downstairs dealings on Downton Abbey instead of ongoing series plots. The intercutting of Brendan Coyle as imprisoned valet Bates and his legalities with Sybil’s arrangements is a mistake; the Christmas Special’s timeline changes and home alone Branson plot is another ridiculously awkward above and below misconstruction.  Haven’t we done this maid seduction crap three times already?  

  Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes complained that he was regrettably stuck with World War I, but at least there was real action to be had there. Now, in the hollow of 1920, Fellowes has backed himself into a corner with repetitive weddings and a yawn worthy Detective Anna on the case. I’m so, so tired of the Bates’ shuffling in a prison yard circle storyline, and Joanne Froggatt’s new lady’s maid Anna deserves more than boring jail visits. Much of Series 3 is too preposterous at this point, the jilting of Laura Carmichael’s Edith Crawley included. Her writerly aspirations and daring career woman potential can be done without unnecessary romance revisits. However, Edith’s plots should not be strung along via a mention or trip here and there, and certainly, she doesn’t warrant yet another time wasting heartbreak in the Christmas Special.  Jim Carter’s butler Carson also feels unnecessarily snotty in his heavy-handed wanting of the previous decade’s grandeur, but he’s still warmer than the Earl somehow. His wedding moment with Mary is better than with Lord Grantham, and Carson has a much more understandable resentment to the changing of the running of a household and the shaking down of old divisions. His unmoving style has a reserve and grace, and his babysitting in the Christmas Special matches the humanity of Phyllis Logan as Mrs. Hughes. I would almost rather Downton Abbey be entirely about the low instead of high if we received the housekeeper’s touching illness worries; Sophie McShera’s pouting Daisy on a cooking strike; or Leslie Nicol as Mrs. Patmore dishing romance, wit, and loss with her dinners from week to week every week.

Indeed, the unexpected alliances and turned on their ear downstairs roles make for great stuff thanks to serious shade between Siobhan Finneran as O’Brien and Rob James-Collier as Thomas. Slick sabotage, innuendo, love triangles, scandal, and angst with new footmen Alfred (Matt Milne) and Jimmy (Edward Speleers) and kitchen maid Ivy (Cara Theobold) are far more interesting than the seemingly preferred Bates plots. I almost feel sorry for Thomas because of cruel period thinking on homosexuality, and his storyline might be the best one this season.  Likewise, Kevin Doyle as Molesley always seems to be made fun of, too, but I’d like to see a romance between him and O’Brien. The downstairs at play Christmas Special shenanigans are just much more fun then the bitching in Scotland.  The up top on Downton Abbey is just becoming too high up, even inhumane compared to how previous seasons presented up and down as one family united in crisis, an undivided household.  Now it feels posh for the sake of posh – burning coat tails and wearing black tie at the wrong dinner!  Oh my, no, anything but that! The topside Crawleys just don’t seem worthwhile anymore thanks to these increasingly lofty rehashings and the superior characters downstairs.

Where Downton Abbey began as a unique series, it has given way to increasingly relying on its period flash and Brit appeal. The costumes are great – a mix of the Edwardian classy and upcoming modern. There’s cars, bobbed hair, jazz, and yet, even my husband commented on how uber British and progressively over the top Downton Abbey is becoming. This bend toward the American appeal and British expectation is compromising the show – they make like we’ve never seen a cricket match before. Well, okay, we don’t get cricket every day. However, we do have soaps. I don’t mind soaps, I like a lot of the classic nighttime soap operas. However, I’m surprised folks pretend Downton Abbey isn’t an English telenovela. I feel harsh in saying it, but Downton Abbey being a soap isn’t the problem. It’s the fact that it has become an unevenly written and poorly timed episodic soap opera. You can have cast changes and big shocker moments without causing internal decline so long as your foundation is sound, but I’m no longer sure Downton Abbey has its storytelling at its core. I don’t see this series going on much longer so long as these obvious and tedious plots interfere with the period potential.  What ever happened to the pretender Patrick? Imagine if he was the real heir, the Canadian railroad investor who ruined Robert, and the mysterious Pulbrook in Swire’s will? I thought this was such an obvious Dickensian interconnected and ironic way to go, but instead, we get prostitute Ethel burning bread and meeting with her baby’s daddy’s parents again and again. Sigh.

Die-hard fans of Downton Abbey will eat up all the scandal and tragedy upstairs and down in Series 3. Despite poor pacing, writing flaws, and character movements, there is indeed still a lot of juicy entertainment to be had here thanks to downstairs heavies, period drama potential, love to hate players, and genuinely likeable characters. It’s a hot mess, but audiences can still enjoy the over the top panache in Downton Abbey Series 3.

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