Note: This article contains spoilers. Do not read this if you are not up to date with Downton Abbey series 4 and the 2013 Christmas special.
This was my first Christmas in the UK, and I was able to partake in the quintessentially British pastime of watching Christmas specials on TV. It’s a thing here, to have a long episode of a TV series on Christmas evening. This year saw Christmas specials for Doctor Who, EastEnders, Coronation Street, Call the Midwife, and Downton Abbey, among others. Consolidated ratings – which include those watching the shows live, and catching up afterwards – show that Downton Abbey came in second with 10.28 million viewers. (I didn’t watch live; I recorded it on my TV so I could skip through the many commercials. And there were plenty; about a half-hour’s worth in the two hours the show was on.)
The Christmas special has two goals. First, it’s an episode of a series, even if the actual season for a series ended months earlier. (Downton Abbey’s fourth series ended in early November.) But it’s also meant to be a family event, where everyone can sit down and watch the Christmas special after dinner even if they don’t follow the series.
Downton Abbey has had a rocky road with Christmas specials. For the first season, the show wasn’t popular enough to have one, but in the second series, Matthew Crawley proposed to Lady Mary, culminating the events of the first two season. However, in the following year, things got ugly, as Matthew Crawley was killed off in a car accident just as their son was being born. This poorly staged, melodramatic sequence was probably not something a lot of people appreciated on Christmas night.
So, for this year’s Christmas special, series creator and writer Julian Fellowes pulled out none of the stops. He went for drab and dull, with, as my son said, Downton Abbey jumping the shark. A contrived situation led to Mary and two others burglarizing the lodgings of a Mr Sampson, who was in possession of a letter that could embarrass the Prince of Wales. Rose was presented to the London season, in front of the king and queen, with a few shots of extras lining the street leading to Buckingham Palace, then the luxurious innards of the palace itself. And the Americans were back, with Shirley MacLaine as Cora’s mother, and Paul Giamatti, looking very uncomfortable in his role as Cora’s brother.
And that’s the clue to what’s happening to Downton Abbey. Never before has a British show had such popularity in the US; it’s clear that Fellowes is dumbing the show down to make it palatable to US viewers. With an audience much larger in the US than in the UK, there’s no doubt that the show is being targeted at these foreign viewers now. So we’ll be seeing a lot more of the London season, with balls, royals and lots of extras.
Downton Abbey was somewhat edgy in its first two seasons, but once it got popular in the US, it became comfortable. Granted, there was a rape this season, and the repercussions of this event were still felt in the Christmas special, but overall, it’s getting even soppier than it was when it started out.
Make no mistake: Downton Abbey is a soap opera, but a high-class one. I found it interesting and nearly addictive in the first two seasons. It gave me a (somewhat distorted) look at class in the UK, and presented many interesting characters. But it’s turned into the type of series that creates artificial complications for its characters just to string them along. Two main characters have already been killed off, and one minor character has disappeared (leading to some of the events of the fourth series). Others are added as objects to be used for plot points and nothing more. What started as a good ensemble cast is now a cast of dozens who come and go to fit the needs of the writer, and it’s become hard to follow the many characters who appear occasionally.
When there was less attention to romance and more to the problems the characters had living as they do, the series was more interesting. Unfortunately, Downton Abbey has taken the easy route, becoming an international soap opera, hoping to appeal not only to its home audience, but also to the growing overseas audience watching one of the few foreign TV series that crosses borders to the US. Fellowes is a good writer; I hope he can get his mojo back, and stop writing for ratings.