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Emmy Watch: The Decline and Fall of ‘Downton Abbey’

Emmy Watch: The Decline and Fall of 'Downton Abbey'

As hulking and lavish as the Titanic, "Downton Abbey" appears unsinkable — especially when it comes to Emmy voters and fans. But the series, whose first episode began with news of that famous ship’s North Atlantic disaster, is not immune to rough seas. Does the disappointing fourth season of "Downton" foretell a coming crash?

At the outset, creator Julian Fellowes’ progressive twist on "Upstairs, Downstairs" fleetly commanded a sprawling cast of masters and servants through the domestic melodramas of pre-World War I Britain. Though never as diamond-sharp as Fellowes’ own "Gosford Park" (2001), directed to perfection by Robert Altman, "Downton" enjoyed the same lively energy. The title sequence, a fluid montage of sunny grounds and open shutters, gas lamps and chandeliers, distilled the series to its bright essence: "Downton" suffused even its bitterest developments (drowned heirs, miscarriages, dead Turkish paramours) with the warm glow of intimacy between upper crust and lower class. Sure, m’lady, I’ll help you move this foreign envoy’s corpse! No, valet, of course I don’t care about your mysterious, possibly criminal past!

Sadly, this sprightly idealism is now largely absent from "Downton," which earned a dismaying 12 Emmy nominations last month. The series might have been forgiven its clumsy handling of actor Dan Stevens’ sudden departure, whipping up the death of Matthew Crawley in a last-second car accident, but the latest season doubles down on the somber atmospherics.

The action resumes in February 1922, six months after Matthew’s death, with Lady Mary (Lead Actress nominee Michelle Dockery) mourning her late husband and mostly ignoring their infant son. Though it wouldn’t do to have a widow gallivanting about as if nothing had happened, Dockery — always fun to watch when playing Mary as a prickly, entitled beauty — is ill served by the heavy-handed writing and production design. In one emblematic moment, as Mary literally talks down to her mousy sister, Edith (Laura Carmichael), on the grand staircase, the camera frames her ghostly face and jet-black hair from below. The effect, imperious and forbidding, does not suggest a woman working through grief so much as a building monument to it, crushing the character’s spirit entirely.

It’s not only in Mary’s case that the spark seems to have gone out of "Downton," as the themes of loss and absence bleed into nearly every aspect of season four.  O’Brien steals off in the night and Alfred (Matt Milne) departs for the Ritz; Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton) and Tom Branson (Allen Leech) grieve the untimely ends of Matthew and Lady Sybil, respectively; Edith’s intended, Michael Gregson (Charles Edwards), disappears in Germany, apparently victim to a gang of Brownshirts, and as a result she gives up their child to a local farmer. The high dudgeon with which "Downton" approaches these developments sends the series into after-school special territory, hectoring and humorless, and as a consequence the remaining strands of gauzy sentimentalism seem out of place. As cousin Rose (Lily James) capers with Jack Ross (Gary Carr), an African American band leader, or the butler, Carson (Supporting Actor nominee Jim Carter), patches things up with an old friend from the stage, it’s hard not to feel that such subplots lack the necessary backbone to support the grueling passages that surround them.

The most upsetting development, of course, involves Anna (Supporting Actress nominee Joanne Froggatt), Mary’s kindly lady’s maid. Raped by a visiting lord’s valet, her subsequent anguish features prominently in the season’s narrative, and of all the turns "Downton" has taken, this one leaves me the most ambivalent. Aided by Froggatt’s fine, workaday performance, the series’ portrait of sexual assault’s varied psychological consequences, which sits rather stiffly within the constellation of inconsequential fights about farming and footman’s gloves, is nonetheless powerful. We quickly come to realize that there is no one response to rape, even within a single victim, and the direct, textured treatment of this fact is laudable indeed.

The depiction of the attack itself, by contrast, comes across as faintly exploitative. As the rapist pushes himself on Anna downstairs, landing a kiss before the blow to her cheek, Anna’s terrible cries become an opera singer’s beautiful aria in the main hall: an aural match cut that appears cruel, not clever, in the watching. Shifting back and forth in this way — pausing to hear Bates and housekeeper Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) whisper speculation as to Anna’s whereabouts, concluding with the valet taking his seat in the audience as the assembled patrons applaud — the rape assumes the cast of a plot device, and thereby sours every searching moment to follow. "I wish [Bates] could read you, and take you out of this veil of shadows," Mrs. Hughes tells Anna later, but the crime shadowing the season remains ever at arm’s length.

This gloomier "Downton" is not without its pleasures — the deliciously witty sniping between Isobel and the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith, the series’ best Emmy hope) and the staff’s visit to the beach in the season finale, perhaps a glimmer of happier times ahead. (The fifth season of the series, which is co-produced by Carnival Films and Masterpiece, is slated to air on PBS in January 2015.) But "Downton" has always focused, broadly speaking, on the death of the old ways. Each new kitchen invention, from the refrigerator to the electric mixer, sends Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) into a tizzy; the tension between tradition and modernity provides the foundation for every marital maneuver and conflict of kin. Forgive me for fearing, then, if the wearisome fourth season suggests that the old ways of "Downton" are similarly in decline, turning the conventional into the clichéd and the dark into the merely dreary.

"No one wants to kiss a girl in black," the Dowager Countess once warned. It’s advice "Downton Abbey" would do well to take.

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Comments

Carmen

It's been a huge disappointment for me to lately. I don't think I'll be watching it this season. There much better shows that could have been nominated instead of it. The Good Wife for example, that unlike Downton Abbey, keeps getting better and an outstanding 5th season, the show's best season so far…

Nicole

I love the series, but often wondered during season four if it was a 'this isn't the greatest season, but the story has to be told' type of season … much like Star Wars, Episode II, or any number of other series or movie franchises. I'm hoping that they tie in and expound on several things, especially Lady Edith, as I just feel like there should be more about her situation.

The Selfridge season had the same down-turned feeling for me. Hoping it all turns upward!

Jana

I suspect this "review" was actually part of a stealth campaign to influence Emmy voters — trying to hoodwink Emmy voters into voting for one of the other nominated shows, by bad-mouthing Downton Abbey.

avid Downton fan until this season

I faithfully watched every episode, sometimes twice, until this past season. I heard about the rape of Anna and that did it. After the arrest and finally the release of Bates from jail, it seemed this couple could finally be happy. This plot twist just seemed to scream no one is ever going to be happy, EVER. This isn't drama, it's simply depressing.

MISSY

I disagree that Downton Abbey is on the decline- this season may have been inconsistent but the series isn't exactly known for being consistent in the first place. I, too, remain ambivalent about the handling of Anna's rape. This statement about the editing of the attack is completely on point: "Anna's terrible cries become an opera singer's beautiful aria in the main hall: an aural match cut that appears cruel, not clever, in the watching."

I do wish they had shown more of Anna's personal healing and restoration- not just have everything hang on how Bates reacts. Hopefully Season 5 will find its footing and Fellowes will blow us away.

Gail

It just seemed to be all over the place- Season 4. With Rose and the bandleader- what was the point? And then that ridiculous bit with the Americans and the Prince.
I've watched it from the beginning and will watch till the end, but I really miss the writing from season 1-3.

Wally

The worse episode of D.A. is better than all of the other @$*& that is on TV. Keep your comments to yourself, sir.

Dale Johnson

Another example if it isn't made in Hollywood it is terrible. I disagree, a breath of fresh air because it isn't tainted by Hollywood. Granted the 4th season wasn't as good as the first 3 it sure beat what else was being shown in those time slots. If not for a few other English made shows and OLD Hollywood movies there isn't much else to watch on 400 channels of Direct TV.

mark

Didn't quite make it through high school, did you Matt? Go back to writing for the Daily Fart, your middle school paper. Downton was exceptional in season 4 and will be exceptional in the coming season as well. Your comments on camera positions are too asinine and uninformed to go into, and your dithering that the show is suddenly too dark and dreary can only come from a flaming queen. Go watch old episodes of "Dallas" or "Dynasty," they will be easier for you to understand.

Yes Itsme

Wow. Another whining, pretentious review.

EduBois

Most of these comments are surprisingly vitriolic.

Why so serious? It's DOWNTON ABBEY, and yes, people are permitted to have different responses to a television program.

Be honest, this season was not up to snuff. All we did was end up back at the beginning of season 1.

fred

All wrong

Winnie

Sadly, I must agree with the author. I have been a fan of Downton Abbey since day one and I loved seasons 1-3. Like most other people, I waited anxiously for season 4, only to be very disappointed. The only thing I take issue with is his contention that they did not handle Matthew's death appropriately. I wonder how he suggests they handle killing off a major character because the actor who portrays him no longer wishes to be a part of the show. In my opinion, it was as realistic as they could have made it. Otherwise, I pretty much agree with everything he said.

I said myself that I kind of wish that they did not pick up 6 months after Matthew's death because I would have liked to see some real raw emotion. We merely got the illusion that there was supposed to be grief and mourning, but for me, I never got any real sense of either, especially not from Mary. Had she not been wearing black, I would have assumed she was merely being the Mary we all hated in season 1 before her fling with the departed Mr. Pamuk knocked her down a peg. Season 4 really provided no oomph for me other than poor Anna's rape and the wonderful acting of Bates in response to it, particularly in his scene with Mrs. Hughes. I am still a fan of the show and I await season 5 anxiously because I want to see if it can reignite some of the magic I felt the first few seasons. However, I think a lot of people when they have liked a show for a while, can't seem to admit or even see ways in which is has not lived up to the hype it once created. It's kind of like The Simpsons. People loved it so much they could not bring themselves to admit for a long time that the show was no longer funny. Some people truly just loved season 4. But I am one of the ones who was bored to tears each week and prayed the next season would be better. I chalk it up to a writing team having to make due with what it was handed (Dan Stevens' departure) and so I willingly give them a chance to redeem themselves. However, if next season continues in the same fashion, then I will have to chalk this show up to a loss and be content with my memories of seasons 1-3.

jennab

Agree that this review seems off-base. I thoroughly enjoyed the season…it's a soap opera, albeit, impeccably produced, written, acted and directed. Also agree I found it much more watchable than series like True Detective. To each his own…

John Kerr

Ridiculous and pointless article.

Andrea

Oh F*ck off. Yeah. What a courageous stand for a critic to take! To take a dump all over Downton Abbey. So gutsy and original of you!

I still find an episode of Downton Abbey to be more entertaining and watchable than other series you ahole stuck up ANTI WOMAN critics have gushed over…especially the boring dreary True Detective who just casted 3 washed up males as their new leads.

SandyV

Yeah MATT BRENNAN does not get it. Downton Abbey is on the rise. The writing is brilliant and the acting of the cast, especially Michelle Dockery and Maggie Smith, is A++++++++++++

Matt, stop whatever you're smoking and get back to reality.

Shelly

Yet more people watched it then ever so maybe you are not getting why people enjoy the show…?

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