I don’t really know whether the show changed, or I changed but whereas I’ve felt previous seasons balanced on the delicate point of ‘entertaining melodrama’ this year it seems to have fallen completely into the realms of ‘pantomime soap opera’. Dressed up in some gorgeous costuming were utterly contrived plots, self-parodying characters and some of the chewiest dialogue I’ve ever heard.
Previous seasons have charged ahead at a pace that often left the audience hardly any time to think, the entire first world war was covered in just 6 episodes. Whether by accident or design, the lack of thinking time was a get out of jail free card for the writers, because if given the opportunity to think, you realise that it’s a bit rubbish. Season 3 wallowed, both chronologically and artistically. While previously I could have complained about incidents and storylines being skimmed past without full consideration of the repercussions, here they’re meandered over episode after episode.
Mind you, they still pack a fair number of stories in. All the season was really missing was Hugh Grant and it would be a Richard Curtis film. Within the 8 episodes there was a visit from an American, two weddings, a birth, and a funeral. The Earl of Granthem had a busy few months, he lost all his money through a bad investment and tried to persuade people towards a marvellous scheme run by a man name Ponzi. He was devastated by the death of his daughter, which seemed a little contrary given that he’d practically banned her from the house for marrying the chauffeur, although I’m not sure what he found most offensive, the fact he was ‘below stairs’, Irish, a catholic, a reformist or the fact he didn’t play cricket. He somehow managed to clamber up on his high horse about farming, land management, Catholics, prostitution and women working, yet was surprisingly open minded about homosexuality (he went to Eton don’t you know).
Similar indignities were loaded upon other characters, poor Matthew was forced to try to talk about sperm counts and infertility in numerous episodes, all while gallantly resisting the urge to roll his eyes at his manipulative whining wife. Tom the ex-chauffeur was forced into nice clothes and then had to sob a lot, Edith stopped being a bitch and as a reward got her heart broken not once but twice and saint Sybil was duly martyred for the sake of a rather inappropriately graphic mid-season trauma.
Downstairs meanwhile was thrown into complete disarray by the arrival of a new kitchen maid and two new footman, one of whom was apparently so good looking that men and women threw themselves at him with a gleeful abandonment of all common sense. O’Brien and Thomas continued to plot against each other and I really can’t for the life of me remember why they hate each other, or why I should care given that they’re both creepy and horrific. Poor Mrs Hughes was saddled with a possible cancer diagnosis and Mrs Padmore as a companion, in the weirdest juxtaposition of tragedy and farce yet seen. Carson was disgusted with pretty much everything and harrumphed a lot.
So the whole thing was frankly laughably rubbish. YET, I still love the show. It’s great for Sunday evening laziness, camped out with tea and cake, or a good friend to mock it with. It’s a soap opera, and comparing it to things like Homeland or Mad Men is ridiculous, no matter what the American Emmy nominators might say. Downton is rubbish in so many ways, yet I eagerly awaited every episode and talked about it with my friends endlessly. Roll on the Christmas special.