Dear Downton Abbey and its patriarch, Julian Fellowes:
First you beguiled me with your lush sets, costumes and production values. You charmed me with your period piece fantasy of an Edwardian England with maids in starched uniforms and long, graveled drives. Of sumptuous hats and draping dusters. Of life set to the rhythm of tea time and breakfast in bed.
You were Upstairs, Downstairs on a very fat budget, drenched in good photography. Sure Elizabeth McGovern is miscast, having only two speeds: pursed lips, happy eyes, pursed lips, sad eyes. And her accent – somewhere south of an imitation of Gilded Age New York and an ill-advised left turn at a half-assimilated expat.
No, I overlooked these things because I traded it for the sheer pleasure of watching Maggie Smith, one of England’s greatest actors, raise her eyebrows and glance sidelong to register displeasure, while delivering a comment worthy of Oscar Wilde.
But over time, you abused my trust. Somewhere in Season 2 you began to insert plot points and resolve them just as quickly, with convenient plot machinations almost for the fun of it. By Season 3 you figured I just wasn’t noticing these deft presto-chango plot conveniences. You served up dull, inconsequential sequence after dull, inconsequential sequence of Bates in prison and I turned the other way, only wanting to fulfill my addiction to long shots of the manor and close ups of great hats. You married a sister off to chauffeur, moved her to Ireland and then killed her off in the lamest way possible without digging deeper into the social commentary you might have. You gave a character a cancer scare only to renege on the promise of real conflict with a false alarm. Cancer schmancer, dinner must be served.
But your worst sin is that you under-utilized the great Shirley MacClaine, and made her a one dimensional, gross caricature of crass American wealth, failing to develop a character who might have pierced the veil of classism and the tradition of stasis in Downton Abbey in a fascinating way. You wasted her talent and worse – you gave her hideous makeup and costume. Then you trotted her back to the US without comment. Exit, stage left.
I hate myself for saying it but I still watch you eagerly because I revel in those great hats, costumes and sets. I love that Thomas is so terrible and misunderstood. He is an antidote for the sickeningly sweet love story of Bates and Anna, which makes me want to hurl my tea cup at the telly. I love the fantasy of pulling a silken cord and having a maid show up with tea or brandy. But our relationship is on the rocks. It’s surface now. I shall muddle through the rest of Season 3 because, well, I’m addicted to watching an island of gentility being swallowed slowly by the tide of history. And I like those artful long shots. Damn you, Downton Abbey. Just damn you.