So, the fifth series of Downton Abbey is now two episodes in. I’ve been faithfully watching it, and will continue to do so – but for the most part, it’s been confirming what I suspected after Series 4: this show’s best days are behind it.
It was very easy to get into Downton with the first series, probably for a few different reasons. There was the appeal of the quaint historical setting; the diverse and interesting characters; and how it made use of all the storytelling opportunities provided by its ‘upstairs-downstairs’ setup. Starting the show in 1912 was particularly smart as it allowed things to move into World War One just in time for Series 2, keeping things fresh and generating more conflict without much difficulty.
With the third series, however, it felt like Downton was getting a bit tired, and having to make more of an effort to keep things interesting. The will-they-won’t-they between Matthew and Mary that kept us all watching for the first two series finally ended with them getting married – and it wasn’t actually much fun seeing them together. Presumably to try and keep the conflict going, they spent most of their time bickering with each other – and this time it was proper unpleasant bickering. The show also started trying to up the drama by killing main cast members off, with both Lady Sybil and Matthew saying goodbye – though, given that Sybil was probably the nicest and most pure-hearted character in the show, we probably should have seen that one coming. (Yes, a character was killed off in Series 2 as well, but that was less about drama and more about getting rid of the inconvenient third wheel, without Matthew having to dump her and thus come off as the bad guy.)
The fourth series was even worse – at this point, the show was gravitating towards actually becoming boring. The most memorable thing from that series was Anna getting raped, which apparently ITV received a lot of complaints about – was this another example of the producers recognising that they needed something really dramatic to keep people watching? Besides that, Lady Sybil was replaced by some blonde; Lady Mary gained two new potential love interests so bland and interchangable she might as well just flip a coin; and her new status as a mother didn’t affect things much given that she barely acknowledged her son’s existence. As for the latest Christmas special, I remember almost nothing about it, except that the Prince of Wales was involved in some way.
With the first episode of the new series, the Sunday before last, it definitely didn’t look like they’d brought the old charm back. Everything just felt lifeless and uninteresting for the most part. Even the fire in Edith’s bedroom didn’t really generate any tension – it wasn’t like the whole Abbey was in danger of burning down. Last Sunday’s episode, meanwhile, didn’t bring anything new to the table except Lady Mary going on a naughty weekend – oh, and another piece of new-fangled technology, a sure source of conflict at Downton.
Downton Abbey is still better than most things on TV and I still hold some affection for these characters, so I’ll still be watching. But ultimately, I think the novelty has worn off and, in the calmer years following World War One, they’re running out of things to do with this setup. What else can be done? Maybe the Dowager Countess could find that wormhole to Westeros that Gwen and Sir Richard Carlisle disappeared through; I’m sure she would get along very well with Lady Olenna Tyrell.