'Downton Abbey: The New Era' and Villain Decay
A series of unfortunately dull events.
One of the prices of our freedom is the fact that Julian Fellowes is free to make as many Downton Abbey projects as the market will bear1. The original series was a pleasant surprise, a charming costume drama depicting a (thankfully) bygone age. It looked great, told a fairly straightforward love story dressed up with some class observations, and had a raft of charismatic, beautiful actors. Sure, it was about as deep as paint on your wall, but when you come for the costumes depth isn’t always necessary (or welcome)2.
The show always thrived on the minor and the vaguely ridiculous3. This is the sort of show that you would not be surprised to discover devoted twenty minutes of screen time to some butter missing from the Downton pantry4, or a footman investing two guineas into a pyramid scheme and recruiting a ladies maid into a Scooby Doo-ish scheme to retrieve the money. At the same time, in the early days there was some attempt at pathos and conflict—at least some of the plotlines pivoted on the arrogance of the aristocratic Crawley family and the struggles of the servant class, who were often trapped in their jobs and thus trapped in a fairly miserable, limited existence5.
Since that moderately compelling beginning, however, the Downton universe has undergone one of the most stunning cases of decline into Fan Service and what I call Villain Decay ever seen. The latest film in the franchise, Downton Abbey: The New Era is as toothless as Future Jeff will be after a lifetime spent grinding his teeth during forced viewings of dreck like Downton Abbey: The New Era6.
Atila the Hun Loved His Family
So the basic plot of The New Era (SPOILERS HO) is split in two: The Crawleys, finding their unnecessarily enormous home pretty expensive to keep up without slave labor, agree to let a film studio make a movie using Downton as the setting7. Meanwhile, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, Violet Crawley, receives a villa in the south of France from a man she spent one dreamy week with decades and decades ago, and the family is invited by the disgruntled family to visit while the lawyers sort it all out.
On the face of it, this seems like perfectly serviceable set of story engines. All you need is a little conflict, and watch those sparks fly!
Yeah, about that. Downton did once have villainous characters. They were not particularly evil or monstrous, but the maid O’Brien and the footman Barrow were schemers who seemed to openly despise everyone around them, and they caused at least some conflict. And prior stories have also introduced actual antagonists, people who stand in the way of all that is good in the Downton world, which is to say the cheer and stability of Downton Abbey and the Crawley family. But as with many ongoing stories (Downton is essentially a period soap opera), the villains all either exited stage left, pursued by bears or became increasingly humanized until they weren’t villains any more. Barrow, ascended to Butler, is no longer the bitter asshole he once was. Now he’s positively nice. There isn’t a villain to be found in this new film—you have to squint pretty hard to consider the slightly irritated wife of Violet’s old flame a villain, since her villainy is confined to a few exasperated insults and a facial expression that translates to these English people are boors8.
We All Everybody
Another aspect of this erosion of all conflict is modernizing the characters so the audience can love them unreservedly. The audience for Downton stories has a lot of affection for these characters, and so it’s increasingly jarring when they exhibit the attitudes and belief systems of the time—homophobia, classism, perhaps a dash of pre-Nazi fascism9. So, slowly, the franchise has buffed these flaws from the characters10. The Crawleys and their servants have become something of an extended family, cheerfully performing their traditional roles out of love for each other and respect for the institution of brutal economic control represented by the country house itself11.
In earlier incarnations, there were some nods to the immense gulf between these people. There was an entire episode devoted to Bates being fired because his slight limp and need for a cane made him a poor valet for Lord Grantham (and thus without value as a human being). Sure, Lord Grantham couldn’t actually fire him due to a deep and innate decency, but at least the show danced with the concept that aristocrats and rigid class systems are sometimes not so great.
No longer. As the film company descends on Downton, it’s all arch humor and the servants having the time of their lives as they regularly take liberties with the Upstairs folk that would have seen them fired with no reference and thus doomed to a life of poverty in an earlier, slightly more realistic version of the show.
The end result? Literally nothing interesting happens unless your feelings for these characters are extremely warm and fuzzy. If the idea of Mary Crawley dubbing an actress’ lines to save a film a la Singin’ in the Rain is your idea of a compelling story, you’re in luck12. If you like your stories to have even a dash of uncertainty where everyone’s happiness is concerned, you are not so in luck. The film is essentially a series of vignettes of people who care deeply about each other having delightful conversations. The villains have decayed, the fan service has been turned up to 11, and it’s very, very hard to understand why anyone cares any more13,14.
Except the actors, of course. Pay me a large sum of money and I, too, will dress for dinner and act aghast when someone brings up politics at the dinner table.
Next week: ‘Barry’ and the sociopaths next door.
A surprisingly high number.
Is “Depth Isn’t Always Necessary (Or Welcome!)” the new title of my memoir? Magic 8 Ball Says: Maybe.
Is “The Minor and the Vaguely Ridiculous” both a great band name AND the title of my memoir? You bet your ass it is.
To be fair, I devoted three hours to The Mystery of the Missing TV Remote last night, so this isn’t totally crazy.
Unlike us moderns, who are free to do as we please what with our universal healthcare, basic universal income, and plentiful cheap housing.
Luckily, you don’t need teeth to drink whiskey, which provides all of my necessary nutrients as long as those nutrients are whiskey and regret.
One of the most insulting aspects of stories like this is that they take the position that it is essential to the balance of the universe that rich folks be able to hang onto their impractically large homes and bonny lifestyle, like it would be some sort of tragedy if these rich parasites had to go live in a four bedroom McMansion instead.
Also: Being French.
In real life, of course, you would find all three of these things in every member of the Crawley family, and the only tension would stem from when—not if—Tom the former driver and socialist would be caught beating up a tenant farmer who was late with the rent.
In the same way I have buffed my only flaws (too much humility and a tendency towards flatulence) away and now have none.
In other words, Downton Abbey has become a sort of Gone With the Wind for the British class system, offering up happy, smiling servants who appear willing to take up arms and defend the crawleys from a general uprising screaming to eat the rich.
The fact that this film is essentially a mashup between Fellowes’ own Gosford Park and Singin’ In the Rain is … very weird and I don’t know how to feel about that.
They’ve even lost most of the character work that was once intersting. Lady Mary has exactly one line of dialog that even vaguely crackles with the meanspirited energy she had in the early going, and nothing the Dowager Countess says is even vaguely interesting.
And Violet also gets a maudlin death scene where she appears to be quite comfortable and content, makes a nice speech, and dies on cue without any fuss, pain, or uncontrolled bowel movements. It is, to use a literary term, malarkey.