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Downton Abbey Is Dead

Chris, Standley Lake Library

Some traditions continue for longer than they should.  Take New Year’s resolutions, for instance.  You get some poor sod, already tired and penniless from the holidays, and catch him at his weakest moment, when he’s least like himself.  Then you make him resolve something.  It’s like a mean-spirited joke.

The farce is completed by the fact that New Year’s resolutions are made, but are rarely kept.  Whatever you’re giving up (be it booze or desserts) or taking up (whether fresh vegetables or regular exercise) rest assured that no one expects you to be doing it come March.  New Year’s resolutions are a hypocrite’s delight.

I don’t usually go for resolutions, but this year, I’ve broken with custom and decided to make a vow of my own.  My resolution happened spontaneously, last Sunday, as I was watching the series premiere of Downton Abbey with my partner.  At the precise moment that Lady Edith’s profile dissolved into a commercial for unsalted butter, my wife looked at me and posed the fateful question that plagues viewers everywhere; namely, why does Downton Abbey suck so badly?  And better still, why on earth are we watching it?

All excellent questions.  Why indeed?  Based on three seasons of careful viewing, let’s sum up what we know about Downton Abbey.  Well, for starters: every day on the Grantham estate is like New Year’s Day, and the dialogue is like being stuck inside a greeting card.  Set in a historical period that no living person can remember, Downton indulges genteel stereotypes about the British class system as benign paternal order, where accidents of birth carry the weight of fate, and your place as lord or servant is no less inevitable than tradition itself.  In the drawing room, the men are self-important and the women are bored.  Downstairs, the staff is courteous, hard-working and self-doubting, the “noble poor.”   Every now and again, the writers put a curt phrase in Maggie Smith’s mouth, and we laugh, as we are meant to.  It’s all so familiar.  After all, she played this exact role in Gosford Park and Tea with Mussolini.

Traditions are meant to give us comfort.  We watch transatlantic costume dramas and see a mannered and preternatural calm that passes for life, one that gives us the sense of an unchanging world.  The years go by without anyone having aged a single day.  The years go by without anyone having changed his mind.  Someone takes tea.  Someone’s title is passed to his offspring.  Someone is born.  There’s another commercial for unsalted butter.  Another why are we still watching this?

In the end, nothing is forever, not even Downton Abbey.  I read the other day that next season, Downton Abbey’s fifth, will be its last.  When it comes to television, I’ve always admired the British ability to know when enough’s enough.  If Downton Abbey were an American show, it would not be permitted to die.  It would limp along like a grotesque Vegas lounge act, crapping out gold ingots for ten, fifteen, even twenty seasons.

But me, I'm going to get a head start on Downton's demise by stopping my subscription now.  Whatever else the new year needs, it simply must have better television.  Check with me in March, when New Year’s resolutions will be nothing but a distant memory.  I’ll probably be watching Glee, and wishing it was January, so that I could make myself another promise.