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How Downton Abbey went from great to awful to pretty good again

The beauty of the show was that we could experience its luxe lifestyle while smugly rising above it.

PBS

"Even good things must come to an end."

"I don’t know if you’re a good thing or a bad thing, but we’ve all been together a long time."

Those lines were said in Downton Abbey's series finale as Thomas Barrow, that quasi-villain, left the estate, seemingly for good. But you could be forgiven for thinking they were directed at the show itself. By now, Downton’s critical pedigree is so muddled that no one quite knows whether it’s a good show or a bad show; after all, it’s been here for such a long time.

When Downton Abbey premiered in the US in 2011, it was greeted with a rapturous critical reception. Not everyone thought it was prestigious, of course, but everyone thought it was a hell of a lot of fun. Turkish princes dying in not-so-virginal ladies’ beds! Maggie Smith sitting in a swivel chair! The upstairs versus the downstairs! "The estate is entailed!" The series was thoroughly enjoyable, an unexpected delight, drolly addictive.

What was most impressive about it, argued Hitfix's Alan Sepinwall, was the way it balanced "nostalgia with a more cold-eyed assessment of the era." Downton was Mad Men but with British accents and Maggie Smith flinging bon mots: an unsentimental examination of a period of profound social upheaval that could show us how our own world came to be, with details so precise as to be fetishistic.

And then the second season aired, and everything went to hell. The new episodes were greeted at first with bafflement (This Bates plot can’t possibly last that long, can it?), then with fear (Oh, god, it's still a thing), and finally outright disdain (The Bates plot line has gone on longer than any plot line ever has before or will again; I will die watching Bates be tried for this murder and not once have I ever cared whether he did it). By the end of its third season, Downton Abbey was no longer prestige television. At best, it was a crazy soap opera. At worst, it was boring.

Downton's fall from grace was a consequence of too many soapy character turns made independently of the show's exploration of class

Part of the reason for the backlash was Downton's shift in focus away from the slow death of the stately house lifestyle and toward relationship dynamics. In many ways, it was a practical move: The show was a hit, producers wanted more episodes, and the death of the landed gentry class could only sustain so much story. Audiences loved the characters, so why not turn to the characters to generate more story?

But it was also a move from strength to weakness. Most infamously, it kicked off the endless is-Bates-a-murderer plot line, though many of the show's less reviled storylines suffered too.

Downton made it easy to care about Mary and Matthew when the subtext of their every conversation was about their warring levels of wealth and rank, when each line was weighted with the knowledge that the world Matthew was leaving was the world of the future. But when those conversations became solely about Mary and Matthew as individuals instead of as class archetypes, and about their tragic, thwarted love, it was suddenly much harder to care.

Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes would later demonstrate in his widely panned version of Romeo and Juliet (2013) that he does not have the same knack for telling small, individual love stories that he does with sweeping tales of class and social change, and latter-season Downton certainly suffered from that shortfall.

But what was even more damning was viewers’ slow realization that Downton Abbey is not a show that wants to explore moral ambiguities in the world it has created. Instead, it asks its audience to simultaneously revel in the elegance and beauty of the gilded past and congratulate ourselves on the moral superiority of the present.

Lady Edith looking wistful in the series finale of Downton Abbey. PBS

Fundamentally, the show made us feel comfortably smug about living in the enlightened present. The problem was that it failed to ever evolve.

Yes, it's thrillingly escapist to admire the beading on Lady Mary’s exquisite gowns and fantasize about a world where servants iron your newspaper before you read it so you don’t have to worry about getting ink on your fingers. But when we laugh at the classist disdain with which Lord Grantham says, "A job?" after learning that Matthew works as a lawyer, there is no danger of us laughing at ourselves. Instead, we are invited to indulge in some self-congratulation for being clever enough to live in the enlightened present, at a time when we all know how important jobs are.

It’s the kind of easy, lazy joke that shows like Mad Men increasingly abandoned as they grew more confident in their worlds, but which only became more prominent on Downton as the seasons progressed. Indeed, the reflection we saw of our own world as it emerged from the first decades of the 20th century was most flattering: It may have been just a little less gracious than the world of the Crawleys, but aren’t we all so much sharper and wiser and more moral now?

Certainly, it can be extremely satisfying to luxuriate in the worldview that Downton creates. I would be lying if I said I found it unpleasant to look at beautiful things and listen to people make arch and witty statements while being told repeatedly how much smarter and nicer I am than any of the people on my TV screen. But it’s a static worldview. It creates a straight-line narrative in which the present is always ugly and morally righteous and the past is always beautiful yet ultimately corrupt. There is no possibility for change or surprise in this world. It's always going to move in only one direction, and you will always know where it's taking you. It gets dull.

It also feels a little dated in this age of antihero TV. The prestige television of today likes to ruminate on the corrupt heart of humanity itself, on the darkness that lurks within us all — and this, too, can be very, very boring when not done well. But Downton imagines a kind of corruption that is corrected over time, and it is this attitude, much more than the butlers and the costumes and the elegant manor houses, that makes it feel like such an old-fashioned throwback of a show.

How we'll remember Downton Abbey, in the end

In its final season, Downton enjoyed a mild critical revival. With the end in sight, it was able to veer away from the relationship-driven stories that caused it to founder, back toward its larger story of social change and upheaval.

Sure, there were still plenty of relationship to-dos (including more than one wedding!). But there was also the larger focus on the changing times — Barrow's job search, Molesley taking on some teaching duties at the local school, and all manner of other subplots.

And in the finale, when Anna gave birth in Mary's bed, we weren't asked to care just because it was Anna, a character we've presumably cared about since Downton Abbey's earliest episodes. The moment stood in for the soon-to-come overthrow of the privileged classes, and it carried a resonance that went beyond the lives of the show's characters as individuals.

It's no surprise that once the final season debuted, critics began to once again describe Downton Abbey as pleasant and even poignant. New York magazine even went so far as to ask, "Is this show still any good at this point?" before deeming the question irrelevant: "Downton Abbey is just … Downton Abbey. It's wonderfully familiar and totally ridiculous."

At this point, who can say that it’s a good show or a bad show? At the very least, we’ve all been together a long time.

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