Well yes, (yawn) Downton Abbey has returned for a new season on public television. I quit watching after year 3 when the heir to the estate died in a car accident. Frankly, I was never fond of any character, except Maggie Smith’s. The rest are too bland or too precious to hold my interest. Once the financial crisis that wracked seasons I and II was resolved, I saw no reason to hang around.
That Downton Abbey persists means my view is not shared by its many television fans. Nonetheless, Daniel Mendelsohn makes a good case for why the series should have died two seasons ago. Like me, he feels that once the central problem was resolved — the survival of the estate — the story was over. The aristocratic characters — those upstairs and downstairs — are fee to go on living their lives with assured of financial stability. To continue the plot is to drag us through a series of romances which aren’t substantive enough to warrant endless iterations of intrigues and threats of scandal. True, the producers have a financial incentive to see the series continue and are willing to shatter the main plot into subplots which, according to Mendelsohn, become an “irritation when stretched to unrealistic lengths.” (“New Television,” by Daniel Mendelsohn, Harper’s, January 2015 pg. 88.) We aren’t satisfied by stories that never end, he insists. Viewers want a tale to be “’life-like’ in certain ways, [but they] also want it to have a shapeliness that life often seems to lack.” (Ibid pg. 88)
Quoting pundits from Aristotle to Jerry Seinfeld, he argues that the point of all stories is to have a beginning a middle and an end. As Downton Abbey’s plots dwindle into insignificance, they become more like soap operas, which can go on for decades because soap operas aren’t held to the same standards as drama. He calls the former Camp, parodies of life, not to be taken seriously because the characters seldom age or die. No one mistakes these inventions as an examination of real life and so their silliness is allowed to replicate endlessly.
Mendelsohn deserves a pat on the back for attempting to separate soap operas from drama. Unfortunately, everyone knows soap operas are stories like any other and they do hold their audience – an audience that would howl if certain characters or themes were terminated. And certainly, they would bridle at the notion their fiction was Camp.
Still, the author has asked an important question. What keeps a story alive and what doesn’t? I can offer no definitive answer. Being comfortable with empathetic characters may have something to do with longevity. On a related question, I’ve often asked “how many versions of Hamlet can there be?” Or My Fair Lady? Or, King Lear?” A lot, apparently, because we retell these tales again and again with the hunger of children who are never bored by their favorite bed time stories. There is something soothing about the familiar.
Is Downton Abbey a drama or soap opera? Each viewer must decide. As for me, I take my cue from Aristotle. It’s time to bring these ruminations to an end.