February 18, 2013 4:53pm PT by Tim Goodman
How 'Downton Abbey' Got Its Groove Back -- and Could Lose It All Too Quickly
Note: This column contains spoilers for season three of Downton Abbey, which ended Sunday.
After a dubious roller coaster of creative missteps in season two, it was comforting to see Downton Abbey get its season-one groove back and even improve upon it in season three, which ended Sunday. Comebacks like that are not exactly rare but infrequent, and since there's always been a feel-good vibe to Downton Abbey, it was satisfying to see Julian Fellowes right the ship.
The trouble ahead, however -- and there's trouble ahead for virtually every series when it finishes a creatively successful season because there are no guarantees it will happen again -- is that Downton has a season four. Shame, that. Season three might have been an excellent way to end it all. In many ways it felt like a series finale. There was resolution all over the place, even small bits of it like Thomas finding a sliver of happiness in friendship, instead of love. Hell, Mrs. Patmore got an electric-shock of attention and even when it turned to something else, she was able to laugh about it. With its Downton's financial lifeline secured thanks to Matthew, Daisy's potentially bright future, Bates out of jail and Mr. and Mrs. Bates being so resolutely and happily in love, Ethel getting closer to work closer to her lost child -- hell, pretty much everyone's story in some manner, Sunday night would have made for a superb and satisfying finale.
Of course there was the death of Matthew after the birth of his son, but that bittersweet juxtaposition of life and death isn't new and worked well enough as an out for Dan Stevens, who had already announced he was leaving the series (his contract was up). That was equally true of Lady Sybil's death, which was more dramatic (though Jessica Brown Findlay also wanted to leave the series). However, season four of Downton Abbey already is being written by Fellowes (though it's likely to be his last as well, or at least for a while, as he's got an NBC series to write and will be handing off the writing duties -- which he alone performed on Downton -- to someone else). The question now is, will season four be more like seasons one and three or will it nosedive like season two?
Not all of the stories are told, of course, but most of the good ones are. I liked how Downton Abbey finally gave Edith a release from her shackles and let enough be known that she was, indeed, going to be a happy mistress in love. This was particularly pleasing because she'd finally had enough of Lady Mary's bitchiness without blowing up about it. She just decided to take action. And this also served Lady Mary well because she was true to her character -- only Matthew being the one who believed her to be nice and lovable despite all evidence to the contrary; and then Matthew dies. You just can't improve upon that.
I'm less interested in seeing Lady Mary deal with the fallout going forward. Or even Branson adjusting to single fatherhood. Season three had a satisfaction level that I was quite pleased with because there was much less pandering than I expected. It was quite an achievement for Downton to regain such strong footing.
To me, what's most interesting going forward is how Downton Abbey might become the modern-day poster series for keeping things short and well within their creative lifespans, as the Brits are usually wont to do. Obviously, the massive success of the series in America changes things, proving PBS and the Brits can be just as greedy as, say, ABC, NBC, Fox and CBS. Milk it for the money, honey.
And while it might be a freakishly positive new experience for the actors on Downton Abbey to ride a hit for all its worth, most are used to going into and out of a variety of roles in one or two seasons, maybe three. They aren't tied to lengthy seasons and the notion that staying on a hit show for 10 years is a good thing like actors here. (The majority of long-running British series outside of Doctor Who -- another example of high actor turn-over -- are not considered quality offerings.) Credit both Stevens and Findlay for wanting to do something else, and certainly don't fault Stevens, in particular, for that. You could read into some of the comments by Fellowes that he was displeased by the jam Stevens put him into by exiting, but with Fellowes himself seeking new challenges in American television, he can hardly point fingers.
Had season four not been, as reports have stated, highly focused on Lady Mary, you'd have to wonder why Michelle Dockery wanted to stay on. What are the odds she's around for season five? And with Fellowes off to write for NBC and letting others try to match his voice, what will become of Downton Abbey after season four anyway?
Granted, maybe season four will be akin (but not creatively comparable) to season four of The Wire, arguably the best in that brilliant show's run. But isn't it more likely that the stories on Downton Abbey have pretty much run their course? Isn't it likely that other stars will start to want out, even if PBS is pushing the Brits to make more, more, more?
That's why I wish last night was the series, not the season, finale. But we shall see.