Downton Abbey: 8 Ways to Make It Awesome Again for Season Three

Let me first start this exercise in constructive criticism of PBS’s Masterpiece Classic import, Downton Abbey, by clarifying that I would rather watch a flawed season of Downton over more than just about 80% of anything else that’s on television right now. Heaven forbid anyone think I’m just being a hater with this story, when in truth I’m just a great big Grantham family tree sycophant. 

Abbey

I fell in love with Downton way back in 2011 when it was not yet a cultural blip on the watercooler radar and I was giddy to watch Season Two unfold this year. I didn’t even cheat and download the season early from the UK so I could wallow in its HD beauty and support civilized public television like I imagine The Right Honourable Violet Crawley, Countess of Grantham, would demand of me.

But all that love aside, Downton, and particularly you, the writer of the series, Mr. Julian Fellowes, took my beloved show and characters down some pretty wonky paths in Season Two.  What was up with all that soapy nonsense you lathered all over the Crawleys for two-thirds of the season?  If you ask me, Season One had plenty of drama and intrigue exploring the social constraints of the time realistically and organically within the halls of the Grantham estate. Yet in Season Two, subtlety felt like it went out the window in favor of what can only be described at times as a cheap, melodramatic potboiler. (Pardon my, affontery, gentle readers.) Beloved characters we’ve come to know suddenly turned into weird versions of themselves, the drama that could have been wrung out of WWI was instead relegated to a bothersome event that disrupted the house’s schedule, dire maladies suddenly disappeared or returned to knock inconvenient characters into the grave, and don’t get me started on that crazy-eyed “cousin” Patrick nonsense.

And then out of the murk came the Season Two Christmas special, which was like a miraculous return to form, where the characters were acting like they should again and the melodrama took a backseat to real character moments that were touching, human, and honest again. Downton Abbey ended its second season on a high note and in that spirit I thought I’d pass along a few Dowager Countess-esque pursed lip “suggestions” to Mr. Fellowes as he writes the soon to be in production Season Three.

Don’t Mess with Robert and Cora Crawley’s Marriage Again

One of the most endearing aspects of Season One was seeing the truly loving relationship between the American Cora, who wasn’t a beloved insider, and her British husband, Robert. They had a real love that helped the wealthy family come off as incredibly relatable and sympathetic within the class system that by all rights should have made them insufferable. Sure marriages can have their issues -- especially in this kind of drama -- but did you really have to turn Robert into a random horn dog that goes after the single mother housemaid?

I’m not naïve. I know the men of aristocratic households slept with the help all the time, but Robert’s infatuation came out of nowhere and in order to sell it, you suddenly had to turn Cora into a shrew. You didn’t even have Robert holding a vigil at Cora’s Spanish Flu almost-death bed. You put O’Brien there! I despised that the Crowleys were one step away from hating one another just so Jane could come off as sympathetic.  That whole storyline earned five Dowager Countess “Harumphs!" However, you redeemed Robert and Cora in the Christmas Special and they should remain devoted from now on, thank you very much!

No More Miraculous Cures

It was a cop out to suddenly have Matthew’s war injury become a “spinal bruise” and we all know it. For heaven’s sake, the man doesn’t even limp now! You could have easily given Matthew a war injury that demoralized him or made him fight to regain feeling or control of a limb or appendage without going all in with an injury that goes just goes poof in the end.  It felt like that storyline was just a waste of time, and even poor, sweet Lavinia can’t argue against that.

Don’t Crap Out on the Bates Murder Sentence

We don’t like to see John and Anna Bates suffer, but since you made John’s ex-wife the female version of Snidely Whiplash and then tortured him with a murder wrap, a tense trial where his own words sank his defense (well done on that) and then a possible death sentence that was reduced to life in prison, you better make John’s exoneration worth it come Season Three!  We’re not standing for a “murder bruise” or some other lame resolution that isn’t worth the torturous path poor John and Anna have had to traverse.

Don’t Rely on Bandages or Facial Burns Ever Again

I don’t know where to start with the cousin Patrick storyline. It made poor Edith look like a rube of the worst kind, just when we’d really started to like her for her independent spirit and warm empathy with the convalescing soldiers. It didn’t help that Patrick and his makeup were really freaky and uncomfortable to look at, thus earning him no compassion. Talk about a whiner and borderline psychopath. If he comes back with a pretty face in Season Three and woos Edith’s affections again, we’re going to personally steal her way to Ireland to live with Sybil and her hunky hubby so they can talk some sense into her.

Let Mary and Matthew Just Be for A Bit

We don’t need third party lovers or interlopers intruding on their love affair anymore. Let this newly engaged pair be a couple and make Mary grow up because she’s in love with a good man who brings out the best in her, as evidenced when she helped nurse him post spinal injury. I’d much rather watch how real life affects these two as people than roll my eyes as ridiculous threats or ill-conceived dramatics that make them seem like caricatures.  

Stop Shifting Stories to Secondary Characters Who Don't Matter in the End

I'm sorry I don't care for Ethel Parks and her baby daddy story. I know it's a common tale in the upstairs, downstairs days, but boy was it labored and a non-starter all season long. I'd much rather have had more time with just about anyone in the Abbey house staff than Ethel. Let's spend more time with Carson, Ms. Hughes, Daisy (post-William confusion) and Thomas now that he's back in the footman role in Season Three. And how about some enigmatic O'Brien backstory too?

Allow for More Small Downton Magic Moments

Moments like Mrs. Patmore using an Ouija board to persuade Daisy to visit her father-in-law, Thomas taking the Dowager Countess for a spin on the dance floor at the Servant’s Ball, O’Brien trying to come clean to Cora, Isobel Crawley telling Matthew to go after Mary and let go of Lavinia’s death, or Daisy learning what love really is from William’s grieving father are the kind of moments that make us fall in love with these characters over and over again. It’s not the big twists or the ridiculous moments of overheated melodrama that define Downton Abbey, rather it’s the little moments where the characters can reveal their lovely humanity that make the show magic and until the Christmas Special, Season Two was missing its heart too often.

Never, Ever Pull Back on the Maggie Smith Moments

Maggie Smith's portrayal of the Dowager Countess is pure gold. I don't care if people accuse her of being one note, that's not true. Smith's Countess is the Sour Patch Kid of television characters: the perfect blend of tart and sweet and completely awesome in every way. Don't change her a whit or make her second fiddle to next season's cast addition, Shirley MacLaine. We're warning you, Fellowes! Don't make me draw my pistol.

By Tara Bennett

About the author

is an author (The Lost Encyclopedia), a national entertainment journalist and a media studies adjunct professor at Rowan University. She's been a film, TV and pop culture junkie for as long as she can remember and she's got the old TV Guide's to prove it. Pray for her thighs as she spends far too much time at her desk writing or her couch watching what she loves.

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7 Comments
On: Tuesday, February 21, 2012
Eric - TV Geek Army "Revered Leader" said:

Great stuff, Tara! 

Largely agree with all of the above. I think general consensus is that season two fell off quite a bit (though still quite good and watchable overall) in terms of pacing and wacky soapy plottiness. Cousin Patrick was the worst offender in my book... I was as relieved as the Granthams when he skulked off into the English mist. 

I did like how Robert's quasi-affair with the maid resolved in that Lord Grantham reined himself in when he realized he was placing her in an "impossible" situation, remembered his duty, etc. 

And I think everyone agrees that the Christmas special/season finale was pretty close to a masterpiece, which in my view more than made up for the season's failings. 

Can't wait to see what will be going down up at the Abbey during Season Three and the Roaring Twenties! 

On: Tuesday, February 21, 2012
Sandy P said:

For those who felt Season Two went off kilter because they no longer dealt with the "small charming moments" of Season One, I wonder if you are students of history.  WWI  or The Great War was like nothing anyone had ever experienced before.  In the Boer War (Lord Grantham and Bates fought in that one), they were still riding horses into battle; in the First WW there were dog fights in the air, machine guns, mustard gas.  20,000 men died on the very first day in the Battle of the Somme.  It could not be ignored.  Julian Fellowes was RIGHT to devote the whole season to it.  I thought they did it very well.  I agree the possible return of Cousin Patrick was a stretch, but both William's injuries and Matthew's were entirely possible.  (Remember there were no X-rays at that time.)  Dr. Clarckson definitely should have been more agressive. As to the Spanish flu, it was "convenient" that Lavinia was the one to die, but that too was taken from the reports at the time.

On: Tuesday, February 21, 2012
Tara Bennett said:

Hi Sandy,

I don't think they gave WWI the service it deserved. It was treated like a side story and just a disruption until William died and Matthew got his spinal injury. I didn't feel the real impact of that war in Julian's narrative at all except that women like Sybil and Edith finally had more of a purpose that expanded their horizons. I also agree the injuries were entirely plausible but I think they were written so broadly, and in the end for Matthew without any lingering effect, that they were hard to swallow without any real stakes or delicacy in the telling. I love the historical elements, so I think you're misreading my condemnation of some of the writing not for their inclusion but for how poorly they were written more like a pulp novel than the finely constructed narrative of Season One.

On: Tuesday, February 21, 2012
Eric - TV Geek Army "Revered Leader" said:

I must add that the brief scenes that took place at the front were exceptionally well done for a television show, and I wish that we could have spent more time there with Matthew, William, etc. 

Adding to Tara's comment, I think WWI as plot device was one cause that pushed the pacing of season two into hyperdrive after the relatively genteel and wonderful pace of season one. 

Here's hoping that season three will see something of a pacing reset even as we enter the roaring twenties... I assume they were as roaring in the UK as they were in the states? 

On: Thursday, March 15, 2012
Rosie said:

1. Fellowes should try to be a little more complex with the working-class characters.

2. It would be nice to have a working-class character who DID NOT like the Crawleys and at the same time, be a likeable character.

3. Return portraying Matthew and Mary as the interesting and complex couple they used to be in Season One and cease the romance novel crap that surrounded them in Season Two.

4. Give the Dowager Countess of Grantham a storyline and stop using her merely as comic relief.

5. Allow a working-class character to rise above the rank of a servant WITHOUT help from the so-called "noble" Crawleys.

On: Thursday, March 15, 2012
Eric - TV Geek Army "Revered Leader" said:

Great analysis, totally agreed on #2 !

On: Tuesday, March 20, 2012
Rosie said:

Let me first start this exercise in constructive criticism of PBS’s Masterpiece Classic import, Downton Abbey, by clarifying that I would rather watch a flawed season of Downton over more than just about 80% of anything else that’s on television right now.

 

The problem I have with the above comment is that as much as I enjoy "DOWNTON ABBEY", I can think of a good number of other TV shows that are also favorites of mine.

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