Downton Abbey and the Perils of Writing for Television

Downton Abbey

Last night I watched the final installment of Downton Abbey‘s third season. After watching the first episode of the third season, I referred to Downton as “my favorite soap opera.” This latest episode has confirmed my feelings regarding its soapishness. Dan Stevens, the actor who played Matthew, wanted out, but everyone else will carry on.

In a way, soap operas are a bit like real life. They just keep going and going. When someone dies in real life, the rest of us carry on. Downton and its family will do the same. But let’s be honest. That’s why real life doesn’t always make a satisfying narrative. Fiction ought to be going somewhere, but real life merely ambles along seemingly full of chance and whim.

In this case, Downton’s narrative became subjected to the whim of Dan Stevens who didn’t want to come back for a fourth season. In good fiction, the author only kills someone off if it furthers the story. Julian Fellowes must now change his vision to accomodate this hole left in the younger generation. The narrative will take a big change in direction.

But I don’t feel too bad for Fellowes. The destruction of his vision is really his own fault. If he had wanted everyone to come back for season four, then he should have written a stronger season two. Season two simply wasn’t as good as season one, and that’s why Stevens opted out. The dialogue didn’t have quite the same sparkle; the pacing was clumsy; and it made use of coincidence and chance too often. Coincidence and chance play a huge role in reality, but in good fiction they destroy the illusion of reality. Ironic, huh?

Season three has been somewhat better than season two, but Fellowes’s writing remains of a mixed quality. His introduction of the character Edna last night is a prime example. She shows up, causes Branson to question himself, and then leaves. Fellowes should have used existing characters to cause Branson to question himself. A good writer doesn’t conjure someone new to make one point and then dispose of them. That’s just laziness. And it’s unforgivable that he’s pulled this laziness on us twice. Didn’t we see the exact same story played out with Lord Grantham in season two? I’m not saying that Fellowes is a bad writer, but he’s not adept at the genre of television, recycling his ideas too often.

The show must go on, and in all likelihood, it will still be watchable. But Fellowes doesn’t give evidence that he’s improving as a writer for television. I expect that season four will be a repeat of season one, with a new suitor standing in the place of Matthew. We’ll retread all the ground we covered before as Mary tries to find the right husband. We might even get to see Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes replay the Bates-and-Anna storyline. Okay. I admit it; a Carson-Hughes romance might be a treat worth watching.

Feel free to speculate in the comments section about the show’s new direction.

4 thoughts on “Downton Abbey and the Perils of Writing for Television

  1. What about the time Patrick showed up with a different face and amnesia? That seemed random. It also feels amateurish when the writer wraps up major problems and conflicts too neatly. I totally agree with you that this is a lavish soap opera. The appeal is watching beautiful people wear beautiful clothes in a beautiful setting. But in true soap operadom, Matthew would rise from the dead….stay tuned.

      1. I don’t know. They make it work in Dr. Who. But seriously, I don’t necessarily agree killing the character is preferable to replacing the actor. I’d rather have a complete story than maintain the illusion. We do usually end up with a poor substitute though. The Oracle and Dumbledore come to mind. :-/

      2. In my mind, the series will have ended with Branson catching the cricket ball. Next year I will watch a totally different show that happens to have the same name and the same actors as an old show I used to watch.

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