Downton Abbey: great show, or great cast?

22:09, Dec 06 2012

Well, there it is. You can put a fork in it - Downton Abbey is done for the year, finishing a third season that saw the show back to (or near) its best, and leaving us with at least one lingering question: is the show actually great, or is it a good show that's pushed into greatness by a brilliant cast?

(Warning: This post contains major spoilers from the third season of Downton Abbey, including last night's finale.)

"We've seen some troubles, you and I. Nothing worse than this."
"Nothing could be worse than this, m'lady."

The mournful exchange between Violet, the Dowager Countess (played by Maggie Smith), and Carson, the ever-faithful butler (Jim Carter), which took place toward the end of the fifth episode, shortly after Sybil's death, is something I've been coming back to again and again. One of the biggest complaints - certainly my biggest complaint - is that the second season of Downton Abbey went too far across the line between drama and soap opera.

Yet Violet is right when she says that they (and, by extension, we the viewers) had seen nothing worse than the death of Sybil: the third season of Julian Fellowes' period drama actually escalated the rate at which it imitated the likes of Coronation Street or Emmerdale Farm, embracing its soap opera tendencies like never before.

Think about some of the storylines this season: Cora's mother arrives at Downton, Matthew is informed that he is the heir to a fortune from his ex-fiancee's father, Mrs Hughes has a cancer scare, Mary finally gets married to Matthew after overcoming some pre-wedding jitters, Edith gets jilted at the altar by Sir Anthony Strallan, Anna spends most of the year trying to get Mr Bates out of prison for a murder he couldn't possibly have committed ...


*deep breath*

... Ethel gives up a life of prostitution and hands her baby off to its grandparents before being taken in by Isobel Crawley, Tom is forced to flee Ireland after getting involved in an attack on the upper class, Sybil dies during childbirth, two new footmen and a new kitchenhand cause a flutter in the servant wing, Thomas is set up by Mrs Hughes to sexually harass a co-worker, Matthew and Mary's dual appointments with Dr Ryder, the troublesome Rose, and the annual cricket match. Phew!

It all sounds more than a little soapy - and it all worked perfectly, right?

I thought the third season was at least as good as the first, if not better. Most of the stories Fellowes told this year were entertaining, even riveting at times; I couldn't really care less about Tom's "gorilla" brother from Liverpool and I have no interest in hearing about (let alone reading) Edith's newspaper column, but the rest - especially the financial turmoil on the estate and the power struggle between Matthew and Robert - were a treat to watch.

The cast were great again this year. Aside from a terrific performance all round in those episodes dealing with Sybil's passing, the grief in those moments expertly written and brought to life on screen, I thought Dan Stevens had plenty of great moments as he tried to seize control of Downton, Hugh Bonneville did a great job as a man kind of stuck out of time following the war, and Rob James-Collier and Siobhan Finneran - Thomas (or should that be Mr Barrow) and Mrs O'Brien - had some great moments battling each other as well. Though the real star is still Dame Maggie Smith; Violet steals almost every scene ("it seems a shame to waste a good pudding") and is a joy to behold*.

But I keep coming back to those soap opera elements of the show. Discussing the series with my dad yesterday, I mentioned how he always argues that a great cast can sell a bad show - an argument which originally stemmed from a long discussion of The Newsroom.

In this case, I think a fantastic cast is pushing this good, but not great, show into the realm of greatness.

The ensemble is so strong, and each actor has embodied their character so comprehensively, that their performances alone can sell me on any storyline the writers want to send my way. Heck, when Sybil died, I really felt as though I had lost a friend of the family. I'm not ashamed to admit it, I was a wreck after that episode.

If any of these stories popped up on Corrie, I don't know that any of us would bat an eyelid. It certainly wouldn't be the kind of must-see television that Downton has been for the last eight weeks. But with these performers, in this setting, and on this show, it makes for some truly fantastic television. And I loved it.

What do you think: is Downton Abbey a great show? Or is it a good show pushed into greatness by a brilliant cast?

(*) By the way, I would absolutely watch an Odd Couple-esque comedy in which Isobel and Violet are forced to live together, and just sit around their day room and bicker about the latest gossip. It would be fantastic.

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