Americans have an interesting turn of phrase to describe that moment when a television programme loses that “spark” that made it so popular, loved or even compelling in the first place; it’s called “jumped the shark” and you can read how it came about here. One can have a lively debate or conversations with others about when a programme has finally jumped the shark and there are no right or wrong answers but generally a consensus emerges about that precise moment when viewers realise that there is nowhere to go but down.
Downton Abbey is no different and several critics, bloggers and viewers have their own views on when it jumped its own personal shark. One writer is of the opinion that it had already done so as early as the first series with the Pamuk story line; while others have pointed to series two, especially with Matthew making a miraculous recovery from his injury (I thought it was possible but the execution was poor and Fellowes explanation that such a recovery was indeed medically correct did not ring true). But I’ve noticed that many viewers tend to veer towards two events – Matthew’s death in the 2012 Christmas special and Anna’s rape in series 4 as the turning point.
Viewers have their reasons as to why either Matthew’s death or Anna’s rape can be seen as that pivotal moment when Downton has finally jumped the shark. The case for Matthew’s death being accorded that dubious honour is compelling – being killed off moments after the birth of his son via a wholly avoidable road accident seemed to have been pointless. After he has survived the war, managed the impossible and overcome his injuries long enough to marry and impregnate Lady Mary, he is dispatched in one of the most clichéd ways possible.
Julian Fellowes and the producers have claimed their hand was forced after Dan Stevens had informed them in advance that he was not renewing his contract. “There was no other way!” was their cry during the firestorm that ensued after the episode was telecast. Many have pointed out that there were other ways of writing out the character; having Matthew set off on an extended business trip or contriving to have him as part of Lord Flintshire’s entourage with the death happening off screen later or having him return in a cameo for the final episode when Downton finally bows out.
More perceptive viewers have noted that perhaps once Stevens had made his decision, series 3 should have been the last. After all, Downton Abbey was initially contracted for three series so Fellowes should have stuck to that and used series 3 as a way of tying up loose ends, with the final scene showing us Matthew and Mary with baby George or a fast forward scene with the new Earl and Countess of Grantham surrounded by their children.
Others believe however that the rape Anna Bates suffered at the hands of the servant of a visiting house guest should have that dubious honour instead and again there are compelling reasons why this is so. Many criticisms centred on how the rape was unnecessary as a story line, the aftermath becoming all about Bates rather than Anna and eventually viewers were denied a closure with the assailant meeting his death off-screen after a traffic accident.
The response from the producers and actors was predictable. Joanne Froggatt claimed that the story line was “beautiful and brave” while the producers insisted that they wanted to depict how women particularly from the working classes were hard done by. Such pronouncements sound very lame, especially as series 4 went on and the story line limped on towards an unsatisfactory conclusion or lack thereof. Let’s leave aside the claim that a brutal physical assault on a woman, even a fictional one, can ever be described as either beautiful or brave, or why Fellowes leaves it until the fourth series to abandon his soft focus view of the master servant relationship and depict the risks run by working class women in a big house full of young men. Claims of “bravery” and “beauty” ring hollow when we recall that a rape storyline is a tried and tested (let’s not say weary and worn out) dramatic device to get the viewers talking and revive a flagging drama, and one that has been wheeled out over the years by pretty much every programme that calls itself a drama since the original Forsyte Saga used it in 1968; a truly shocking moment in the history of television. Had Downton been the first programme to use this then I might reluctantly accept the claims of bravery. As it is it just looked like an author who has lost his original narrative purpose grasping at any storyline to whip up interest.
Looking at both arguments, I find myself more in the camp that believes that Downton finally jumped the shark with Matthew’s death. The subsequent two series have shown that Fellowes had no Plan B should his major actors Dan Stevens and Michelle Dockery (especially the former) decide not to renew. Despite the insistence on the house being the focal point of the narrative, the reality is that Matthew is the centre around which all the others revolve and the harbinger for change that will mirror what is happening to Britain around that time. The raison d’ etre for the programme was always to have Matthew as the Earl of Grantham which would signify the changing of the guard and a movement into the post war world and the challenges it brought.
But Stevens’ departure scuppered that ending and both series 4 and 5 have demonstrated what happens when that main focal point of the narrative is gone. Fellowes (who critics have noted is much better with one off dramas and feature films) has increasingly been raiding his own work, the soap opera canon and even works of literature to pad out his increasingly threadbare narrative. People could suspend their disbelief during the first three series because there was Matthew holding it all together and his marriage to Mary and accession as Earl of Grantham to anticipate. Once Matthew was killed off, the story lines lost their way with each becoming more ludicrous than the last, and with the PR working overtime to distract viewers from the increasing lack of content; with promises of gripping and controversial storylines that turn out to be anything but and promising storylines that end not with a bang but a whimper and are neatly tidied away so as not to interfere with the next plotline coming up.
So in conclusion, my opinion is that Downton Abbey jumped the shark once Matthew met his end on that roadside; and despite the PR since series 4 with Mary as the centre of the narrative, or even persevering with the fiction that the house itself as the main focus has meant that the narrative has lost coherence and shape. Perhaps Julian Fellowes, the producers and ITV should have taken heed of Yeats:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned
And indeed Matthew’s death has resulted into the narrative falling apart to the extent that we have been time and again served the “anarchy” of improbable plots, anachronisms, set pieces, visual tricks, hammy and wooden acting and recycling of both stories and characters to cover up the fact that the programme itself is a pale shadow of what it was in the beginning. Perhaps it’s time to consign Downton Abbey to the television graveyard before it descends further into farce.