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Down With ‘Downton Abbey’! Please, No More

Shirley MacLaine joins "Downton Abbey." (Photo courtesy of Carnival Film and "Masterpiece.")

Shirley MacLaine joins “Downton Abbey.” (Photo courtesy of Carnival Film and “Masterpiece.”)

I’ve had it with dressing for dinner. I’ve had it with wondering about the romantic lives of closed-down windbags. I’ve had it with American actresses embarrassing themselves on British television.

I have had it with “Downton Abbey.”

After watching the first three episodes of the third season (beginning Jan. 6) I won’t watch a fourth. Compared with what else is on these days, “Downton Abbey” has become seriously bad television. I say this as someone who has long admired PBS in general and “Masterpiece” in particular. While HBO and cable services have stolen much of their Sunday night thunder as TV’s quality showcase, “Masterpiece” is still an old-school delight, usually featuring superb acting and writing, solid directing and, most often, great source material.

But not “Downton Abbey.” Not anymore.

The series started out as first-rate drama. More so than “Upstairs Downstairs,” it put the changing nature of English society front and center, starting out in the days before World War I. The aristocrats had to make room for the middle class, who, in turn, were more open to egalitarianism from top to bottom. All of this encroachment on entitlement gave rise to riotous double takes and bons mots from Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess of the Crawley clan.

Shirley MacLaine moves like she’s auditioning for a role in “The Walking Dead,” and her acting is equally wooden. Is this an English conspiracy to show how bad American actors are?

The Earl of Grantham, Robert, seemed to be the family’s moral center, with his American wife and his fierce loyalty to Bates, the valet who served him in the war and who quickly becomes the moral center of the downstairs folk, if not of the series in general. Meanwhile, the Crawleys were in danger of losing Downton because of sexist British laws about inheritance, and we’re left to wonder if a relationship between Lady Mary, the earl’s daughter, and a distant relative, Matthew, will save the day. She doesn’t think he’s high-enough born for her, but we all know that won’t last.

OK, so far so great. Season Two, not so much. Bates’s nasty wife appears, and she makes Cruella De Vil look like Mother Teresa, bringing one level of soap opera to the story. Things get even dicier when Matthew (Dan Stevens) decides on a different fiancée and comes home from World War I with a huge case of self-pity. Lady Mary’s attempt to keep a stiff upper lip doesn’t give Michelle Dockery much more to do than cock her head and roll her eyes. She decides to marry a Rupert Murdoch stick figure press baron, and we’re left wondering if Matthew and Mary will ever get to smooch.

Dockery at least cocks and rolls beautifully. Elizabeth McGovern as the lone American in the cast, Lady Cora, is ludicrous. I said on “Here & Now” that watching her acting with Maggie Smith was like watching me play tennis with Roger Federer. With an even bigger role in Season 3, it appears that I was being kind.

She is not, however, the dictionary definition of incompetence. That honor goes to Shirley MacLaine, Cora’s mother. She’s supposed to be the tough-talking, sassy counterpart to Smith, but she moves like she’s auditioning for a role in “The Walking Dead” instead of “Downton,” and her acting is equally wooden. Now we know MacLaine used to know how to act, so, what, is this an English conspiracy to show how bad American actors are?

Here are Maggie, the magnificent, and Shirley, you jest:

At any rate, Matthew has married Mary, leaving discriminating watchers to wonder why we ever cared whether they would. He’s become more pompous than any of the Crawleys once he’s left with an inheritance from his dead fiancee’s family, enough to solve all of the family’s problems. We have to go through three hours of “drama” to find out whether the prig takes it or not.

The Bates storyline has also been drawn out. He’s still in jail, where all kinds of bad folk have it in for him. And Mrs. Hughes might have cancer. And Mary’s sisters have romantic problems of their own. Oh, but life is hard.

Frankly, I couldn’t care less what happens to any of them (and if you do, I’d stay away from Internet sites about “Downton” that reveal comings and goings). These people, in their entirety, have worn out their welcome. Anglophilia has its limits. They once seemed to stand for something noble, for not trading in one’s values for whatever the lastest fad is. (There is, by the way, a season four in the works.)

Now their values are as silly as King George’s 250 years ago. I say, no television without representation. Give me HBO or give me death, at least as long as “Downton Abbey” is on. And I further say to you English ladies and gentlemen, that I bid a good riddance to all you Creepy Crawleys.

Here’s a more sympathetic NPR interview.

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  • J P Fitzsimmons

    Well said, I agree.

  • David S

    Thank God someone finally said the truth about this overblown soap opera. It gives PBS a bad name.

    • Peblican

      If you don’t like it don’t watch it, plenty of viewers will. It certainly doesn’t give PBS a bad name that’s just hogwash.

      • http://twitter.com/angellslace Mary Ann -Cape Cod

        Exactly, if you don’t like it don’t watch it.

  • GoatHerder

    Finally,Someone who admits that Americans ( I mean USA) are really bad actors!

    • jefe68

      I have one word for you, no two: The Wire.

      • BIGSTEVE

        Bad example. McNulty and Stringer are British.

        • jefe68

          It’s the writing. Two Brits, one of which had an awful Baltimore accent, did not make the Wire it was the entire cast.
          Michael K. Williams was brillant as Omar Little. Then their was Bunk ( Wendall Pierce).

          You want more, Treme was not as good as the Wire but it was pretty good. Justified, Mad Men, The Sopranos, shall I go on?

          Downton Abbey is overblown, over rated and not worth watching.

  • MAfemalevoter

    As I read the review, I was reminded why I cannot stand critics. They take all the fun out of things and revel in tearing things apart. Critics tend to get upset when other people are having a good time. Remember, this is a soap opera, was from the very beginning and is the reason a lot of people watch it. And for those who think it is too good for PBS, I happen to think it is refreshing. PBS is constantly being accused of being too stuffy and serious, a guilty pleasure it truly is to see Downton on Public Television. So think for yourself, watch it if you like, and watch something else if you don’t.

    • Peblican

      I agree with your comment completely.

    • http://twitter.com/angellslace Mary Ann -Cape Cod

      Yes I agree. with you.. Critics can be a help but not when they have a stick up you know where. Downton Abbey is FUN and Funny.

  • jefe68

    Funny, the other day I was watching the Commander, a very good British cop show and Huge Bonneville played a conniving serial killer. Might be a good plot twist…

    Brendan Coyle (Mr. Bates) also played a really insane serial killer in the same series.
    I kept on hearing Daisy’s voice when he was arrested, “oh no Mr. Bates, what foor…”

    Without Maggie Smith for comic relief and, well Maggie Smith, the show is kind of like a bad Christmas Trifle.

  • http://www.facebook.com/stephen.abbott Stephen Abbott

    The appearance of Shirley MacLaine makes me want to stop watching. She’s as batty as a bag of Froot Loops and as good of an actress as anyone’s pet poodle.

  • http://singingstring.org/ asongbird

    Oh for heaven’s sake…the guilty pleasure is that the clothes are amazing, and that’s the draw, not the person on which they are hanging. How’s THAT for “unstuffy”?

    • Donewithit

      Ok.. I won’t hold you at fault for being able to suffer bad writing in order to see great clothing. I can see the appeal..

      Not really having an interest in the clothing, I can find no good reason to watch the show. I hope you won’t hold me at fault for wanting something more than clothing to watch.. :-)

      • http://singingstring.org/ asongbird

        Big Grin! This really is the “guilty pleasure” part of it since I’m a serious historian in addition to being a musician. My graduate work was done on the late 19th, early 20th century, so I kind of wallow in the sheer visual beauty part of it. As for the writing, well, heavens again,it’s always been a soap, so I guess I never expected it to be more. But I do indeed agree with you about the acting critiques, after seeing the first of season three. Ouch.

  • JBJ

    Just turn the TV off or preset only the stations you want to watch. Try to find a way to block what ever is twisting your knickers.

  • GMM

    A series without filth and foul language, what a blow to American culture. Get over yourself Mr. Siegel, without these shows you wouldn’t have a job. There is something to be said for a little contrast in the casting. Americans are always in stark contrast to another culture by reason of our differing outlook, upbringing and way of life. We have known for years that Shirley is nuts but she will make a nice change from the stiff upper lips of the Mother Country. OK so Shirley is no longer Oscar material who cares. I love the show and not every script requires Oscar level acting. Could she be worse than Helena Bonham Carter who seems to play the same character in every movie she’s in lately, I doubt it. I intend to enjoy every landscape, every beautiful piece of antique furniture, the downstairs intrigue and the upstairs melodrama to the very last minute of the series in spite of your meanspirited review. It’s a soap opera with better wardrobe, get a grip. It’s not Othello.

  • Rosie DeQuattro

    Way too harsh. ‘Tis a soap opera with gorgeous production values and is still a pleasure to watch. I was a little disappointed with the gratuitous downstairs melodrama but I’m hoping it will get back on track in subsequent episodes.

  • http://www.facebook.com/DellyTancyl Martine PL

    Down with your pessimism, please no more

    Mr Seigel, There was a time when I considered your opinions worthwhile, but it would seem sir your opinions of late has descended into the same level of silliness of which you’ve so harshly accused “Downton Abbey” of being. You seem to have taken great fun in just tearing the show apart but didn’t once consider its merits. Downton Abbey is what it is, something different, fun and refreshing to enjoy on television. As far as I’m concerned it’s better than most of the pornographic filled garbage that makes up HBO line up these days. Your opinion has lost all value for me. I think I’ll hang on to the Crawleys all the same, shame we can’t bid you good riddance.

    • Peblican

      Well said.

  • http://www.facebook.com/trudi.goodman Trudi Goodman

    I’m an American Actor. I take exception at this hoohah. Here’s short list of some wonderful American Actors: Kevin Spacey, Robin Williams, Richard Thomas, Brian Dennehy, Alfre Woodard, Joanne Woodward, Olympia Dukakis, Bruce Willis, Scott Glenn, Yaphet Kotto, Nathan Lane, Mary Elizabeth Mastroantonio, Al Pacino, Mekki Phifer, Mykelti Williams, Morgan Freeman, Mark Margolis, Liev Shreiber, Mandy Patinkin. Shall I go on?

    • http://twitter.com/Mangy_Dog Vicious Cur

      All successfully rebutted by two words: “Adam Sandler”

  • Donewithit

    I think most comments misread Mr. Siegal. In his defense he said (rightly so, in my humble opinion) that the series started out, like most Masterpiece presentations, brilliantly. I agree with Mr. Siegal that the plot has become sloppy and drawn out. This period of history has so much to offer in plot.. I consider it all lazy writing. Yes, the “soap opera” comparison is fair. I stopped watching this series towards the end of the second season when they resorted to such overused “soap” plot conventions. The tell-tale plot twist that does a series in for me is when a character gets amnesia.

    If you are going to take the whole season to solve a plot conflict, at LEAST make it interesting, rather than having a previously strong character uncharacteristically waffle back and forth over what seems to the rest of us to be an easy decision!!

    I blame the writers..

    • http://www.facebook.com/melinda.ballou.9 Melinda Ballou

      I agree from what I’ve seen — I found the most recent episode disappointingly tedious, and many of the characters have become petty and small minded for the most part (with a few exceptions). The earlier episodes were signficantly better. Both the plot and the dialogue are at fault — not so much the acting. It’s too bad, because I only recently became more engaged with the show. I also agree that this period of history has much to offer beyond whether the family will have sufficient economic means to continue a prior lifestyle.

  • autrice

    I was so looking forward to this season, having loved the “Days of Our Lives” Haute of the past two. And I am SO disappointed. The clothes and the sets–still gorgeous. But–the writing is terrible. “Have gun will travel” ( uttered by Cora when Lord G loses all her money)? Maybe Julian Fellowes was watching old episodes of “Paladin”. And Mrs. Patmore–where did you get “evil twin”? No. no. No. The repartee between Shirley and Maggie is as wooden as a pirate’s leg–the wit is missing. And Matthew is turning into as much of a self-righteous prig as his mother ( I guess the genes will out).
    Sad. Will I watch the rest of the series? Probably. It’s as good a place as any to do my embroidery.

  • Jitters

    This latest craze is the adolescent version of Upstairs, Downstairs. Downton Abbey is written for nouveau intellectuals that pat themselves on the back for watching a British period piece without violence. Watch the Upstairs, Downstairs series and then you will come to learn what good writing and acting is, my friends.

  • http://twitter.com/Mangy_Dog Vicious Cur

    DA has evolved into a soap opera of the worst kind: One that takes itself seriously. Bleh.

  • Fannie

    Julian Fellowes has run out of plot lines. If Matthew complains one more time about causing Lavinia’s death so he can’t accept an inheritance I’ll throw my shoe at the TV.

    The 2 hour premiere of season 3 was about 1 1/2 hours too long. No wonder Dan Stevens (Matthew) has quit the show and it’s over in 6 episodes. It’s boring and repetitive. With all the hype about her, Shirley McLaine was hugely disappointing and had very little to say or do. How about trying to save Downton Abbey by one of the aristocratic drones going out and getting a job? That might make one of them marginally interesting.

  • TheTruth

    You seem to have forgotten that within the first episodes of season one Mary has an affair with a Turkish man who proceeds to die in her bed during the act.

  • Sinclair

    Reminder: PBS is a business that delivers what a customer wants. That’s why “Antiques Roadshow” and other similar programs are hot on PBS now.
    “Downton Abbey” is the current fad which someday will fade away once the “customers” get tired of it. I’ve enjoyed “Downton Abbbey”. “Soap happens” in extended families regardless of class levels. It’s amusing to see these people in a formal dining setting with “elephants in the room”.

  • Mirthy

    I love PBS and most of the programs on it. Downton Abbey however is an exception. I agree that it is overblown melodrama. Compared the original series Upstairs Downstairs from the 1970′s , Downton Abbey impressed me as being an overproduced ripoff of Upstairs Downstairs with same plot lines and themes and but with lackluster acting . The writing doesn;t seem as good either. After seeing the first episode of Downtown I had to turn it off . I decided to give it another chance after it has become such as success but It sitll doesn’t impress me much. I would much rather watch any other of the quality programs on the PBS UK channel.

  • O’Nan

    I’m troubled also over DA’s anti-Irish undertones. Three representative Irish characters, O’Brien, her nephew, and Sybil’s hsb.are either boorish, nefarious, or both.
    When will England overcome its resentment about Ireland’s independence from colonial rule??

    • Tom

      This is like saying the show is anti-gay because of some of the opinions the characters voiced in the series. If it fits the time it suits the show and I don’t think you should take it to heart.

  • Pam

    I.too, was bothered by the treatment of Shirley Mc Clain.She seemed to be chafing under her lines and her treatment by the “superior” Brits.
    This series is designed to get us to see the need to hang onto a severely whitewashed version of life in Edwardian Times,under threat by faltering and conniving servants and “rootless” Americans.
    Life in Newport was,actually,very elegant but Martha is set up to act like an uncooth American who is put in her place by knowing and sneering Brits.I am sick of the sneering,the groveling ,the “job creators” appeals.

  • Pam

    The character of Branson has some good lines but there is a definite anti-Irish and a “rule Brittania” theme which is becoming more and more obvious as the series progresses.
    I really liked the latest(fall) season of the new Upstairs-Downstairs.They weren’t afraid of showing the true situation of the times,e.g Nazi sympathies among some Uppers in England,,bad decisions on the part of many elites,actual angst and human struggles,real people.I loved the Downstairs characters.

  • Aghast

    This is the weirdest article. So little of substance. Mostly venting. Just because posters can say whatever they like without standards (not that they should but they are unpaid and not professionals with journalism training) does not mean that journalists should do the same. I find this piece to be a most ridiculous effort to fill up space and time.

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