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.

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.

This program aired on January 4, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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Ed Siegel Critic-At-Large
Ed Siegel is critic-at-large for WBUR.



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