Tonight is the end of the second season (in the US) of that corsets and castles gripper, Downton Abbey. Season One (spoiler alert) is fun: when the heir to the entailed title and estate joins Leonardo de Caprio on the Titanic they both wind up on the bottom of the Atlantic, leaving some of my favorite actors and actresses in a muddle over who will become the next Lord Grantham and inherit Downton Abbey. An heir shows up– a middle class cousin who is a solicitor from Manchester and whose mum is a doctor’s widow. (What’s not to like? I’m an unknown middle class lawyer whose mother was a doctor’s widow). For the rest of season one we watch the eldest, most marriagable daughter kill the son of the Turkish ambassador on her (shall we say) ‘maiden voyage’, a scandal in need of a lid after jealous daughter number two leaks the facts, a detail not known to the lawyer who (inevitably) falls for the oldest one, who would have married him until — surprise, her own mum gets preggers (with a potential son who would displace the lawyer), but loses the baby when a couple of problem-mongering servants gang up to expose her to the risk of falling on a bar of soap. (No kidding). All is suspenseful and, (despite the soap) pretty well written as far as television plays go.
And then, there is — tonight. I hereby lay my head on the chopping block. Take it off if you will.
The writers of season one had no idea what they had done, so they didn’t repeat the formula or even extend it. For the last six weeks or so we have had an explosion of plot lines that include everything a soap opera should have as defined by that old world renowned Los Ricos Tambien Lloren, a wildly popular Mexican telenovela that interrupted trains in Russia and beheadings in Saudi Arabia so the viewers could tune in.
True to that form of vast over-writing and more plot lines than a centipede buying new shoes for the children, we now have:
1. a servant who saves the (once again putative) heir by taking a bullet in the trenches of WWI, only to 2. die in the arms of the maid who did not actually love him and 3. the third rich daughter romancing the chauffeur while, 4. a butler with the personality of a depressed accountant who attracts the love of a Sweet Serving Girl while 5. trying to get rid of his sorry wife so he can marry SSG while 6. a horribly disfigured soldier shows up who claims to be the True Heir who Did Not Drown on the Titanic while 7. the putative heir (my hero, the lawyer) is paralyzed due to the battle in which he did not die (see numbers 1 and 2 above) while 8. his mum turns the Abbey (which she did not own) into a rehab hospital for officers, 9. one of whom would seduce another SSG, getting her preggers, before 10. the eldest daughter agrees to marry the unscrupulous newspaper man who owns the secret of her misadventure with the Turkish fellow, and 11. our hero (still the lawyer) will marry Lavinia, even though We, The Audience, are rooting for him and eldest daughter to re-connect, when suddenly 12. the Spanish flu rolls through with a set of selective symptoms that would make a poll dancer laugh upon hearing them, nearly killing Mum (the lady of the Estate), but, instead, taking Lavinia, who wants to die after seeing 13. our hero dance (oh, he got over the paralysis thing) with eldest daughter during which They Kissed.
Confused? Too many story lines? Do you think the characters we knew from Season One may have inexplicably changed in Season Two, here and there, to keep all those stories rolling?
So, what to do? Skip it tonight and read Dickens instead, or Nathaniel Hawthorne? Not a chance. I’m not sleeping until I learn whether 14. our hero will defend the surly butler against the charge of murdering his wife by 15. pinning it on the unscrupulous newspaper guy and 16. earning a fresh crack at marrying the oldest daughter.
It may be soap opera, but if you love your castles and corsets, you have to watch it.
And, if I haven’t given you one good reason why, let me do that now: while all the other characters, major and minor, have the consistency of a troupe of amateur clog dancers, Maggie Smith as the Grandmother of Them All is fabulous! She has the best dialogue of them all and the acid arrogance that makes you forget she is acting.