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Those were the days

On Downton Abbey, everything really has changed since the war

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Maybe there's something about Downton Abbey that encourages nostalgia, but I remember that first season, which took place before the Great War, as a golden summer of good TV writing and gorgeous Farrow & Ball paint colours. The second go-round was wacky but fun (temporary paralysis! double amnesia!). By the third season, with key characters starting to bolt, DA felt more like a raucous drinking game than a posh TV show: If you took a shot of dry sherry every time Lord Grantham made some disastrous mistake, you'd be as drunk as, well, a lord by the time he lost his wife's fortune in a dodgy Canadian railway scheme.

The season four premiere garnered the show's highest ratings ever. But for me, this season has been mostly boring, with occasional moments of awfulness, as with the shocker storyline in last week's episode. At this point, DA is neither truly serious nor enjoyably trashy. I decided to revisit the first season, now available on Netflix, partly for old time's sake, and partly to see how and why the show has changed for me.

The first thing I noticed was that everything moved a bit slower back then, in a good way. The series introduced itself with an extended opening scene of the great house coming to life in the morning, and it handily mixed up little things (like ironing his lordship's newspapers) with big things (like the sinking of the Titanic).

These days, show creator Julian Fellowes keeps everything bowling along at a breakneck pace. With its frantic changes of costume and scenery, DA often feels more like an Edwardian music-video montage than an episode of Masterpiece Theatre.

Fellowes also started out with a higher tolerance for characters who were sometimes good and sometimes bad, as people generally are. In those early episodes, the Crawleys weren't cruel, exactly, but they could be fatally insulated and oblivious. When Lady Mary hears that her cousin, who is also her fiancé, has gone down with the Titanic, her first concern is for her wardrobe: "Does this mean I'll have to go into full mourning?"

Thomas, it's true, was evil from the get-go, frequently seen furtively smoking with O'Brien, a sure sign of TV perfidiousness. But in the first season, Fellowes could still deepen our insight, maybe reverse our sympathies. In the opening episode, Thomas is revealed as a closeted homosexual threatened with imprisonment by a callow duke who has used him and cast him aside. Thomas will never be likeable, but in those moments he's at least understandable.

The show has also become perilously plot-heavy, at the expense of character. Back in the first season, Anna and Bates had a sweet, tender, protracted courtship. Since then, they've been jumping from one huge trauma to the next (a murder charge, false imprisonment and now a brutal rape). At this point, they are no longer Anna and Bates. They're just The Couple That Is Never Allowed To Be Happy.

That points to another problem. The first season felt fresh. In this latest season, the characters are constantly going on and on about how "everything has changed since the war," but in fact it all feels the same. Mary is elegantly mopey, again. Edith is hopelessly overlooked, again. Lord Grantham is, as ever, making noble speeches about how he's given his whole life to Downton while at the same time running the estate into the ground. The series used to copy storylines from Upstairs, Downstairs. Now it's just ripping off itself.

Downton Abbey also started off with clear signs of class struggle, which gave the series some socio-political heft and suggested that Fellowes might be following up on the unsparing satire of his Oscar-winning script for Gosford Park, the 2001 film directed by Robert Altman.

In the first season of Downton Abbey, there were stirrings of discontent in the lower orders. The first words that Anna ever speaks, during the pre-sunrise wake-up call in the servants' attic, are, "Just once I'd like to sleep till I wake up natural." Even stalwart Mrs. Hughes takes a little moment to imagine what life might have been if she'd "gone another way," and had a home and family of her own.

Above stairs, meanwhile, Fellowes started out by being frank about the mercenary machinations of upper-class marriage and family.

As the series has progressed, it seems that Fellowes' snobbery has overcome him, and DA is increasingly infused with reactionary longing for a benevolent feudal order founded on tradition and duty. The fourth season opener featured actual forelock-tugging.

It could be that the price of a really good TV debut is the possibility of a catastrophic fall-off in the following years. (And yes, we're looking at you, Homeland). Perhaps the intense bond that is created between the show's creators and viewers also sets up impossible pressures.

At this point, Fellowes seems to be shamelessly pandering to his audience, in particular his American fans. (Though the Yanks supposedly threw off England's hidebound class system during the American Revolution, it seems they can't get enough gilded-age excess and social snobbery on their television screens.)

As well, having seized our attention so effectively in the first season, Fellowes seems desperate not to let it go. He has manufactured so many plot twists that he has tied the show in knots. Problems are rapidly introduced and then just as quickly resolved. All this speed is supposed to keep things interesting, but paradoxically it makes things dull. It's hard to get invested in characters when Fellowes keeps whisking them away.

Ah, well, the characters might no longer interest me. At least the paint colours are still enthralling.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 18, 2014 D12

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