Turning Straw Into Gold

Life through a Buddhist lens

Has “Downton Abbey” Jumped the Shark?

Six reasons why Downton Abbey has finally jumped the shark.

The cast of Downton Abbey

“Jumping the shark” refers to the moment when a highly regarded television show begins to decline in quality. The origin of the phrase comes from the Happy Days episode where Fonzie jumps over a shark while on water-skis. This was considered to be the low point in the show’s multi-year run.

I gave Downton Abbey a lot of leeway in its first three seasons. It may be a soap opera disguised in period costumes, but it’s also the brainchild of Julian Fellowes who wrote the script for Gosford Park—one of my favorite movies. (I’ve seen it at least a half dozen times.) In fact, Fellowes wrote the Dowager Countess role on Downton Abbey specifically for Maggie Smith because she was such a scene-stealer in Gosford Park.

Now comes the fourth season of Downton Abbey, and it’s starting to grate on me. Perhaps I’ve unfairly reversed that leeway I gave it and am now holding it to too high a standard by comparing it to Gosford Park. Nevertheless, I fear that Downton has jumped the shark.

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Maybe I should have seen this coming in the second season when Matthew, told he’d never walk again, got up out of his wheelchair with a “Look I can walk!” It was embarrassingly cliché, not to mention unrealistic. And wouldn’t the show have been more interesting if he’d remained a paraplegic and married Mary anyway (after the inevitable demise of the sweet but feckless Lavinia)? Men who are disabled in the same way he was remain vital, not to mention that they can find ways to “please” their partners sexually. It happens in real life; why wasn’t Fellowes bold enough to have it happen on Downton Abbey?

In the end, I forgave this transgression because, to me, one unfortunate plotline does not jumping the shark make. But now, in season four, unless there’s a change in tone and plotting, I’m ready to announce that the shark has not just been jumped, but cleanly cleared. Here are six of my gripes:

Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes’ relationship—come on you two!

We’re four seasons in: why can’t we have some sexual or at least romantic tension between the downstairs bosses, Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes? There was a suggestion of it in season three when Mr. Carson was overheard humming (that’s about as cheerful as he gets) upon learning that Mrs. Hughes did not have cancer. But NO. In fact, he’s getting grumpier and grumpier, and she’s getting more and more matronly. If her presenting him with a framed picture of his long lost love was supposed to pass for a romantic scene, it fell flat to me.

If you want to see romantic tension between two “downstairs” characters who also play the head housekeeper and the butler, watch the brilliant movie, Remains of the Day. Emma Thompson plays Miss Kenton who has developed a romantic interest in the rigid and repressed Mr. Stevens (Anthony Hopkins). When he tries to keep her from seeing what he’s reading, the camera zooms in for a close-up as she pries his fingers off the cover of the book to reveal (as she says to him) that it’s just a silly romance novel. The embarrassed and humiliated look on his face breaks my heart every time I watch this beautifully written and acted scene.

Bates and Anna, together at last—or so we thought

In season three, we patiently waited through Bates’ prison scenes, even though his anger was scary at times. When he was finally freed, we were looking forward to scenes of married domestic bliss between him and Anna. Instead, out of nowhere, Anna is raped by a visiting valet. Unfair! At long last, we had the dour Bates smiling. Now he’s got that angry prison demeanor back. We want to see the new, lighthearted Bates, not the scary one from last season.

Lord Grantham and his money

Edith and her suitor

What’s with Lord Grantham and his money? He loses it and gets it back, loses it and gets it back. Some of the “getting it back” plots have come dangerously close to jumping the shark (a last minute letter from Lavinia’s father comes to mind). Now in season four, once again, he loses his money, this time by gambling with a cheat. Not to worry though. He’s bailed out by his daughter Edith’s suitor who’s trying to get on the Lord’s good side. I thought it was a silly plot device for ingratiating this guy to Lord G.

Mrs. Patmore’s incessant yelling

Mrs. Patmore with her minions

Mrs. Patmore, the head cook, was initially one of my favorite characters on the show. But now she spends most of her time yelling at anyone who’s unfortunate enough to be in earshot.

Please Mr. Fellowes, come up with another medical or romantic crisis for her as you did in seasons two and three. I can’t take much more of this yelling.

The mopey Mr. Molesley

From the tone of the dialogue and the musical accompaniment to Molesley’s scenes, I get the impression that the seemingly endless rises and falls in his employment prospects are supposed to provide comic relief for us. But I find the storyline sad and depressing. Maybe if Mr. Fellowes had poor Molesley actually jump over a shark, it might impress someone enough to give him a decent job once and for all.

Tom and his fling(s)

Tom and little Sybbie

I like Tom, the former chauffer who suddenly finds himself a single parent and a widower when Lord and Lady Grantham’s daughter, Sybil, dies in childbirth. Tom is so sincere and well-intentioned. But why did we have to sit through the same plot twice—once last season and once this season—of his being seduced by the devious maid, Edna, who is then promptly sent packing by Mrs. Hughes. I thought we were rid of Edna last season. I don’t mind if Tom is seduced a second time, Mr. Fellowes, but couldn’t you have come up with a new plotline for it?

I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below. Am I being too harsh? Am I not being harsh enough? Have a missed a “jump the shark” moment?

© 2014 Toni Bernhard www.tonibernhard.com

Thank you for reading my work. My most recent book is titled How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow.

I'm also the author of the award-winning How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers

Using the envelope icon, you can email this piece to others. You can also subscribe to my blog (see the choices below my picture). I’m active on FacebookPinterest, and (to a lesser extent) Twitter.

Toni Bernhard, J.D., is a former law professor at University of California at Davis. She wrote the award-winning How to Be Sick and, recently, How to Wake Up.

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