Wednesday, 9 March 2016

TV Review: Downton Abbey Season 6 [Spoilers]

© ITV | Source: The Seattle Times

UK; 9 episodes; drama, romance, soap opera, period
Channel: ITV
Creators: Julian Fellowes
Cast: Hugh Bonneville, Laura Carmichael, Jim Carter, Brendan Coyle, Michelle Dockery, Joanne Froggatt, Rob James-Collier, Phyllis Logan, Elizabeth McGovern, Sophie McShera, Lesley Nicol, Maggie Smith, Penelope Wilton, Kevin Doyle, Allen Leech, David Robb, Raquel Cassidy, Samantha Bond, Jeremy Swift, Douglas Reid, Paul Copley, Sue Johnston, Matthew Goode

"Sometimes it's good to rule by fear." -- Dowager Countess

It's time to get out your handkerchiefs and wave goodbye to Downton Abbey. The British TV show that charmed audiences around the world finally found its conclusion in the finale of its sixth season, and certainly had devoted fans shed some tears over the fact that, come autumn, there won't be any new stories to be told, no new Christmas specials to be had.

Centred on the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants living and working on the grand estate of Downton Abbey at the beginning of the twentieth century, the show has always served as a prominent means of escapism for those of us who like to dwell upon nostalgia and revel in the idea of a time gone by. The ridiculously romanticised glance at noble quirks and domestic toils allowed us to leave behind our own everyday troubles and, at least once a week, dive right into a life that seemed so much easier and more ordered on screen. In Downton, the blue bloods had us live vicariously through their fairytale-like experiences of grandeur and splendour, and the servants conveyed a sense of humbleness and bliss that, apparently, can be found in manual labour.

Realism, it became obvious, never played an integral part within the show. Downton was pretty much an expensive soap opera, boasting a spectacular, detailed set and costume design, a dedicated ensemble cast ready to make the most of their roles - even if the script wouldn't always let them -, and an invaluable amount of fun one-liners and precious witticisms certain to make your day. Especially when delivered by the impeccable Dame Maggie Smith. The show never took itself too seriously and embraced its melodramatic nature. Additionally, it always was what its die-hard fans needed it to be: a place of beauty and happily-ever-after endings, a place in which obstacles would always lead to something joyful and good. Bad luck, bitterness and intrigues, so it seemed, were temporarily invited in, only to be thrown out by the deus-ex-machina mechanisms of the Downton universe.

As sweet and lovely as such a setup may be, it is hardly enough to keep a show running for six entire seasons. Having lost most of its steam midway, Downton's season four and five already relied too heavily on repetitive plot patterns, an airy-fairy treatment of the rise of the working class and an aura of lovey-dovey feel-good moments. And while some kitsch and cheese are always enjoyable as a side order, they're bound to eventually bore your brains out when served as the main course.

This has never been more obvious than in the sixth and last season of the series in which any attempt at innovation, subtlety or suspenseful excitement is thrown overboard for uninspired, same-old-same-old storytelling. While, for example, Lady Sybil's sudden death in season three endowed the show with a well-needed sense of ill-fated consequence and heartfelt tragedy, season six is in desperate need of truly bone-shaking, sincerely felt moments of interpersonal drama. Every conflict arising from the individual storylines is solved within no time. Anna's (Joanne Froggatt) and Mr. Bates' (Brendan Coyle) struggle to have children, Lord Grantham's (Hugh Bonneville) health issues, Thomas' (Rob James-Collier) depression over the fact that nobody really cares about him - everything is rushed through, allowing no room to actually feel for the respective characters and their inner turmoil.

Add to this a whole bunch of redundant plot elements and your interest in the series is bound to fall below zero. Anna's conceiving issue is reminiscent of Lady Mary's (Michelle Dockery) same problem in season three. Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) and Molesley (Kevin Doyle) find themselves in a very poor man's version of the already sufficiently exhausted criminal plot surrounding the Bates family. Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) still struggles with the farmers who functioned as foster parents to her daughter born out of wedlock and, in another plot, tries to FINALLY get married. Meanwhile, Lady Mary, as usual, finds herself chasing and abandoning the man of her dreams, and Daisy (Sophie McShera) exercises her talent in pushing away a boy who has an interest in her, only to run after him once he's lost all hope of winning her heart. Oh, and then there's also cousin Isobel (Penelope Wilton) running after Lord Merten (Douglas Reith), and the Dowager Countess trying to have her way. But it's Maggie Smith, so I'll leave her be.

Anyway, there really is nothing new this season, and maybe this wouldn't be such a big problem if the characters weren't so annoying while performing their well-established routines. Daisy, in an attempt to save the livelihood of her father-in-law (Paul Copley), certainly climbs to new heights when it comes to performing silly actions and babbling on when really her mouth should be shut. The married life between Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) and Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) is another sore sight. The fact that it only focuses on breaking established gender perceptions, doesn't do the two characters any justice and makes them appear rather flat. Thomas' journey from mean-spirited villain to perfect Mr. Nice Guy really comes out of nowhere and lacks proper character development. Mary's to and fro with her sweetheart Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode) is downright unbearable and their chemistry really non-existent. Goode definitely knows how to play charming, but there's hardly a moment in which I actually believe that Mary and his character are destined to be together. The drama surrounding their relationship only exists to prolong the road to happiness for a little while longer.

Yet, happiness it is that awaits all the characters in the finale. The happily-ever-after ending really is the only redeeming feature of the season, in which all the characters find what they were looking for all along. No realism, no subtlety, no bitterness - just pure kitsch and cheese on the side. But if the entire main course is already made of kitsch and cheese, a kitschy and cheesy finish is less likely to stand out.

Sadly, the last season of Downton Abbey was everything I came to dislike about the show: predictable, endlessly repetitive, allowing precious characters to go to waste. In the end, what's left is grand costumes and beautiful sets. And Maggie Smith. Always Dame Maggie Smith. 


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