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Downton Abbey has jumped the shark, over and over and over again. Either writer Julian Fellowes is toying with viewers by presenting an undercover farce, or “Julian Fellowes” is really a 15-year-old girl using devices common to her age, such as sudden plot lurches, melodrama, tortured simplicity, and outlandish improbability. What started in Season One as a measured, engrossing, and beautiful series has become a weekly, preposterous chore.
Is Laura Linney in on the gag? Has she seen the episodes she is introducing?
Fonzie only jumped the shark once. Here are seven times Downtown Abbey has jumped the shark.
1. Downton Becomes a Hospital
Downtown’s grandest shark jump took place when the estate was turned into a hospital for World War I wounded in Season Two, Episode 3. The subtleties and grandeur of the drama were replaced by noise, racket, bandages, beds, and scores of visitors. To believe this disruption, one must believe that the village is an efficient destination for the war wounded. One must also assume there aren’t other barns, churches, banquet halls, or any other building closer to a railhead capable of handling the casualties. The Downton-becomes-a-hospital frolic and detour sucked the life out of the series and led to even more absurd, improbable plot twists such as the return of Thomas to Downton, the liaison of the maid Ethel and Major Bryant under Lord Grantham’s roof, and the patently impossible return of the terminal William to both die and marry Daisy. Downton as hospital also produced a plot twist so ridiculous it deserves its own shark-jumping moment.
2. Patrick Crawley, Bandaged Imposter
The entire Downton Abbey series starts with the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. This event breaks up the line of succession to the estate because the heir, Patrick Crawley, went down with the ship. The uncertainty fuels the perfect pacing of Season One. Seemingly desperate for copy, the 15-year-old girl version of Julian Fellowes wrote into Season Two the arrival of a strange, mysterious soldier to the hospital. (See #1 above; shark jumps beget more shark jumps). He claims to be Patrick Crawley, the cousin whose death was the genesis of the entire series. Nobody knows if it is really him, of course, because his face is bandaged from war wounds. His mummy-like presence, sulking around the estate for weeks courting Lady Edith, was as silly as Pam’s “it was all a dream” moment in Dallas. Ultimately, we learn that the wounded man was a fraud, sort of like the whole diversion.
3. Matthew’s Pool of Bethesda Moment
In Season Two, Matthew Crawley was paralyzed in World War I. This injury drives much of the plot, until it is too inconvenient and is abandoned with a miracle straight from the Pool of Bethesda. His paralysis was certainly permanent, until it wasn’t. And then suddenly, once the paralysis can’t drive any more plot, it’s time to rise up out of that bed, fall in love with Mary all over again (yes, this device repeats, over and over), and get engaged.
4. Tom’s Hanging Offense
Tom, the absurd and improbable chauffeur turned son-in-law from Season One, was complicit in the firebombing of an earl in Dublin. Tom, you see, is a Republican and a Catholic, now improbably married to Lady Sybil with the begrudging acquiescence of his former boss, now father-in-law, the Lord Grantham. (Yes, if you have not seen the series, that sentence alone should keep you away.)
In 1925, firebombing the home of an earl was a hanging offense. No matter, not in the improbable world of Downton Abbey. A few phone calls to the Home Secretary from Lord Grantham, and the crime is neatly sorted out as long as Tom lives in a sort of house arrest at the estate. But if he returns to Ireland, all bets are off and Tom might swing. Of course the same civil law governed both Dublin and Downton, but no matter, Tom got a break, and Fellowes (either the absurdist or the 15-year-old girl) got a new character he could write around each week.
5. Bates’ Poisonous Pie and a Brief Jaunt to Jail
Lord Grantham’s prowess with protecting people from the gallows who commit capital crimes also extended to his valet, Bates. In Season One, Bates was the most fascinating and sympathetic character in the series. He was a man of quiet dignity who experienced profound redemption. He was an example of mobility in the static English world of Downton Abbey. Off to the dungeons then! Fellowes wastes Bates and concocts an absurd plot twist where Bates bakes a poison pie to kill his ex-wife, and then slowly the conviction is unraveled over the course of two seasons and many unbearable prison conversations between Bates and his equally sympathetic wife Anna. These conversations can only occur because Lord Grantham also saved Bates from the gallows, just as he did his son-in-law Tom, the Irish bomber. Bates’ character is wasted as viewers are forced to trudge through the poison pie conviction and the ultimate reversal.
6. Fortunes Lost and Found in a Day
In Season Two, Lord Grantham discovers that his family’s entire fortune was lost from a bad Canadian railroad investment. We are to believe this aristocrat had never heard of diversification. Come to think of it, I doubt that a 15-year-old girl writer would be aware of the concept either. So the characters are preparing to pack it up and move to more modest digs, just when Matthew Crawley learns he is the beneficiary of an enormous inheritance from the father of his almost-wife. The stars have aligned, as they often do in Downton, and the estate is saved. Except we must endure several episodes of tension and drama before Matthew is willing to use this found money to keep his family from being tossed out of their home – until one of those lurching events occurs in the form of a letter from the deceased demanding he accept the money because of a deathbed letter his daughter improbably sent daddy. If it is all too much to understand, you’re not alone.
7. Cancer Come and Gone in an Episode
One can almost imagine the conversation between Julian Fellowes and others on the show: we are short 6 minutes on Episode Two (Season Three), let’s write in a cancer plot! And so we experience Mrs. Hughes’ fear she might have cancer. She visits the doctor, and ultimately finds out she doesn’t. All’s well that ends well, and that six minute gap is filled.
For those of you who fell in love with Downton Abbey in Season One, these are tough words to hear, but you know down deep your show just isn’t what it used to be. But like other things we love that aren’t what they used to be, there are the joys of the ride that keep us tuned in. If nothing else, the enjoyable quips of Maggie Smith serve as asides revealing she also might be suffering like the rest of us.