Does Downton Abbey get better or worse?
May 13, 2016 10:55 AM   Subscribe

I am currently finishing Season 2 of Downton Abbey with the war just ending. How would you grade Seasons 3 through 6? Is it worth the time commitment given my concerns?

I like the show, particularly the acting, but some of the writing feels a bit contrived. Dramas and secrets that keep affecting the same characters over and over again (Bates), characters who’s arc should naturally take them out of the show but are kept in the story through awkward turns (Thomas), and behaviour that does not mesh with past history (Robert).

I did not like the Peter Gordon/Patrick Crawley story line at all. Seriously, yet another twist in the same old ‘to heir or not to heir’ theme? And I tend to dislike dramas where everyone makes stupid decisions and there is no balance of smart decisions.

So, does the writing get better? Or, at least not worse? I get that it is a Victorian drawing room drama but do they let some fresh air in at some point? Or should I just read how the whole thing turns out on Wikipedia and save myself another 30 hours or so of viewing?

(No future spoilers please.)
posted by pixlboi to Media & Arts (45 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Downton is a soap opera with a big costume and set design budget. If you can make peace with that fact you will continue to enjoy it.
posted by Wretch729 at 11:00 AM on May 13, 2016 [17 favorites]

IMO, what you've seen so far is what you'll be getting the rest of the way. There is some fresh air with the growth of Branson and Lady Edith (especially her) to look forward to. But on balance, yeah. It certainly doesn't get worse.

Oh, and not a spoiler, you'll also be seeing signs that this entire way of life is coming to a close as modernity sets in. That's been an underlying theme from get-go, and it continues.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:00 AM on May 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

I gave up part way through Season 3 when I realized that really no, this is just a soap opera.

Based on what I've read from the synopses of the remaining seasons, I saved myself many hours of frustration.
posted by sparklemotion at 11:01 AM on May 13, 2016 [6 favorites]

I liked it going on. I think the thing that get's a little old is the constant refrains of "oh the world is changing..." And like every historical show, there are some anachronistic values, for sure. Some characters unlikable at the beginning never get likeable and some grow on you.

That fake heir storyline sucked, yeah. I don't recall any other storyline sucking that badly.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 11:01 AM on May 13, 2016

It totally gets worse. (YMMV, obviously.) I loved the first couple seasons but quit watching during season 4.
posted by leesh at 11:02 AM on May 13, 2016 [8 favorites]

For what its worth, I had many of the same concerns as you by the end of Season 2. I started watching Season 3 and then just sort of got tired of it all and gave up. I haven't looked back.

The setting kept it interesting for the first Season or so. But after that it really needed a more intelligent plot to keep it going and that is something that never seems to have appeared.
posted by vacapinta at 11:02 AM on May 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

I also stopped watching after season 3 because of the terrible writing. It's odd how bad the writing is, when the acting and the production values otherwise are so high.
posted by maggiemaggie at 11:03 AM on May 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

A main character gets sexually assaulted in S4 so uh heads up if you're not fond of that.

(Plz. feel free to flag this for the mods to delete if it counts as a spoiler. That's just the point when I stopped watching.)
posted by griphus at 11:03 AM on May 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

I watched all 6 seasons and wasn't sorry. My enjoyment of the show was more about the clothes and interior decor than the plot. I don't feel like the writing deteriorated after the second season. It didn't get worse. It just didn't do anything. I won't give away any plot elements, but I will say I greeted several developments in later seasons by saying "really? this again?" a lot.
posted by S'Tella Fabula at 11:06 AM on May 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

I gave up after season 3, which was just too conveniently soap-opera-y of an ending and I just had to go NOPE.
posted by jillithd at 11:08 AM on May 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Agreeing with all those who say it's pure soap opera. I love the characters (for the most part) and I think the conflict between "the old way" and "the new way" is an intriguing one, but if you aren't feeling it right now then I'd say you should drop it and read the Wikipedia summaries. I think I'm a season behind and, while there have been some fun bits (Shirley Maclaine makes an appearance as Cora's mother and she and Maggie Smith have some amusing clashes), I'm not exactly chomping at the bit to catch up.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 11:12 AM on May 13, 2016

I watched all six seasons; the writing gets worse -- or, depending on how you look at it, it reaches a certain bad point and then plateaus -- but once I realized that was the case I made peace with it and watched it for the costumes, the Dowager Countess's quips, and the small handful of characters I was consistently fond of. But yeah, it's essentially a very, very pretty soap opera, with most characters randomly making stupid or inexplicable decisions while a few characters actually act like real human beings.
posted by the return of the thin white sock at 11:13 AM on May 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

I have a pretty idiosyncratic view of Downton, but you wanted to know, so OK...

I love season 1 of Downton. It's a show about people across social classes and generations struggling to find a role in a changing world. Yeaaahhhhhhh!!!!!!!

Then at some point between the end of season 1 and the end of season 2, they decided that wasn't interesting enough, so they shifted the show to be about pretty dresses. Boooo!!!!!!

I watched Season 2 and was still OK with it, even though it came off to me as being more about the war and also tiresome rich people and less about the original "people across social classes and generations struggling to find a role in a changing world".

I watched season 3 through gritted teeth, as it continued the slide into That Show About Pretty Dresses. Which is very much not what I signed up for.

I watched season 4 out of obligation/well it's only 6 episodes so why not.

I have not watched further seasons and am not sure whether I ever will/don't even care enough to see what became of the characters and their highly soap-operatic shennanigans with their pretty dresses.

But if you're mostly in it for the pretty dresses, sure, keep going, you're going to love it!
posted by Sara C. at 11:14 AM on May 13, 2016 [5 favorites]

Does not get better. In particular, these:

Dramas and secrets that keep affecting the same characters over and over again (Bates)

characters who’s arc should naturally take them out of the show but are kept in the story through awkward turns (Thomas)

just keep on keeping on, hammer hammer hammer. The Bateses' storyline = repetitive breathless melodrama that fizzles like a damp squib; Thomas's storyline spirals around until it climbs up its own tailpipe and we're supposed to be happy about it.

So, nah, I wouldn't bother. There's so much else out there to watch!
posted by theatro at 11:15 AM on May 13, 2016 [4 favorites]

Dramas and secrets that keep affecting the same characters over and over again (Bates), characters who’s arc should naturally take them out of the show but are kept in the story through awkward turns (Thomas), and behaviour that does not mesh with past history (Robert).
continues for the next two and a half seasons at least (that's when we gave up). It actually gets a bit more annoying over time because it is worse to see a plot happen for the fourth time than it is to see it happen for the second time.
posted by dfan at 11:16 AM on May 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

> It totally gets worse. (YMMV, obviously.) I loved the first couple seasons but quit watching during season 4.

You dropped it at the nadir. It gets better after that, and my wife and I actually thought the last season was one of the best. I'd say if you can deal with the soap-opera nature of the enterprise (which it seems you can), you might as well plunge ahead. There's a fair amount of idiocy, of course, but quite a few genuinely touching moments.
posted by languagehat at 11:20 AM on May 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

I love Downton and watched all of it, but if you don't like soaps, don't watch Downton. It is a soap opera. (I don't think it's just a show about Pretty Dresses -- I think it's about a lot of other things, like love, and family, and the changing world, and responsibilities, and loss, AND pretty dresses, but it is certainly a soap opera. Which I personally enjoy as an art form -- that doesn't need to be a pejorative and I don't mean it as one.)

FYI, if you don't enjoy the same stuff happening to Bates over and over again, be warned, the same stuff happens to Bates over and over and over and over. I -- as I said -- am a big Downton fan, but there is not a lot of character development with that one, and I found his plotlines to be really frustrating. I thought the final few episodes of the show as a whole were well done, but if you're not feeling it now -- when it was sort of at its enjoyable height -- you probably won't enjoy the rest of it.
posted by Countess Sandwich at 11:32 AM on May 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

I watched all of it, mainly hoping things would get better for the perpetually-beleaguered Lady Edith. I liked Lord Robert, felt Lady Cora was mostly just an empty smiling dress, Dowager Duchess Violet was a hoot, and it was interesting to see the changes downstairs, although yeah: they sure pounded on poor ol' Bates. I disliked Lady Mary and her ever-so-superior ways from the get-go, and never could see why somebody as nice as Matthew would fall in love with a stuck-up prisspot like her --- he deserved better!

It's all one big soap opera, but one with really fancy sets and pretty clothes.
posted by easily confused at 11:44 AM on May 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Dramas and secrets that keep affecting the same characters over and over again

Not so. There is some slooow circling towards other characters and even slooooower return back to earlier characters (a little bit like this visualization). Everyone in turn gets a chance to be stupid, a Great Human Being, nasty, scheming, receiving kicks for nothing, kicking for even less, clueless in micro and macro levels, etc.. And some even leave the show permanently...
It's like game of yawns, don't get too attachZZzzzzzz.

I kept watching for Maggie Smith, though. She is totally worth it.
posted by Namlit at 11:46 AM on May 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Here is one data point for you: season 1 is BY FAR my favorite season of Downton Abbey and season 2 is BY FAR my least-favorite.
posted by kate blank at 11:48 AM on May 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

You dropped it at the nadir.

I stopped watching partially b/c it was boring, and partially b/c I will never ever forgive Julian Fellowes for what he did in season 4. Never.
posted by leesh at 11:49 AM on May 13, 2016

I found it pretty annoying that they managed to cram all of WW1 into 8 episodes, but I stuck with it.

Basically characters continue to get into what should be really impossible to get out of situations or ones that would have much bigger consequences given the times, but they get magically solved when someone else decides to act completely out of character for themselves and the era they live in.

There is really very, very little growth in terms of the characters learning, changing, etc...

And there is a classic jump-the-shark trick of adding a younger person to the household at some point.

So many other wonderful things to watch on TV - try Call the Midwife, or Bletchley Circle, or Mr. Selfridge, if you need a good period drama fix that actually involves some good writing and plotting.
posted by brookeb at 11:59 AM on May 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

I say this as a big fan, but it gets very slightly worse after season 2. Seasons 1-2 are the only ones that have an actual ongoing story arch that pays off (Mary and Matthew). The contrived story-telling and drama-mongering are pretty consistent throughout the series, with some episodes being better than others. And the Bates' story line just keeps getting more repetitive with every passing season.

But nthing others that Downtown fans are those willing to ignore those facts and just enjoy the relationships and sets and costumes.
posted by Alexandra Michelle at 12:00 PM on May 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

It's just a big soap opera the whole way through. I liked it all the way to the end, but IMO it doesn't ever get significantly better or worse. And like soap operas, they are keeping you going by keeping a bunch of little arcs stringing along. If you enjoy that sort of thing, you'll like it, especially the "everyone gets a nice tidy ending" bit. But judging by the comment about just looking online to see what happened, you might not.

The thing with the guy with the bandages on his face is by far the worst/dumbest thing in any season. It's like they just pulled him back off the show with no explanation, presumably after fans said it was a stupid subplot.
posted by freecellwizard at 12:03 PM on May 13, 2016

You've seen the best and the worst. The rest is... between that.

Awful writing and loathsome politics do not get better. The story continues. And it doesn't.

I would have no hesitation with, at your point, bailing with honour. I watched all six seasons, out of the sunk cost fallacy, and could have spent that time watching other, better things.

There are a LOT of great series out there right now, and even aside from those, there are a LOT of older British costume dramas which are much, much better than Downton.
posted by Capt. Renault at 12:05 PM on May 13, 2016

It doesn't get better. I'd say it gets worse. I watched all of it and enjoyed it for the costumes and dinner parties, definitely not for the writing. The things that irk you now will continue to irk you, and some new things will bother you. One of my main peeves about the show is how much it loves the Crawleys and forgives (or, worse, glosses over) some pretty awful behavior. One such (long, drawn-out) storyline in particular is yet to come.
posted by mama casserole at 12:07 PM on May 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Personally, I loved this show. It's interesting to see how much their way of life changes with the times and their style, etc, as it goes on. I would say finish it, though I did feel the last few episodes could have been much better and was a little disappointed.
posted by Sara_NOT_Sarah at 12:31 PM on May 13, 2016

The best is behind you.
posted by crankyrogalsky at 1:08 PM on May 13, 2016

If you're interested in a similar period show may i suggest Gran Hotel (Netflix). It ticked all of the things I liked about Downton, but with a clear ending - didn't drag on for seasons and seasons. I enjoyed it so much more than Downton. In fact it may go down as one of my all time fav shows. I got through 4 seasons of Downton before I could admit I hadn't cared a bit about it since season 2.
posted by Sassyfras at 1:28 PM on May 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

Ugh, put me in the "it gets worse" camp. I hung on valiently until the beginning of the final season -- this kind of show is right up my alley -- but finally realized it was a total waste of time.
posted by BlahLaLa at 1:29 PM on May 13, 2016

Season 1 is the best and I gave up halfway through season 4 for reasons others have mentioned above.

If you want to watch something set in the same era that also explores changing times, consider Parade's End (miniseries with Benedict Cumberbatch and Rebecca Hall).
posted by esoterrica at 1:31 PM on May 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think it is worth watching up through the end of the third season. I did keep watching after that, up until the end, because I do enjoy the setting and costumes, and some episodes were okay. And I just wanted to see how it all played out.

But, yeah, after season 3 it definitely went downhill, IMHO.
posted by merejane at 2:07 PM on May 13, 2016

Oh, also -- as others have said, Maggie Smith is great, all the way to the end of the series.
posted by merejane at 2:10 PM on May 13, 2016

Ha, I wouldn't have responded except you mention the tedium of the P. Gordon arc. Oh my word that was so bad that I almost couldn't get past it. But I did, and I enjoyed it.

There's no accounting for taste, so I'm not sure what you're seeking with a question like this. I came into the show sometime during season 3, then backed-up to catch up. I ended up getting into it, and more or less enjoyed the whole thing. Some seasons were heavy handed, some seasons leaned too hard on specific relationships or events, but all were entertaining (and occasionally poignant). It's dramatic but it isn't a soap opera--there are no characters who come back to life with an eyepatch and blond hair.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 2:11 PM on May 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

DA has the patina of quality but its covering a soapy load of drivel. If you haven't cottoned to it by the end of series 2 then you're probably not going to, and if anything the writing gets worse from 5 onwards. An increasing number of characters basically run out their storyline by then and are kept around for the form of it.
posted by biffa at 2:35 PM on May 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

Maggie Smith apparently never watched one episode, so you'd probly have her 'permission' to ditch it and watch a drama with something to actually say about the english class system, like Alan Bennett
posted by runincircles at 2:49 PM on May 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

I watched it all and was really angry about the shitty writing. Coincidence, people who are sick, and then magically recover and plots that start, lurch and fizzle out.

If you're on the fence, get off and go outdoors. It's better that way.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 3:18 PM on May 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

Based on what you've mentioned so far, you won't enjoy the rest, at all.

I highly recommend Archer instead, or Penny Dreadful.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:06 PM on May 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

The traits you do not like in the show continue throughout the rest of the show. After awhile the heir question is finally resolved, but otherwise it's all the traits you hate. Might as well quit now.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:46 PM on May 13, 2016

Eh, I'm in the "don't continue" camp. I think season 1 was its peak and it never returned to form after that. My husband and I started calling the show Downton Blabbies because it seemed like EVERY episode had someone overhearing someone else telling a big important secret.
posted by darkchocolatepyramid at 6:15 PM on May 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

I've gotten the impression that the screenwriters started scoping their plots towards the kind of appeals that American Audiences that might be satisfied with, soapy stories and nice sets...

There's always those old 1970's videotapes of 'Upstairs Downstairs', or 'Brideshead Revisited', etc..
posted by ovvl at 6:48 PM on May 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

I personally don't think DA got worse with each season. The simmering romance between Carson and Mrs. Hughes is well done and worth watching. But the worst plots were definitely earlier on. If you like DA at all, keep watching.

The thing with the guy with the bandages on his face is by far the worst/dumbest thing in any season.

That was stupid, yeah. But Matthew getting paralyzed and then getting up and walking again was stupider IMO. As was everything about Lavinia what's-her-name. Later storylines were definitely better.
posted by RRgal at 7:16 PM on May 13, 2016

kept watching because I'm so interested in the period and because I've watched all I can watch on other shows; by the time I was done felt like I, as an american and a very amateur student of history must know more than the writers do about England in the early 20th century. The attitudes and even word choices are blatantly anachronistic. As others have said, the absurdities of plot made me want to throw things.

One non-spoiler, non-specific example, and it never gets "better," in fact, it gets worse. Lord Grantham and the family simply does deal with the servants and tenants like aristocrats of the time would have done. It's not even close. There was a "making of" special where the actors even talked about it in a surprisingly frank way. One trivial example, which makes sense when you think about it - if you're in a house surrounded by servants, you don't say "thank you" when interacting with them. Because if you did, you'd wear yourself out saying it as they wait on you hand and foot all day. They're almost invisible. And then some of the "special favors" done for the servants would get into spoilers, but they border on ludicrous.

Some of this is done to make them seem more likable (and lord knows they need all the help they can get), but it's just not how it was done. P.G. Wodehouse was about as realistic.
posted by randomkeystrike at 7:21 PM on May 13, 2016

I'm on season 5. I've kept going only because there are times when I'm between shows have absolutely nothing else to watch. Agree that season one was the best and season two the worst. Seasons 3-5 were varying degrees of "mech" which is "meh" and "ich!" combined.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 9:18 PM on May 13, 2016

You could always just watch:

The Dowager Countess’ Finest Burns on Downton Abbey SLYT
posted by silsurf at 2:12 PM on May 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

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