Tuesday, March 05, 2013

DOWNTON ABBEY season 3 review

Okay, now that’s it been a few weeks since the DOWNTON ABBEY season finale I think I’ve given sufficient time for everyone who has recorded it to watch it. If not – SPOILER ALERT and WATCH THE DAMN THING ALREADY. This is especially true for you folks in the UK since it aired in your country months ago.

Anyway, these are my thoughts on the third season.  What are yours?

I’m a huge DOWNTON ABBEY fan but was very disappointed in season three.

It got off to a very rocky start with Shirley MacLaine appearing as Cora’s mother. She’s done some fine work in the past, but I had no idea what she was playing. I have the sense she didn’t either. Surely, she could have drawn from all her many past lives and landed on some legitimate character. She also wasn’t helped by the script. Julian Fellows saw fit to make her one-note – the boorish American who just preached change and modernization.  I resented that.  We have other layers, Julian. We square dance.  Shirley will be back next season, probably because prohibition is coming in the U.S.

I was also bothered that there wasn’t one scene between Shirley’s character and her daughter, Cora.

And speaking of Cora, it pains me to say the one cast member of the show who clearly is awful is the one American. Elizabeth McGovern has one expression, like she just bit into an olive pit.

On the other hand, Hugh Bonneville (who plays Robert) is, as always, marvelous. The first two seasons he provided stability and humanity to the series. And this season he’s Inspector Clouseau, bungling through every situation. He’s an incompetent businessman, makes the wrong call that costs his daughter her life, always says the wrong thing, is intolerant, out of step, and a lousy cricket player. Please restore him to the elegant patriarch of the family and not have him morph into Archie Bunker in tails.

When the series began I wasn’t a Mary fan and now I love her. I realize she’s the “Michael” of this Corleone family.

As you know I was devastated when Sybil died. But when Matthew bought it at the end of the season I was pissed. I certainly understand the reason for killing these people – the actors wanted out of the show. Or they questioned lines.   And Julian Fellows said in an interview that offing them was not his preference. But since they were both members of the Crawley family, he couldn’t justify them going away and never returning, especially since they both now had babies. If it had been actors who played help they could easily just get other jobs at UPSTAIRS DOWNSTAIRS and move away. But it’s a tougher buy with family members. He also said that he asked both Dan Stevens (Matthew) and Jessica Brown Findlay (Sybil) if they’d agree to come back for two or three? They both said no, they wanted a clean break. So off with their heads. 

Unlike in America, actors in England don’t sign on for more than three seasons of a series. In the colonies they can be signed from five to seven years. Both Dan and Jessica said they wanted to take advantage of their popularity to strike while the iron is hot. But here’s the thing: They are only hot BECAUSE of DOWNTON ABBEY. In many ways they owe their careers to that show. So it doesn’t seem an unreasonable request to give thanks to the people who believed in you and hired you and built this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for you by staying another season or two. And remember, they only film eight or nine a year. If you’re on a US hit drama you make 22-24. So what are we talking about? A three or four month commitment to make another season of DOWNTON ABBEY? You can’t still do your Broadway shows or movies? Watch. You’re going to see one of them in some awful TNT pilot or Katherine Heigl movie and say, “you left DOWNTON ABBEY for that?”

I also took issue with the way they killed Matthew. That whole two-hour finale was a snooze (nothing happened) with a ridiculous tacked on death scene. Hit by a truck? Really? That’s the best you could do? I had heard of Matthew’s imminent demise so my only question was how were they going to do it?  Drive-by shooting? A trip on the Hindenburg? Beaned by a cricket ball?  No.  The way they actually did it was routine and boring. If you’re going to do that, why not just a meteor fall on the poor bastard?

By the way, when Sybil died, the evil side of me wanted to see Mary put her arm around Edith and say, “Well, I guess you weren’t the unluckiest sister after all.”  Too soon???

Poor Edith just got the shit beaten out of her all year. Anytime she had even a shred of happiness it was yanked from her.  She's left at the alter by an older man with a gimp arm!  That's ten years of therapy right there.  But ultimately, if you project thirty years into the future I see Edith living in New York, a titan of the publishing world, and married to a young Marlon Brando while Mary is running a bed & breakfast. Robert sells the estate and moves to Germany, which proves to be just his latest poor decision, and Cora chokes on an olive pit.

I like the support staff the best. Evil Mrs. O’Brien (first name: Cruella).  She was a hoot as was conniving Thomas who is forever wrestling with his superiority complex, his inferiority complex, and his homosexuality. By the way, there are two characters named Tom – the sniveling servant and Sybil’s widower. With so many characters it’s not confusing enough that two have the same name? There are other great British names.  What about Ringo?   But I digress.

While most guys fantasize about sleeping with Mary or Sybil or the hot new young cousin, Rose, my fantasy is having a butler like Mr. Carson. I like the idea of someone being in a tizzy because my bobbleheads are not aligned perfectly.  The scene in the finale when he held the baby was a killer.

Daisy I just want to slap.

And I hated the whole Mr. Bates-in-prison storyline. He’s one of my favorite characters (how can you not love a man of honor, dignity, and rage?) and I want to see him at the McMansion. Seemed like a waste having him walk in a circle in the prison yard every week. Instead of slamming some jailbird bloke up against the wall, let’s see him stuff Thomas into a dumbwaiter.

My favorite character is still that old dowager herself, Maggie Smith as Granny. Has the best lines and has the best limp. Somehow I can’t see Lady Mary ever uttering droll remarks, and there won’t be a lot of witty badinage between Lady Edith and Brando (especially if he's been drinking).

The storylines seemed to wander this season. I thought it was waaaay too convenient that Robert’s investments go belly-up and he loses the family fortune but out of nowhere an acquaintance Matthew didn’t know dies and leaves him all this money. If they’re going to play it like that – when Sybil died why didn’t they just introduce Adele as the daughter Robert gave up at birth and now just happens to be in town for a golf junket?

I’m hoping season three was just a hiccup and season four rights the ship. It would be nice to see a little happiness in Downton Abbey. Oh, who am I kidding? Here’s what I really want – Lady Mary and Mr. Carson to hook up. Yeah! Now that would get me going to my phone and pledging PBS twenty dollars.


alkali said...

Shows with dramatic arcs can't let things go on forever without resolution, or viewers will feel jerked around (e.g., Lost, Dexter -- The Mentalist on CBS is beginning to have this problem).

Downton Abbey has the reverse problem. Virtually all of its arcs feel foreshortened. Everyone's off at war; hey, look, they're back. Matthew can't walk; oh wait, he can. Lavinia vs. Mary; sorry, Lavinia. Edith's getting married! Sorry, Edith. Pretty much the only arc that was close to well-timed was the Matthew/Mary arc. (The Bates-in-prison arc was arguably also about the right length; the trouble with that story was that it wasn't at all interesting.)

Carol said...

I wonder if Downton Abbey is going on longer than planned because of the huge popularity in the states, and the actors had originally planned on only 3 years at the start.

Roger Owen Green said...

I don't watch, but my wife watched the summaries of seasons 1 and 2, and dove into Season 3. Is she ticked by both deaths, but especially the latter! BTW, I bought her the DVD of Season 1 for Valentine's Day.

Jim S said...


You mentioned that the Brits only make 6 episodes a year. It reminds me of something Hugh Laurie said, when asked what it was like working on American television (House also made 22-24 episodes a year).

He said that he was surprised at how hard Americans worked and that for the first time he understood why they were so successful and that they earned this success and the money they made by working so hard.

Remember by the end of House, Laurie was making something like $500,000 an episode. (That number may be off, but it was in the hundreds of thousands of dollars). I read also that the way British shows work is that as the seasons go on, the actors don't keep getting a pay raise. So if Matthew actor stayed, he wouldn't be getting that big payday that justifies signing on to a show for five to seven seasons.

Ron Clark said...

I can't say that I agree with you on the idea that actors owe something to the shows that made them popular. Without a doubt the actor owes it to the show to fulfill the terms of his contract, but beyond that, I think the only thing an actor owes to anyone is to act. I've seen this sentiment expressed often; that an actor, or writer, or artist, owes something to the public that made them famous; this usually translates to "keep doing what it was that I really liked, and don't do anything else". I get just as bothered as you when an actor or writer or other creative person that I like decides to no longer produce the work that I found so enjoyable, but I always figure that he has already paid whatever debt he "owes" to me by producing the work I liked in the first place. Or maybe you're just being facetious, in which case.....LOL.

Jim, Cheers Fan said...

I thought Elizabeth McGovern had some decent moments in the episode where Sybil died, but mostly, yeah, olive pit.

Does Fellows have some kind of patent on the phrase "on my/your/our side"? Does he get more money for using it at least once in every episode?

I disagree there was nothing in the finale before the birth and death scene. The shots of the Scottish Highlands were fantastic, and I think I like Shrimpy's castle better than Robbie's. But were we supposed to be moved or touched by the scene of Anna dancing? It would have been less cloying if Bates had taken her hands, gazed lovingly in her eyes and said "My darling, truly you are the heart of this series. I am so glad you are on my side for life"

Jake Mabe said...

It's dangerous to leave a popular series for greener pastures. Just ask McLean Stevenson. I still have nightmares about "Hello Larry."

I generally liked Series III of "Downton," but like you hated the Bates in prison storyline. It should have been resolved quicker.

Matthew's death pissed me off, but I didn't have a problem with how it was handled, other than it might have been more ironic had he somehow been offed in Scotland.

Robert is one of my favorite characters, but I didn't have a problem with how he was handled this year. I took it that he's a symbol, along with Carson, of the bumpy transition in Britain from the Victorian/Edwardian era into the modern world.

I do wish the writers had given Shirley something to do. She's too talented to be so underutilized. If they do nothing else but fix that in Season 4, I'll be a happy camper.

Anonymous said...

Well, you write TV shows so your opinion must have more weight than mine, but I thoroughly enjoyed season three.

The only thing I agree with you on is the Bates-In-Prison storyline, which I disliked. But I disliked it because I dislike Bates himself. I wish they had hanged him and got rid of the character.

Anonymous said...

Agree with most of your observations, Ken. Here's how I would have liked Matthew to bite it in the end: Now that he's sired a male son, he is no longer needed to continue the line, so the Dowager hires some gun-toters to off him, removing his stinking commoner sensibilities out of the mansion for good.

Nigel said...

My wife couldn't wait for Season 3 and back in December, I thought I'd whet her appetite by showing her what was billed in England as the Christmas special. Turned out to be the finale where Matthew get killed in road accident!

Unknown said...

Great summing up and I so agree with you on almost every one of your points. I had been looking forward to Shirley MacLaine but she turned into a snooze fest. I’m okay with boorish, but if you’re going to be boorish, do it in a big way. She hardly made a ripple, so it was hard to even understand why Maggie Smith’s knickers were in a bother over her. Also, as you said, she needed to bring some emotional resonance, otherwise, what was the point? Cora was like a stranger to her, but not in a dramatically interesting way. And yes, I so agree about the actress who plays Cora. One expression, that’s it.

And yes, they should never have sent Bates to prison, there was nothing interesting or new about the prison scenes. But if you needed a bathroom break that was a good time, and you wouldn’t have to pause the DVR.

I did find Robert’s financial incompetence amusing at least (“let’s try this new investment plan from a guy named Ponzi”), but also agree they piled it on too thick.

Matthew’s death made me angry too. And yes, they used the old I’m-so-happy-I’m-going-to-drive-on-the-wrong-side-of-this-windy-country-road-oops-here-comes-an-old-jalopy-with-bad-brakes that I feel like I’ve seen a hundred times in English dramas. Surely they could’ve offered him more money to show up for a few scenes now and then.

I don’t agree on Mary, though. Still can’t stand her. For god’s sake, would it kill her to say one nice thing to her sister?

Despite all this, I continue to love the show, I suppose because the characters are so fun to watch, and the dowager is awesome. The plots definitely need some improvement. And I’m not sure how I’ll feel next year, with one of my favorite characters (Matthew) permanently out of the picture.

Julia Littleton said...

I've been looking forward to hearing your thoughts on Season 3, but you lost me when you started giving Season 4 spoilers. And yes, some of us don't read the news about which actors are leaving.

normadesmond said...

you're absolutely right about mrs. levenson & cora. not one mother/daughter moment. odd.

you're also right about elizabeth's one note performance. yet i've always thought that note was the one she specifically went for.

i'm curious to find out if martha levinson is jewish like her husband isadore levinson. knowing this, wouldn't the dowager simply hemorrhage at the dining room table?

Larry V said...

The Bates in prison storyline was not only dull, it was baffling. They showed us that Bates' cell mate and one of the prison guards were in league - but they never showed us why. At one point, the cell mate tried to plant evidence in Bates' bunk, but failed. Why? And what was the point of the whole conspiracy? Either I missed the explanation or they just never got around to letting us in on what was happening. Maybe one of your readers picked up an explanation?

I like the show too, but in general the plotting was less grounded and plausible than it was in Season 1 - still the best of the three, imo. I keep watching because the acting is so good.

It's hard to imagine the show without Matthew, as he has been such a central character. And downstairs it won't be the same without O'Brien, the best villain on TV.

Larry V

pumpkinhead said...

I notice British shows tend to portray Americans as one-note boors. Like here on Faulty Towers, the one American character I ever remember appearing on the show.


Chris G said...

I agree that the young actors leaving the show are likely being foolish. At least in Sibyl's case, though, the character's death opened the door to all sorts of questions about gender and class and agency, which in turn led to some interesting scenes. None of that applies to Matthew's death. He just got hit by a truck. Pointless and meaningless death happens in real life all the time, but they tend to make for boring drama.

McAlvie said...

I agree with most of what Ken says. I love the show, but it's such a soap opera! Almost literally, because the different plot lines have about the same amount of depth. And really, you had to know something was going to happen to Matthew because Crawley finally admitted he was right about making changes, and Mary and Matthew were way to adoring of each other. So I totally saw that one coming.

Cora's best scenes were also way to brief. The bit where OBrien snitches on what's happening at the Crawley house and Cora say "We're going to help them." That was one of the few times she showed some real spirit. They need to give her more to work with next season.

Maggie Smith - that woman can do anything and make it great. That her character gets to have the most fun is just icing on the cake.

But shows like this are really about the staff. All the good stuff happens below stairs. I love that Tom the former chauffer is a little wiser now. The whole rebeling against the upper class while you take their money thing got old fast. I also like that O'Brien is a bit more human in season 3. She makes a great villain, there must have been some reason Cora kept her on, because otherwise Cora was just dumb as a brick since everyone hates O'Brien.

Will The Mentalist be showing up in season 4 as Jimmy's identical American cousin?

Susannahfromhungary said...

Hey, what's with the spoilers? I've been trying to avoid fiding out what happens in season four for weeks now. Didn't think that would be an issue in a season 3 review.
(Btw, now that you did say it, I hope Robert finds out what O'Brien did to Cora and has her hanged or something. What a bitch!)

Wendy M. Grossman said...

The fact that the actors weren't well-known in the US before DOWNTON ABBEY doesn't mean they didn't already have substantial careers in the UK. In this country there's a lot more moving between TV, film, and theater. If they're being offered starring roles in good pieces of work in the West End, those opportunities may not come back a year from now. (As a side note, the casting on this show has already struck me as weird - you have two *blue-eyed* parents with three *brown-eyed* daughters. This is biologically/genetically impossible, so I kept waiting for the storyline that turns on that point. It seems like it's not forthcoming, and in the meantime, what? we're not supposed to notice?)

Personally, I hated season 2 so much that I bailed after the first episode or so of season 3. I had hopes for Shirley Maclaine, but from the reports I've read, it sounds like it would have been more fun watching film of Maggie Smith and Maclaine hanging out together and gossiping.


RCP said...

I agree with a lot of this, though I wasn’t overly disappointed with Season Three. Sybil’s death scene was one of the most riveting of the entire series, and I did like some of the storylines despite others with too-convenient resolutions – lost and found fortunes, Ethel being despised by the grandfather of her illegitimate kid (whom she she’ll “never” see again) then being invited to visit him regularly after accepting work at a neighboring home, Thomas at the point of suicide after losing everything and then not only being rehired but given a promotion. I’d forgotten Dan Stevens had mentioned leaving, but as soon as he was shown happily driving along I knew he was a dead man – can’t have that at the Abbey, old chap.

Maggie Smith has said she’ll stay as she likes to work (“Even though my character will be 120”) which is good, cause when she leaves, I do too. O’Brien will be missed. I still like Anna but The Bates have become rather boring. Edith has evolved nicely from the loathsome creature she was in Season One, and is tuning out to be the most progressive in the bunch. Other favorites: Mrs. Hughes, Mr. Carson, the cook, Tom (the cute one), and Isabel when she’s delivering zingers – like when Tom was invited to dinner: “Oh good. Someone from the real world.”

Wait a minute – Lady Mary and Mr. Carson?

Barbara C. said...

I just realized today that one of the ogres in Ella Enchanted is Mr. Carson! I thought I recognized him from somewhere.

I thought season 3 was OK. I agree that the Bates story went too long. I kept thinking that Matthew was going to get killed in a hunting accident. I really wish they hadn't turned Edith into Jane Eyre; this is the second married man they've hooked her up with.

Anonymous said...

@ Pumpkinhead

What about Polly?

Unknown said...

It's easy to take issue with the idea that an actor owes something to a series that makes them popular. I'd suggest that an actor owes something to a story and a character that they've committed to, regardless of contracts. If they're true artists, as I suspect most of the Downton actors consider themselves to be, their characters should be more important than their careers. Sometimes this actually does mean leaving a show early - and sometimes it means staying. When an actor makes a career choice that compromises a character, the story suffers specifically because the viewers are aware that narrative choices are being made based on contract negotiations rather than authentic narrative development.

YEKIMI said...

I would have liked to seen all of the episodes but the damn PBS station in my area tries to pretend they're NBC and the show is NEVER shown at the same time week to week...or even on their main channel, I've been awake some nights and stumbled across it on one of their digital sub-channels at 2 & 3 AM. Instead they have to preempt it for some local crap like "Local Gravel For Road Repair: Better or worse than gravel imported from other states? A documentary" And of course they have to split it up 3 ways from Sunday, just to get their pledge drives in, which actually last longer than the damn show. Guess I'll just wait for the DVD.

Nancy said...

Julian Fellowes is featured on one of the "Gosford Park" dvd bonus audio commentaries.

There's also a British TV Red Nose Day send-up of "Downton Abbey" by the comedy writer, Jennifer Saunders on youtube called "Uptown Downstairs Abbey" and it features Kim Catrall as the Elizabeth McGovern/Lady Cora character. No olive pits scrunched in the making of that...

Carol said...

I have a Friday question. Well, kind of a question. It's more like something I really want to know, to satisfy my curiousity.

I've been watching the Dick Van Dyke show on Netflix, and I know you liked that show. I was wondering if you were aware at all that the person who did the makeup on the show was called Tom Tuttle.

I'm just wondering if maybe you pulled that name out of your subconscious for Volunteers when naming that particular character.

Mike Doran said...


I'm sure you're aware that Robert Redford has been threatening to make his own film version of the signing of Jackie Robinson, and has earmarked himself for the part of Branch Rickey.

Since Redford is both physically and dramatically unsuited to play Rickey, I've been looking around for someone who might fit the role of the Mahatma a bit more closely.

Now, thanks to Downton Abbey, I believe I've found him.
Jim Carter (Carson the butler).
I mean, the eyebrows alone ...
I don't know if Carter's played a Yank before, but British stage actors love to try that kind of stuff.

Mainly, though, it's the eyebrows ...

Carrie said...

Since DA has such a "soap opera" feel to it anyway, why couldn't they do what the soaps do and hire another actor to play Matthew? Put him in a coma after the accident instead of killing him and a couple shows into season 4 he wakes up and is a different actor. The Matthew character is so essential to the show I would have preferred that to killing him off. And then when Dan finds out people prefer him in DA he can come back! :)

And a season 4 spoiler? That wasn't very nice!

By Ken Levine said...

The news about O'Brien not coming back has been in all the papers, websites, etc. So I didn't think it was a big spoiler. And who's to say she doesn't come back.

But I apologize. Didn't mean to spoil anything.

And I'm removing it so don't tell anyone else.


Pat said...

For me , the biggest problem with season three was the pacing. Major events came up and were (too) quickly resolved, yet the Bates story was spooned out in 10-second scenes that went nowhere. Other oddities: Robert talking about how he'd read something in the newspaper that he wanted to share with Sybil, but never did a conversation like this take place while she was alive. Same with the cricket match. So important,but never before mentioned. Lots of discontinuity.

But still looking forward to next season!

Rob n Toronto said...

Didn't Matthew inherit his money from the woman he was going to marry before she caught him kissing Lady Mary ? If I recall correctly, she conveniently died and got out of the way, and that's why he had such guilt about using his inheritance for the family.

Dwight Weathersby said...

On the actors that play Lady Sybil and Matthew leaving I’ll never understand why actors who have the good fortune to stumble into a hit show always seem to want to leave it as quickly as possible. I would think that finding a hit show to be involved in is a goal but too many times one of the main actors of a show that’s become wildly popular decides to leave as if being in this wildly successful show that people love you in and is the reason you’re so in demand as an actor is somehow an inconvenience. They want so much to capitalize on their in demand status that they end up screwing what made them popular in the first place thus cutting short whatever momentum they had from said popularity.

Cap'n Bob said...

Adding to what Ron Clark and Molly Lewis said about actors owing someone something, I can't help but think of what Humphrey Bogart said. "All I owe the public is a good performance."

Hollywoodaholic said...

Ask yourselves what, really, more they could have done with Matthew anyway? They're on, their off, they're on, he's crippled, he's uncrippled. he won't use his inheritance, oh, now he will. But hey, it's the British, and, in the tradition of Monty Python, Fellowes can always give us... "he's not QUITE dead yet."

-bee said...

The show keeps me curious enough to keep watching, but a lot of the writing just is not very good. Fellowes will give a character one bit of business and have them hammer on that over and over (65% of Mathew's dialogue seemed to be him carping about modernizing Downton Abbey). I have a feeling that working under a TV series deadline somehow hampers Fellowe's creativity because his writing did not have these issues so much in season 1 or in the movie Gosford Park.

My theory about the interminable Bates-in-prison sequences is the actor was doing something else that cause scheduling issues so all the prison stuff was shot at one time separately.

I don't have any problems with Elizabeth McGovern. The actress playing Daisy on the other hand...

Greg Ehrbar said...

Yekimi -- the DVD set has been available since late January. We actually pre-ordered it and deliberately didn't watch the show until it arrived -- no worries about the show being moved around by our local PBS and station and no pledge drives.

Ken, your comments are well taken, though I'll even take a lesser season of this show, I enjoy it so much.

I agree that Matthew's death was kind of comical. Moments before he "left forever," he and Lady Mary uttered all the standard "about to die" clich├ęs like "We have so much time ahead together," like Diana Rigg and George Lazenby in "On Her Majesty's Secret Service."

I wish Dan Stevens well, though, as you yourself have carefully described on this site, the chances of an actor of even getting onto a hit series is slim, much less parlaying it into something more.

With today's short attention spans, you can be forgotten in weeks. It takes months just for Downton Abbey to resume, so he could be hearing "Dan who?" before the next season. We can hope that he really has some hot prospects and isn't just being misguided.

As for Shirley, you have to remember that while the rest of the cast is pretending to be in the past, she's just being filmed in real time, having been there before.

Anyway, Ken, since you worked on two series that deftly survived major cast changes: Cheers and M*A*S*H. How would you handle the characters and actors if you were Julian Fellowes?

Ron Clark said...

I often find it perplexing that, when an actor chooses to leave a show, the writers almost without exception choose to kill off the character, rather than recast the role. It would seem to me that preserving the narrative would be more important than the person who played the role. Do the producers of shows assume that the viewing audience is too unsophisticated to accept a new actor in an established role? Are we in fact unable to accept it? From a personal standpoint, I'd much rather see a narrative played out with a new actor, rather than have an interesting story arc truncated by the loss of the actor involved. Am I in the minority opinion?

Todd Oode said...

Bates turns up as Kalinda's next love interest on The Good Wife.

Chris said...

Friday question: sometimes, on network shows, they drop the occasional bleeped curse word. How does that work?

Kathy said...

I just watched seasons 1, 2 and 3 in one big gulp. I don't usually do that, and DA didn't really withstand that test. SO MUCH repetition, so much on-the-nose dialogue, such weird pacing. I know it's a soap opera, but Bates condemned to death? Please. Then in prison forever and ever...and then conveniently out... I love Bates and Anna together, but this separation was ridiculous. I agree with the "on your side" comments... before Matthew gave the money to DA there were about 3 scenes per episode where Mary said that, along with some version of "You won't give us the money!" over and over again. I agree with Ken's assessment of the two deaths; Sybil's felt earned and Matthew's did not. I genuinely felt they should've recast him. Ah well.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Molly Lewis: But what is an artist-actor to do when the show they're in betrays its characters, as happens so often in long-running US series? Or when the series has just gotten so bad that they're embarrassed to be seen in it? Sometimes, the artistic decision is to quit while you're ahead.

Those who do not understand why an actor would quit a hit series...you really *have* to understand that this is a very different decision in the UK than it is in the US. He's not making - and not going to make - huge sums of money; a 6-7 episode a year show can't offer him the kind of money Hugh Laurie made on HOUSE, despite the show's sale to PBS and its DVD sales. Nor is it at all clear that continuing in the show will enhance his career options any more than they already have been; if the quality continues to deteriorate, he may be better off taking his chances *now*. This isn't Rob Lowe leaving THE WEST WING.

The fact is, no one knows (cue William Goldman: "No one knows anything.") what his best options are. In 1969 or thereabouts, Diana Rigg left THE AVENGERS, which *was* on network TV. She went on to a few movies - ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE, THE HOSPITAL - but never reached the kind of movie career enjoyed by her contemporaries Glenda Jackson (for a time in the 1970s/1980s), Judi Dench, or Maggie Smith. But she *did* have a great London stage career (much of which I have enjoyed over these many decades) and a fine British TV career, and when I've seen her interviewed on the subject I've never heard her say she should have stuck with the show. Instead she's said, "I'm grateful for what it did." Like Smith and Dench, she has been and still is working as much as she cares to. (Glenda Jackson is busy in Parliament.)


Greg Ehrbar said...

It's true that Diana Rigg did not become the international superstar that some of her contemporaries did after leaving "The Avengers." I've also never heard anything to suggest that stardom was her goal. She's Dame Diana Rigg now, so I would imagine she's leased with her lot in life, still doing stage, films, TV and radio (which still lives on in the UK and I love it here in the US).

When Dame Diana replaced Honor Blackman (whose departure was, at least in part, due to her role in "Goldfinger"), "The Avengers" became co-produced for American TV. It went from videotape to film, got a higher budget and was deliberately designed as a picture postcard of scenic, eccentric England to delight Americans.

Each "Avengers" season contained far more than six episodes. That's why the Rigg episodes are continually rediscovered by new generations and cherished by fans -- those episodes are numerous enough to sustain their own syndication package (though there's a lot to be said for the Blackman/Thorson/Lumley "Avengers" incarnations, too).

Ms. Rigg told one writer that she had wanted to leave "The Avengers" sooner, but stayed with the show as a favor to her friend and costar, Patrick Macnee. But she wanted to do more as an actor and tired of being in a studio for hours on end. She told Dick Cavett that if people only saw her as Emma Peel, that wasn't her problem.

The eclectic roles of her post-"Avengers" career bear this out. She did do a short lived, "Mary Tyler Moore"-like sitcom for NBC, but my guess is that, had it been a hit, she still would have again wished to move on after a few seasons.

Anyway, Dame Diana may not have been motivated by stardom and big money, but we don't know that for sure about Dan Stevens, except for clues in interviews that he seemed to find his role, and perhaps the series, a little silly and wanted to do other kinds of roles.

It would appear -- and this is a guess -- that his departure isn't looked upon as fondly as those of the other actors who have left the show, especially since it has received so much press and spoiled an important plot point for the American audience.

However, Stevens made quite a splash on Broadway BECAUSE of Downton Abbey, and his fame is almost exclusively due to it. One hopes that he is not being seduced by the fuss and attention.

Otherwise, he may find himself being asked, "Oh yeah -- Dan Stevens! Weren't you married to Samantha on that show, what was it called?"

Steve McLean said...

I was bothered by much of the casual modern language in the dialogue. It often didn't feel authentic to the character or the period. Linguist Geoff Nunberg did a great piece on NPR called "Historical Vocab" that addressed this (and specifically on Downton). He discusses it much better than I can, check it out. http://www.npr.org/2013/02/26/172955182/historical-vocab-when-we-get-it-wrong-does-it-matter

Katherine B said...

to Steve McLean:
I too was bugged by the modern language. The Shirley MacLaine character saying of tradition, "...we just don't give it power over us," or Tom saying he was "on a steep learning curve." Careless. Thanks for the NPR link. I like Nunberg's not-to-pedantic take on it and agree with him that, while we don't need to nitpick about this in many period shows, in Downton it was a bit too much.

Jake Mabe said...

I've always thought recasting a role with another actor is a terrible idea, even on a soap opera. I can't think of one instance in which I liked the replacement actor better.

Donna Reed was terrible as a brief replacement for Barbara Bel Geddes' Miss Ellie on "Dallas."

Emma Samms wasn't near as good as Pamela Sue Martin's hot, bitchy Fallon Carrington Colby on "Dynasty." Neither was Jack Coleman as good as Al Corley's Steven Carrington on the same show.

Dick York was a better Darren on "Bewitched" than Dick Sargent.

I guess it could be done, but I can't think of one example. I don't watch daytime soaps, so I can't speak with knowledge about any of those.

"M*A*S*H" and "Cheers" were quite successful at replacing major characters with other, equally good characters. (In the former's case, I prefer all of the later characters -- B.J., Charles, Col. Potter) to the originals. Hopefully "Downton" will go that route, but it, too, is darn difficult to pull off.

In the "Cheers" example, as much as I liked Woody, he never quite filled the void left by the Coach. And Kirstie didn't come close to having the chemistry with Ted Danson the way Shelley Long did. Having said that, though, "Cheers" managed to pull it off and went out No. 1.

Ron Clark said...

@ Jake Mabe
I didn't watch Dallas or Dynasty, so I couldn't offer an opinion on how successful the replacement actors were. It does seem to me that the resistance to replacing an actor is a television specific thing; after all, there have been six James Bonds (I think), and it's not uncommon at all for long running plays to replace actors. Some replacements are successful, some aren't, but the only place it seems to be rare is on TV. Admittedly is is difficult to imagine certain roles being played by anyone but the originating actor; it's tough to picture anyone but Hugh Laurie as House, or Jim Parsons as Sheldon Cooper....

Buttermilk Sky said...

Carson and Lady Mary? Not bloody likely. He nearly had a stroke when she ate a lunch prepared by an ex-hooker. The running theme of all these shows is that Downstairs is much more obsessed with propriety than Upstairs.

Perhaps Dan Stevens will be the next Dr. Who. There's a show that knows how to cope with continual cast changes -- a character who keep re-generating. Although the one we all remember is Tom Baker, am I right?

I agree with the comments about jarring modern language. Attitudes, too -- I'm not sure most of the household would have been quite so relaxed about Thomas's sexuality in 1920. Although I cherish Robert's comment: "If I'd screamed whenever a boy tried to kiss me at Eton I would have gone hoarse within a week."

Jake Mabe said...

I forgot about "Dr. Who." That's an excellent point. That show has replaced the main character with fairly decent success. Tom Baker is my favorite, but I also liked David Tennant in the reboot.

And Ron's point is right. Unsuccessfully replacing actors tends to be a television-specific thing. The Bond series is a perfect example in films and he is also right about recasting actors in long-running plays. Maybe with TV, it's the intimacy of it, the fact that those characters enter our living rooms at least once a week maybe for 10 years or longer.

In addition to the examples Ron mentioned, I can't, for example, imagine anybody else playing J.R. Ewing but Larry Hagman or anybody but Alan Alda playing Hawkeye Pierce or anybody but Ted Danson playing Sam Malone. (I know it's apples and oranges to a degree, but I HATED Donald Sutherland's Hawkeye in the movie "M*A*S*H," although granted I saw the film after years of watching the TV show.)

Ron Clark said...

I think I truly am in the minority, Jake. I actually liked both Alda's and Sutherland's portrayal of Hawkeye; they both brought something to the role that I enjoyed. In fact, I find it interesting to see how different actors approach the same role. Alda definitely has the edge in one particular area though; he has one of the best, most honest sounding laughs I've ever heard from an actor.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Just for grins, I went back and looked up what the reaction was when Julianna Margulies left ER. The fans *hated* her for it - not only did she take away a popular character, but she turned down $27 million to stay for 2/3 more years (depending which story you read). The reasons she gave, in various interviews: she was bored, she was burned-out, she felt the character had nowhere left to go, she felt the character had been left in a good place, she had two years of work lined up, she was 32 and had a paid-off house and wanted to try other things, she wasn't in it for the money. And so on.

Frankly, that sounds to me like a pretty purely artistic decision. And I suspect it's a lot more common. Yes, of course it's a gamble. But the willingness to take those gambles is what makes artists in the first place.


MaryRC said...

The problem with Downton Abbey is that the makers seem to think that some drama has to happen all the time or else we'll get bored. Hence the contrived and bogus situations like Matthew suddenly inheriting money from somewhere which will save the day only he's not sure he should accept it, or the Earl's fling with the maid or the Canadian cousin/impostor or that really really awkward scene where Dr. C almost proposes to Cousin Isobel.

Whereas I would be happy just to watch Carson raise his eyebrows all day, if possible while holding Baby Sybil.

juju said...

The third season is the first season I have watched any episodes of DA. In watching I was struck by how similar it all is to "Upstairs Downstairs". I think I prefer the original.


terry said...

Well, this season was the end of Downton for me. I mean it was hard to be terribly upset about poor Sybill beyond that's just an awfully sad thing to happen to anybody, because her character never really appeared much in the show, and I didn't feel like I knew her very well at all. The dowager countess gets fun lines--but it's not enough to make up for all the boredom and repetitious snobbery in between.

Anyway, Downton was always a slooooooow show, but this year it...just...draaaaaagged. The Bates storyline was just another anchor weighing down this plodding, bloated bohemoth. I thought I got through the final episode and was disappointed to learn there was another half to go!!!

This show seemed to start a lot of stories and then they just fizzled out. Went nowhere. And this gave me time to think about the stupid things it does--like when Matthew was up and walking well in a few minutes after having been bed ridden for a good deal of time. I can get that kind of thing on Young and the Restless. The writers might actaully want to watch a little Y&R and see how you extend a storyline and then PAY IT OFF!! Nope, this show to me is just a snobby PBS soap opera.

I've been watching the second season of Dallas, and much to my surprise, it's actually much improved and kind of fun. (JR's funeral was actually touching.) Drinks get thrown, murders happen, trials, business schemes, affairs, babies, lying, assumed identities, kidnapping, blackmail--that's how you do a soap opera.

Carolo said...

We never watch TV....

My husband got a thumbs up and he purchased the series for Valentines Day.

OMG...we just finished series 3 last night. What a mess !

We laid down in bed and said, "Matthew didn't die". They all lived happily~ever~after and we're not buying series 4.

Lights Out.

RosieP said...

Please restore him to the elegant patriarch of the family and not have him morph into Archie Bunker in tails.

Are you kidding? Robert was more realistic than the all-wise and too-tolerant lord of the manor from Season 1.

Unknown said...

I was also disappointed with Downton's third series. I had the misguided hope that it would return to the serenity and opulence of series one. I now firmly believe that the only way that this is possible is to return to 1912. I am not enjoying the progression in years as firstly it is happening at a far to rapid speed and it also just adds more hype for when it occurs it serves as only a let down. The fourth season needs to pick up the show and if it fails to do so I may fall out of love with a show that I have adored since first view.

Anonymous said...

Dan Stevens and Jessica Findlay-Brown can do the hell what they want. I suspect most people are predicting doom for them, because they didn't want the pair to leave the show in the first place. Talk about selfish.

After fulfilling their contract, Stevens and Findlay-Brown decided to take a chance on their careers. One cannot go through life always playing it safe. Sometimes, the gamble works and sometimes it doesn't. Life is basically a series of crap shoots.

But to predict professional doom for Findlay-Brown and especially Stevens just because you're upset over their departure from the show seems rather unpleasant in my book.

Sooke said...

"Like here on Faulty Towers, the one American character I ever remember appearing on the show."

You're referring, of course, to former Calgary Stampeder Bruce Boa, who, for the rest of his life, was identified as "Waldorf Salad"...and loved it.

Judy Lynne said...

Elizabeth McGovern is just cringe-worthy most of the time. The saccharin, painful, and/or motherly facial expressions appear simply practiced and fake. It is very odd for a series that clearly is filled with some very fine performances. I love it, but McGovern is definitely the weak link. I wish it were not so.