“First electricity, now telephones. Sometimes I feel as if I were living in an H.G. Wells novel.”
—The Dowager Countess of Grantham, from “Downton Abbey”
I consider myself to be a masculine man. I was raised in a tough east coast inner-city neighborhood. I enjoy sports, drink good whiskey, wear a beard and can recite every one of Russell Crowe’s lines from the film “Gladiator” verbatim. I am a manly man. And yet, I can say with no reservations that I am in mourning in the wake of “Downton Abbey” having ended its amazing six season run this past Sunday.
If there are two indulgences that summarily threaten the revocation of my “man card”, they are my love of Broadway musicals and my enthusiasm for period dramas. As an unabashed Anglophile, my craving for the works of Henry James, E.M. Forster, Charles Dickens, et al is consuming.
In the early 1990’s, period dramas were out of fashion. They were mostly relegated to PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre and arthouse cinema. Then, in 1995, the A&E Network—back when they still tried to show things that were in the realms of the arts—broadcast a BBC production of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”. It pretty much took over the world.
From that point on, period dramas were greenlighted for television and major movie theaters. It was on this wave that “Downton Abbey” came to television in Britain in 2010 and the U.S. in early 2011.
From the first episode, Downton was a phenomena in America. And what made it original was that it was, well…original. The show was not based on a previous work. All the characters were spawned from the eclectic imagination of show creator Julian Fellowes. There was no beloved book to follow. There was no ancient society of cat ladies to hew and haw if the adaptation was not “faithful to the book”. It was post-modern retro.
The story of Downton revolves around Robert Crawley, the 7th Earl of Grantham, his American wife and their three unmarried daughters. Simultaneously, we are asked to peek into the lives of their servants. The show starts in the immediate aftermath of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 and continues onwards deep into the Roaring Twenties.
The story lines were mostly silly, implausible and, at times, farcical. That is why the show was held in such high esteem by its legion of fans, who proudly went by the nickname of Abbots. Even when tackling very serious subjects, it really was nothing more than a soap opera with fine clothes and snobby English accents cracking cheeky one-liners. I considered it a non sequitur prequel to “Dynasty”.
During its run, Downton came on television on Sunday nights immediately after “The Walking Dead”. The tone and themes of these two shows was a chasm as wide as the distance between Mercury and Pluto. I used to joke that I might be the only person who watched these two shows back to back. Given the high ratings for both shows, this cannot be true. I must be content with the claim to fame of being the only person in history to have graduated from both South Philadelphia High School and Utah State University. Won’t that be an odd obituary?
As is my Sunday tradition, after “The Walking Dead”, I changed my mind frame to enjoy Downton for the last time. Many Abbots worried that a major character would pass away in the finale. I doubted that. The only major characters to die in its six seasons were prematurely expired because the actors playing those roles wanted to move on with their careers. This final episode would be a cavalcade of happy endings and bloomed romances.
In the history of the medium, television has a spotty record regarding final episodes. In 1967, the last episode of “The Fugitive” was watched by approximately half of America.
When “M*A*S*H” bowed out in 1983, the audience for its finale went over 125 million viewers. It still ranks high, surrounded by Super Bowls, as the most watched television show ever.
When Johnny Carson bowed out in 1992, it was numbing for me. Those in my age group and older always expected Johnny to be the last face we saw before we went to sleep.
I was never a big fan of “Seinfeld”. Yet I am puzzled by the low esteem this show’s fans hold for its finale. The premise of the main characters being jailed for doing nothing was cynical genius.
And then there was the greatest television series ever, “The Sopranos”. The entire final season was some of the best storytelling you will find in the annals of drama. In the last scene of the last episode, the camera is aimed squarely on Tony Soprano’s face as the show cuts to black.
Fans immediately went into conspiracy mode trying to figure out what the show’s creative mastermind, David Chase, meant by doing this. Was Tony killed by an assassin? Theories are still debated to this day. I never gave credence to any of these wildly speculative and fantastical interpretations of what the abrupt ending was supposed to convey. Chase is a notorious misanthrope who loved messing with the fans of his signature show. In my expert opinion, Chase cut to black because he had nothing else to say.
It is altogether normal for us to find it hard to accept finality in a television show we dearly loved. Unlike a film, a TV show is something we invite into our lives and our living rooms on a regular basis. We grow to know these characters and care for them. And for the younger, non-traditionalists who binge watch shows on streaming services, it is more intimate. Bingers allow these fictional beings to crash in their homes for a few days at a time.
So, Downton Abbey is kaput. I readily admit that in the last minutes of the show, my eyes teared up when Lord Grantham thanked his soon-to-be-retired butler Mr. Carson for his years of devoted service. The subtlety of their handshake was an appropriate ending for a show that was a magnificent vacation from the calamities of the real world. I am pleased this show went off with a happy ending.
I doubt I will get the same treatment when the curtain falls on The Walking Dead.