Until it finally doesn’t; and leaves all its fans in mourning
So, it’s official. The sixth season of Downton Abbey, which is currently being filmed, will also be the final season of the show. NBC Universal, which owns the production company that produces Downton, has sent out an internal memo to staff to say that the drama is ‘approaching its natural conclusion’. So the ‘difficult decision’ to ‘wrap up production while the show is still at its peak’ had been taken.
This will be the last year that we will be able to follow the fortunes of the Crawley family, headed by the somewhat wishy-washy Earl of Grantham. Maybe we’ll finally find out if his eldest daughter, the widowed Lady Mary Crawley, succeeds in her quest for true love (the second time round). Or if the eternally star-crossed couple below stairs, Mr and Mrs Bates, will get a happy ending of their own. As for myself, I will just be happy if Julian Fellowes desists from killing off the formidable Dowager Countess of Grantham – played to perfection by Maggie Smith – who is the best thing about the show. I still bear the emotional scars from seeing Matthew Crawley brutally dispatched in the Christmas special some years ago. (Christmas, I tell you! Is nothing sacred any more?)
Yes, I agree, the show is mostly sentimental hogwash, with its rosy-eyed view of post-Edwardian England, where the upper classes are always honourable and decent and the working classes know their place (well, mostly). But such lovely hogwash it is to watch! Those beautifully-lit interiors, the lush English countryside, the perfect recreation of the period around the Great War; it is no wonder that the show has become something of a global phenomenon (of course, the Americans persist in calling it Downtown Abbey; but then, they would, wouldn’t they?).
But that said, I will be sad to see it go, with its idealized evocation of a gentler age. It was escapist fare, but escapist fare at the best; and which of us doesn’t enjoy a bit of respite from the realities of life?
I feel just as sad about the imminent end of yet another – but very different – period drama. Mad Men is as different from Downton Abbey as it is possible to get, set in the urban landscape of Madison Avenue in New York. But what both have in common is the faithful recreation of a certain point of time when society was in flux, depicted through the stories of its characters.
In Downton, the passage of time in the political world is marked by such events as the sinking of the Titanic, the break-out of the First World War, the post-war period, with references thrown in to such cataclysmic events as the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. In the domestic sphere, we see Mrs Patmore struggling to cope with new-fangled kitchen contraptions and Mr Carson trying to make do with just the two footmen. Social flux is marked by Lady Sybil marrying a chauffeur and Lady Rose marrying a Jew (both social calamities at the time!).
Mad Men, for its part, documents the end of the 50s, when the certainties of American society with its commuting husbands, its Stepford wives, its 2.5 children, were gradually breaking down and the spirit of the Swinging Sixties was beginning to infect the land. So, Don Draper who starts out as the resident genius at his ad agency in the 50s is beginning to look a little ‘square’ by the time the Beatles invade America. Robert Sterling – true to form – is getting into the spirit of things by experimenting with LSD. And both Joan Holloway and Peggy Olson have managed to carve out independent careers, despite the misogyny and sexism prevailing at their work place, heralding the shape of things to come.
But now it’s time for Don Draper to smoke his final cigarette and walk off into the sunset, looking as moody as ever. And I will miss him just as much I will the extended Crawley family. Or indeed, as much as I have missed Walter White ever since Breaking Bad went off our screens. The only bit of good news in all this is that Julian Fellowes is said to be working on a prequel to Downton Abbey, set in America, which will tell the story of Robert and Cora, who we know as the Earl and Countess of Grantham. And that a spin-off of Breaking Bad, titled Better Call Saul, is here to tell us the back story of that archetypal sleazy lawyer, Saul Goodman.
What is it about certain TV shows that they exert such a powerful force on our imagination? Why do we get so hooked on some series as if we were in the throes of a real addiction?
I still remember staying awake till 5 am watching the early series of 24, because I simply could not wait until the following evening to see what happened next. Homeland was another show that induced a serious attack of binge-watching as did House of Cards (it helped that the entire season was dumped on Netflix in one go). And I wasn’t the only fanatic; the whole world appeared to be in the grip of an edge-of-the-seat excitement. Why, even the President of America, Barack Obama, pleaded on Twitter that nobody should post any spoilers until he had watched the show.
I’ve thought long and hard about it, but I can’t put my finger on what exactly makes these shows so special. Maybe if I binge-watch the latest series of Homeland, I will get some ideas. I promise to get back to you if inspiration strikes.