It’s been rather a sleepy midseason, hasn’t it? Remember when the annual winter returns of “24” and “Lost” -- not to mention “The Sopranos” -- seemed to bring all of television excitingly alive? Well, there are plenty of engaging shows to choose from right now, among them CBS’ “The Good Wife,” USA Network’s “Suits,” FX’s “Justified,” TNT’s “Dallas” and Fox’s “The Following” (though the latter is not for the faint of heart). Cinemax’s brand new “Banshee” continues to be an outstanding entry in the sub-genre of “socko entertainment.” The second season of HBO’s “Girls” and the third of Showtime’s “Shameless” are living up to expectations. And in two weeks, AMC’s young adult magnet “The Walking Dead” will return to finish out its third season.
But the only series (scripted or otherwise) that seems to be generating the usual outsize buzz at the moment is PBS’ reliable “Downton Abbey.” Thank God this uncommonly fast-moving period piece came along when it did to deliver the midseason drama. As was true last year at this time, it is difficult to go anywhere and not have someone bring it up in conversation. It’s hard to imagine facing the cold, dark, post-holiday, pre-sweeps period without it.
Admittedly, I don’t watch “Downton” the way millions of people do, ending their winter weekends with a fresh episode on Sunday nights. That’s because each year PBS sends critics the entire season (absent the two-hour Christmas special-season finale, which arrives later). I’m not usually given to marathon viewing of anything, but year after year “Downton” pulls me in with its abundant simple pleasures. I watch the whole thing in two sittings, max.
I came to “Downton” a little late this year, and during the weeks between its official season premiere on PBS and my viewing binge I took note of two things: Ordinary citizens (that is, people who do not toil in the media) seem to be more caught up in it than ever before (a personal observation backed up by the ratings for “Downton,” which have more than doubled from last year), while a number of critics seem to be cooling off to it, some more than others. This odd change in the critical climate actually began last year, when for reasons that still escape me a number of critics and other professional media mavens expressed dismay at the thought of Maggie Smith being honored with a second consecutive Emmy Award for her instant-classic portrayal of the withering Dowager Countess of Grantham. Having seen all of season three, I think voting members of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences this year ought to make it a three-peat for Smith, which will generate a host of interesting responses in the press.
(There will be no spoilers here, but the sweeping drama, some of it hugely tragic, that surged through the five hours that PBS telecast in January continues throughout the final five.)
Yes, some of the multiple storylines that play throughout each season move too quickly, though I would argue that today’s digitally driven, over-stimulated audience, including that for period drama, demands a certain speed to its storytelling, which “Downton” handily delivers. Also, it is true that many arcs are resolved too easily, like the sad story last season of poor Lavinia, whose tentative romance with and subsequent engagement to Matthew prevented him from being with his true love, Lady Mary, until Lavinia conveniently succumbed to the Spanish Flu. (Lavinia’s untimely demise comes into play once again this season.) But the fun of this show is in the narrative’s details, particularly those that define each character’s relationship with the others on its expansive canvas. It doesn’t hurt that every member of the enormous “Downton” cast is perfect in his or her role, including this season’s young newcomers.
Except for the fact that most of the characters on “Downton” are genuinely likeable people, whether wildly wealthy or plainly poor, the experience of watching this show sometimes reminds me of the enjoyment I had watching the grand prime-time serials of the ‘80s. I look forward to visiting the Crawley manor in the same way I once enjoyed spending time at the Southfork ranch or the Carrington mansion or that cul-de-sac in suburban Los Angeles.
That’s the secret to a successful serial in prime time or daytime: It must establish an environment and a community that viewers want to spend time in as often as they can, which is something series creator Julian Fellowes and his writers continue to do to such grand result with “Downton Abbey.” The show-runners behind many continuing dramas simply don’t understand this, which likely explains why so many prime-time (and daytime) soaps have failed so miserably during the last 20 years.