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Maggie Smith as Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham,
returns for the sixth, and final, season of "Downton Abbey."" border="0"/>
Maggie Smith as Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham, returns for the sixth, and final, season of "Downton Abbey." (Nick Briggs, PBS)
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A beloved high-end soap opera is approaching the finish line. The only question is whether "Downton Abbey" limps across or manages a strong final season.

A stunning success for PBS Masterpiece, Julian Fellowes' "Downton" has always been less a triumph of drama than of wardrobe, period design and scenery. The drama has often felt overwrought or predictable even as audiences have fallen in love with the characters upstairs and down.

No spoilers, I promise, but it's 1925 as the final season begins Sunday at 9 p.m. on KRMA (following a "Return to Downton" lead-in hour featuring interviews with cast members). Members of the Crawley family are still dressing for dinner.

The world is spinning them so quickly into the future, characters are prone to comment on where they and the show have been. We've had some moments, they say, speaking for all of us, including fans in the nostalgia.

And how modern they are! Making fun of Edwardian grandparents is now accepted behavior. A spritz of soda water in one's scotch before dinner is now common practice in London.

But more profound shifts are on the way in terms of the economy, the technologies and attitudes toward the aristocracy and women.

Throughout England, families are wrestling with the established order, losing the grand houses, watching staff depart for jobs as something other than servants.


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Looking around the grand manse, everyone is beginning to wonder how much longer the mannered style and rigid pecking order can last. And who might be laid off first? Is the maid who helps the lady dress more essential than the man who shines shoes and opens doors? Uncertainty hangs in the air, regarding women's roles as well as the entitlement of lords and ladies.

"Who has an underbutler these days?" Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) says to Carson (Jim Carter).

His Lordship is a realist and Cher couldn't say it better: "Neither you nor I can hold back time," he tells his loyal butler.

By the second hour, kitchen maid Daisy (Sophie McShera) is popping off about the way things are and the resistance to change with undertones of socialist revolution that would have made former chauffeur Tom Branson (Allen Leech) proud.

"That's what makes me angry, the system!" Daisy says.

Left to right: Brendan Coyle as John Bates, Hugh Bonneville as Lord Grantham, Allen Leech as Tom Branson, and Kevin Doyle as Molesley in the period-soap
Left to right: Brendan Coyle as John Bates, Hugh Bonneville as Lord Grantham, Allen Leech as Tom Branson, and Kevin Doyle as Molesley in the period-soap "Downton Abbey." (Nick Briggs, PBS)

While it's wonderful to be reacquainted with the various charming characters for the sixth and final season, the series' essential problems remain: A lack of subtlety as plot turns are signaled and then underscored; a tendency to keep certain characters stuck in one emotional state for prolonged periods — how much more angst can Anna and Bates (Joanne Froggatt and Brendan Coyle) telegraph again and again?, and a reliance on our allegiance to certain actors. It's nine minutes into the first hour before Maggie Smith makes an appearance. Luckily Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham (Smith), is involved in an ugly dispute with cousin Isabelle (Penelope Wilton) over the future of the local hospital, and so the barbs keep coming.

No wonder the drama sometimes feels lazy: We are so attached to certain members of the house, all it takes is a glimpse and we're hooked again. Carson lifts a disapproving eyebrow and we give in to our affection for the character.

In an era of outstanding, complex and challenging television, "Downton" is an old-style pretty import. And so it's time to suspend critical judgment for nine more episodes. Bring on the fox and hounds.

Joanne Ostrow: 303-954-1830, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or @ostrowdp