Nothing lasts forever. That’s certainly true of Downton Abbey, airing the final episode of its third season Sunday at 9 p.m. on PBS.
The period drama, which follows the lives and loves of an aristocratic British family and its servants during the early decades of the 20th century, has already been renewed for a fourth season. Will there be fifth and sixth seasons and beyond? More to the point: Should there be?
Downton Abbey has been a huge success, both in its native Britain and around the world. Devoted fans in more than 200 countries have embraced the Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning series. Yes, there’ll always be an England, even if it’s just on TV.
The show has proved a huge hit for PBS, with the size of the audience close to doubling every season. Last month, the premiere of the new seven-episode season on Masterpiece attracted nearly 8 million viewers. That number dwarfs the ratings for many network series and is four times PBS’ nightly average for primetime viewers.
But can it last? I’m of the belief that most TV shows have about two or three years of legitimate storytelling in them. After that, characters on a show start behaving in ways antithetical to who they are, or at least to who they were originally when the series kicked off.
Happily wedded characters start having affairs and seemingly well-adjusted teenagers begin taking drugs or otherwise acting out. Just how many times, you find yourself asking, can Sue Ellen fall off the wagon or split up and reconcile with J.R. on Dallas? Characters twist themselves into unrecognizable pretzels simply because the show is successful and has to keep running.
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Downton Abbey faces a particular problem because it’s so firmly rooted in the passage of measurable time. The series began in 1912, with the sinking of the Titanic. The first season moved forward two years, but the second season raced through all of World War I and right up until 1920. The third season is working its way through the early '20s.
If the show is to stick around for another several years, it will likely find itself waltzing toward World War II. One fears for the health and well-being of Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess, who is already well advanced in years and is played with such wonderfully withering style by Maggie Smith, who’s 78 in real life.
Will Downton creator-writer Julian Fellowes resort to introducing a whole new generation or two of Crawley offspring and show them growing up to become misbehaving teenagers and questing young adults? And what of the downstairs staff? Everyone knows how hard it is to find and keep good help and that became particularly true as the 20th century advanced. Will there be no continuity from season to season as to who is flitting about in the servants’ hall or shaving Robert?
Even more worrisome, Fellowes has shown a marked propensity for killing off characters. Last year it was William, a young footman, and this year he has already sent Sybil, the youngest of the Crawley sisters, off to an early grave after childbirth. And there is — warning, spoiler ahead — yet another death to come in this Sunday’s finale.
Some of the deaths are due to cast members wanting out at the end of their contracts so they can pursue other offers; some are simply Fellowes exercising his dramatist’s right to move characters on and off his stage at will. Part of the attraction for viewers of a show like Downton, however, is coming to know and love (or lovingly despise, in the case of Thomas and O’Brien) regular characters.
Fellowes is not the first to face these sorts of creative conundrums in prolonging a TV show’s run, nor will he be the last. Earlier shows have solved these problems in various ways. Bewitched (1964-72) simply recast Samantha’s boring husband, Darrin, when the original actor had to withdraw from the show because of a medical condition. During the course of its 15-year run, as one major cast member after another left for greener pastures, ER (1994-2009) kept bringing new doctors and nurses into its hospital, portraying change as the natural order of things at a high-pressure, urban hospital.
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For shows stuck in a specified chronology, like Downton, the hurdle of passing time can prove problematic. Both Beverly Hills, 90210 (1990-2000) and Gossip Girl (2007-2012) lost their ratings heat once the inevitable happened and their core posse of high school-aged characters graduated and began to grapple with college or post-high school employment.
Downton's advantage over many network shows in the quest for longevity is that it runs for only 10 hours per season, just seven weekly installments in the United States. Contrast that with other series, which often stretch out to 20-plus episodes over the course of a season.
Downton will likely continue on, full of compelling life, for another couple of years. But let’s hope that Fellowes and company know when to gracefully call it quits. There’s nothing worse than a show that overstays its welcome and limps to a lame, does-anyone-still-care finish.
Do you really want to see the Crawleys crawl into the 1960s or '70s? By that time, Robert and Cora are likely to be dead, Carson will have long since proffered his final serving platter and Lady Mary and Lady Edith will be toddling into their mid-70s.
As for the Dowager Countess, unless she’s embalmed and lying preserved on display in Downton Abbey’s great hall or her ghost is making regular visits, there’s no way she will still be around that long. And Downton without the Dowager? That would be like roast beef without the Yorkshire pudding — unthinkable.