The Writing Conundrum of Downton Abbey


This post contains spoilers up to the first half of the fourth season of Downton Abbey, through Episode 4 of the U.S. broadcast and Episode 5 of the U.K. broadcast.

The problems began in Season 2.

Remember Matthew’s miraculous recovery?  Vera Bates, the mustache-twirling villain who mysteriously died?  Or shall I remind you about P. Gordon, who just may have been an amnesiac Patrick Crawley?

I’ve been a Downton Abbey apologist in the past.  I loved the first season so much that I was willing to let some of the stranger elements of the second and third seasons slide.  I trusted that creator and writer Julian Fellowes would pull through for us fans and provide us with drama worthy of our attention.

I’m not saying that the fourth season is worse than any of the others.  It’s simply that certain elements of the fourth season have prompted me to look more critically at the previous seasons.

Look, the raw material of Downton Abbey is excellent.  The change abounding in the early twentieth century, coupled with the diverse cast of upstairs and downstairs characters, could be the fodder for some great stories.

And, for the most part, it has been.  I’ll never forget, for example, Matthew’s wonderful proposal to Mary in the snow.  Or the gut-wrenching scene of Sybil’s death after childbirth.

But lately, the show has also been spinning its wheels, recycling tropes and plotlines and indulging in some nonsensical plotlines along the way.

Someone seems to overhear every “secret” conversation – but only when it serves to move the plot.  Case in point: last week, Bates overheard the conversation between Anna and Mrs. Hughes, prompting him to finally get to the bottom of the situation.

And remember Mrs. Hughes’s cancer scare last season?  Where exactly did that go?  It seemed designed solely to give Mrs. Hughes and Mrs. Patmore something to do for two episodes.

Daisy pining after Alfred is the reverse of William pining after Daisy in the previous seasons.  Edna returned this season for no other reason, apparently, than to confuse poor Tom again.  Currently, Alfred’s cooking ambitions are looking a lot like Gwen’s secretarial dreams in Season 1; Gwen failed in her first attempt, like Alfred now has, so does this mean that Alfred will be departing at season’s end like Gwen did?

And now, Evelyn Napier is bringing another houseguest to stay at Downton, and we all know how that turned out in Season 1…

If Downton Abbey really wants to be a serious drama and not just a soap opera with beautiful costumes and sets, one possible solution would be to make use of multiple writers.

Of course, I don’t know exactly how Julian Fellowes writes Downton Abbey, but it is known that since Season 2, he has had sole writing credit for every single episode, which implies that he has written every word on the show since then himself.

I imagine that Fellowes passes the main plotlines for each season by his producers and perhaps the powers that be at ITV and PBS.  Even so, these people are producers, not writers.  (If you look up every credited producer of Downton Abbey on imdb, you will find that not one of them has a writing credit.  Of course, I should add that imdb could be missing information.)

Collaborating on television with other writers is a process that cannot be underestimated.  I once took a television writing class that simulated a television writer’s room, and the collaborative environment ensured that our storyline made logical sense.  Fellow writers can point out when a character is acting out of character or when a plot development doesn’t make sense.

(Want more proof that a single writer is one of the problems here?  Season 1 is widely considered the best season of the show, and two episodes in that season – the fourth, the one with the village fair, and the sixth, the one in which Sybil attends the political rally – had co-writers, Shelagh Stephenson and Tina Pepler, respectively.  Incidentally, both of these writers are women.)

On another note, lots of criticism about Anna’s storyline this season has been directed at Fellowes.  Browsing Twitter after the controversial episode aired, I gathered that some are suggesting that Fellowes doesn’t know what to do with certain characters without resorting to using a serious topic like rape as a plot device.

I’m reserving judgment on the Anna storyline until I see its conclusion, but while I admit that Fellowes writes some of his characters – notably, Mary and Violet – well, some of the other characters have begun to resemble broken records.  This season and last, for example, Robert has been making bad financial decision after bad financial decision.  Tom has begun feeling awkward again (according to his many confessions of such to Edna), even though at the beginning of the season, he seemed to be settling into his new position perfectly well.  And the downstairs love quadrangle or pentagon or whatever it is now had been without major development for several episodes until Daisy prompted Alfred to discover Jimmy and Ivy kissing.

A couple of weeks ago, I was watching a Comic-Con interview with Vikings stars Travis Fimmel and Katheryn Winnick during which Winnick mentioned that the show is entirely written by Michael Hirst, which allows for the freedom and security of knowing the show has one voice.

While I agree that one voice can allow for consistency of storytelling, I feel as though a program that has such a diverse group of characters like Downton Abbey should make use of an equally diverse group of voices to write it.

For example, Lost, like many other complex dramas, also had diverse group of characters and used the talents of several writers over the course of its run.  Furthermore, I remember once hearing that Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz wrote many of the Hurley-centric episodes since they were able to capture that character’s voice the best.  If Downton Abbey could employ a similar method of having writers who specialize in certain characters, it may be better for it; these writers could devise other situations to keep the characters and their situations interesting instead of recycling plots.

Listen, I promise I’m not trying to knock Fellowes.  He created an amazing show that has millions of devoted fans – myself included – across the world.  But having other perspectives on writing only improves it.  I imagine that other writers could kick some life, for example, into that downstairs love polygon, which slows down each episode to a halt when it’s the focus.

The lengthy narratives and many moving parts of a serialized drama make it difficult for one person to write it alone , even if that person has an Oscar.  And Downton Abbey is proof of that.

What are your thoughts on the writing of Downton Abbey?  


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