Monday, February 20, 2012

Downton Abbey, Past and Future

Mary and Matthew are finally engaged, Sybil has had an off-screen baby, but Bates is in prison.

The sublime soap opera leaves us bereft for a year, with only deconstruction of the past and surmise for the future as consolation after taking us through World War I and the Spanish flu to the 1920s.

It’s a sign of Downton Abbey’s hold on our imaginations that the critical mind, while wallowing in its pleasures, can’t resist nagging at inconsistencies.

Time, for example. When in Season 2, Mary and Edith rescue Sybil from running away with the chauffeur, they remind her she is 21 and can choose her life openly. That’s in 1918, which would have made her 15 at the start of Season 1, not the shapely young woman of the first episodes.

During the war, the troublemaker Branson is barely restrained by Carson the butler from dumping a silver bowl of sludge on a British general. Why, then, is he still in the garage two years later, tinkering with the cars and seducing the youngest daughter of the house?

In an interview, creator Julian Fellowes reveals his admiration for American serialized TV from “Mad Men” and “Sex and the City” back to “NYPD Blue” and “West Wing.”

Asked if Downton will lose some of its sexual tension (as “Cheers” did when Diane and Sam finally got it on), Fellowes admits worrying about the alternative for Mary and Matthew, choosing to “go on with it too long. There is a moment when the audience just thinks, ‘Oh, for [goodness'] sake.’ You somehow have to pre-empt that.”

Trying to predict what he will do in Season 3 is dicey, but Fellowes has shown a penchant for borrowing from old movies, as he did lifting the flower show segment from “Mrs. Miniver” and temporarily putting Matthew into the position of characters from “Lady Chatterly’s Lover,” “The Sun Also Rises” and “The Barefoot Contessa.”

He may have to resort to the resolution of “Rebecca” to get Bates out of the slammer. In that classic movie, a vengeful wife stricken with cancer stages her own death to convict her innocent husband of murdering her. Start checking out the first Mrs. Bates’ physicians.

Next year, the arrival of Shirley MacLaine as Cora’s mother brings up delicious possibilities of a worthy foil for Maggie Smith’s dowager. With MacLaine as Martha Levinson, Lord Grantham will be in a special hell between his doughty mum and a Jewish-American mother-in-law.

All this brings to mind a fantasy scene from one of Elizabeth McGovern’s early movies, the 1983 “Lovesick,” in which Dudley Moore imagines himself as an aged loser tottering after her and a rival in a carriage in period costume driving off happily from a manor house very much like Downton Abbey.

Until next January, we will all have to totter after reruns and what we can imagine comes next.

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