That’s A Wrap: ‘Downton Abbey’ is a gift for fans and a problem for cinema
Hey, where’s the remote? Oh wait, I’m in the theater.
Can you pass me the popcorn? Oh wait, I’m watching TV.
If you were watching the Emmys or “Downton Abbey” last weekend, you were probably confused, too.
Television and movies collided, but not in the way the Golden Globes as the Crawleys leapt from the comforts of PBS to the big screen. Fans of the British drama that takes place in the early 20th century flocked to the theaters, making it the top box office draw at $31 million in its first weekend. “Downton Abbey” beat original content like “Ad Astra,” the space movie starring Hollywood hunk Brad Pitt, and new sequels like “Rambo: Last Blood,” the send-off to the Sylvester Stallone franchise.
On Sunday, it was hard to distinguish the TV icons from the movie stars at the Emmys, with familiar names like Tony Shalhoub winning some awards and cinematic stars like Michelle Williams (well, she was on “Dawson’s Creek” for many years) picking up trophies. The lines between the two forms of entertainment become more blurry by the day, and so too do the ways audiences respond to them.
I, for one, don’t watch a lot of television. My short attention span only allows me to enough mind space to compartmentalize one storyline and character family at a time. That means that watching a TV series for more than one season is too much. Give me a dark theater, a bright screen and two hours of solid concentration, and I have all I need to keep me entertained for years. That doesn’t I turn my nose at a good show. I happen to appreciate shows like “Veep,” “Game of Thrones,” “The Good Place” and “Killing Eve.” In fact my vehicle is named after a CBS drama character. I just don’t like having to remember who is related to whom, the loose plotline from season 1 that is finally resolved in season 6 or that laugh tracks are still a thing.
But like many people, as proven by last weekend’s box office number, I am a fan of “Downton Abbey.” It wasn’t the intriguing connections between the upper crust Crawleys and their household staff, the sibling rivalry between Mary and Edith or the beautiful fashions of the 1910s and 1920s, I liked that the seasons were only eight or nine episodes long and that when it ended after six seasons, it was finished. “Downton Abbey,” part of PBS’ “Masterpiece” offerings, was a nice escape from some of the more brutal series out there that are in their 12th or 28th season. I never got into “The Walking Dead” nor have I seen more than two seasons of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” So even though “Downton Abbey” was an unrealistic look at British society and the upper class, I enjoyed it immensely.
So when it was announced that four years after leaving the air, there would be a movie exclusively for theaters, I gave out a big sigh. My disappointment was major, and when I saw the trailer, with a list of the characters set to appear in the movie instead of the actors’ names, I knew it was just a quick money grab going after the wallets of “Downton” fans.
Nevertheless, there I was on Sunday afternoon, in a packed theater with other like-minded people ready to see Mr. Carson return as the stern head butler, to hope that another inconvenience doesn’t happen to Edith, to guess what witty quibbles Violet has in her arsenal. The Crawleys, played by Michelle Dockery, Elizabeth McGovern and Hugh Bonneville, are hosting the Royal Family in 1927, at a time when estates and lifestyles like theirs are fading away. The rivalries and love stories from past seasons were still there, and audience favorites like Anna and Mr. Bates, Mrs. Hughes, Mrs. Patmore, Daisy and Mr. Barrow continued to toll away downstairs.
It felt like the series never left. There was no silverware out of place (only in the metaphorical sense; the plot does involve settings and missing items), and the estate still sparkled like it was on the television. And unfortunately, that was the problem. Many in the audience during my Sunday screening were talking among themselves as though they were at home watching the show. It was very distracting. What’s the difference these days when many home TVs are set up like cinemas anyway?
There was nothing cinematic about “Downton Abbey” because it felt like six, 20-minute episodes strung together to make a two-hour movie. No special effects, nothing to elevate it above the PBS/ITV version that was available over an antenna. There were new characters, like another love interest for the Crawleys’ son-in-law Tom Branson, and the Royals themselves, but they are not worth making a whole movie out of them. It would have been better as an actual season.
And then there was the guilt — the PBS guilt. I haven’t donated to PBS before, but yet I spent money on a movie ticket to see what felt like a PBS special in the theater. The shame!
However, the movie is for the fans, and it is a lovely sentiment to a loyal fan base. But maybe the fans should keep these movies — and themselves — at home.
After all, the movie stars are now on television. Watching the Emmys felt like viewing the Oscars. Just the limited series category alone was filled with Academy Award-winning and nominated actors and directors. There was, however, a reminder that sometimes TV and movies need to stay in their lanes: “Deadwood: The Movie,” a beloved HBO series, was nominated for best television movie.
Tamara Dunn is the night news editor at the Times Leader. She is also a film lover who counts “Rear Window” and “Black Panther” as her favorites.