Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Downton Abbey and the problem of time

with 5 comments

Note: Mild spoilers follow for the first season of Downton Abbey.

Time, in television, can be a tricky thing. Because most series are still viewed over the course of several years, the way in which narrative time maps onto the show’s actual duration can present some unexpectedly thorny problems. In general, sitcoms and police procedurals do their best to ignore the passage of time altogether, while teenage soaps and other shows faced with the problem of aging casts tend to cover one year per season, which at least makes intuitive sense. Things get stickier with serialized dramas like Lost or Breaking Bad, in which events that viewers experience over multiple seasons really only cover a few highly eventful weeks or months. And although most shows, whatever their approach to chronology, tend to keep the flow of time more or less consistent, there are also cases like the third season of 24 or the fifth season of Desperate Housewives, in which the internal timeline is abruptly advanced by several years.

I’ve been mulling over these issues while watching the first season of Downton Abbey, which my wife and I just finished. When we first began, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I quickly realized why this series has acquired such a passionate following: for the most part, this is a really compelling show, even for those of us who haven’t seen much drama in the Upstairs, Downstairs mold. Among its many other virtues, it rapidly introduces a huge ensemble cast, so that by the end of the third episode we know at least a little about twenty men and women, which is no small feat. Its Yorkshire country house setting is flexible enough to encompass a wide range of stories, from melodrama to romance to farce. And while there’s rarely much in the way of action, it’s edited with the pace of a thriller, with the show cutting swiftly between parallel storylines that hit their dramatic beats and move on. The result is a show that really sucks you in, and the first five episodes are close to perfect.

Once again, however, we’re presented with the problem of time, which Downton Abbey never really solves to its own satisfaction. The show opens with news of the sinking of the Titanic and ends with the declaration of war against Germany, meaning that the internal chronology of its seven episodes extends over more than two years. Yet the events of the show seem to cover much less time, both subjectively and dramatically: the relationships don’t advance between episodes, and certain subplots, like the question of who has been pilfering bottles from the wine cellar, are stretched out beyond all belief, once you realize how much calendar time has allegedly passed. This becomes a real problem in the sixth episode, in which the chryon “May 1914” is prominently displayed and a character self-consciously mentions that he’s been at Downton for two years, when it still seems as if he’s just arrived. It’s a jarring effect that throws the entire series off balance, at least to this viewer, until what had seemed almost effortlessly involving suddenly feels artificial and strained.

I can understand why Julian Fellowes, the show’s creator, wanted the first season to be framed by the Titanic and the war, but the fabric of the narrative can’t quite sustain it. (It would have been better, perhaps, if he’d chosen to open the show with something besides the Titanic: Downton’s heirs could have been dispatched in some other way, eight months or so before the war began, and the show wouldn’t have had to sweat so much to make it to August 1914.) By the end of the first season, the wheels are coming off: the second half of the finale, with a dozen plot threads crammed into the last act, is especially weak, with characters we care about left with only a few minutes to finish up their business before the war is declared. Downton Abbey deserves to unfold at its own pace, but can’t avoid being forced into an inconvenient timeline. And while this may serve as a commentary on history, it more likely reflects the slippery nature of television itself.

Written by nevalalee

January 25, 2012 at 9:37 am

Posted in Television

Tagged with ,

5 Responses

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  1. As a newcomer to the series, I was relieved to read that you also took issue with the problem of the stories’ timelines. For whatever reason, I am very sensitive to that sort of thing and watching back-to-back episodes only makes this more noticeable.


    September 12, 2012 at 11:55 pm

  2. Glad you agree. I also think the show took a dive in quality during the second season, although I’m still looking forward to the new one.


    September 13, 2012 at 9:45 pm

  3. At the end of Season 3, I am more confused than ever about the timeline of Downton Abbey. We are advised that Season 4 will begin “sometime in 1922”. This makes no sense. Mary and Matthew were married in 1920. By the latter part of Season 3, they were concerned about their fertility, which implies that they had been married a few years. (It would also take some time lapse for Matthew’s changes to the operation of the estate to show results which Robert says by season 3’s end have been successful.) How, then, can the new heir have arrived and a prosperous estate been achieved before 1922?

    nancy doty

    February 17, 2013 at 2:06 pm

  4. I’m afraid that I’ve actually stopped watching the show, although if it treats its timeline as casually as it does its characters, I’m not surprised that it’s even less consistent!


    February 19, 2013 at 10:15 am

  5. And what about the Christmas special of season 2?! Supposedly, Lady Mary was getting married in July, but it’s now December and they still haven’t had a wedding… why?


    February 18, 2018 at 11:53 am

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