The Abbey That Jumped the Shark

Downton Abbey

a television series created by Julian Fellowes
Masterpiece Classic/PBS
Season 1, 3 DVDs, $34.99; Season 2, 3 DVDs, $44.99 (also available on Blu-ray)

Jumping the shark is an idiom used to describe the moment in the evolution of a television show when it begins a decline in quality that is beyond recovery. It is synonymous with the phrase, “the beginning of the end.”


Nick Briggs/ITV/Masterpiece
The cast of Downton Abbey

It is puzzling that there should be no close equivalent in other European cultures for the English country house drama, as known through novel, film, television series, and the stage. English it is—not, for once, more correctly British. A Scottish country house would imply a very different kind of story, while a Welsh country house (on any great scale) is a rarity. The French and the Germans have their country houses in plenty, but they are too discreet to prompt such universal fiction. Steam trains do not draw up at local Spanish or Italian stations, bringing the weekend guests. There are few manservants laying out the clothes before dinner in Belgium. One wonders really how Europe managed at all.

The greatest rival to the English country house tradition is the Russian, with its rich suggestions of a feudal system in decline, and with its great questions hanging in the air: How shall I live to some purpose? How can I reform the world I know? Those who ask such questions may be querulous and ineffectual, but the questions themselves are intelligent and profound, whereas the great questions that hang over the English country house come, for the most part, from the far side of stupid: Can I score a personal triumph at the flower show while forgoing first prize for my roses? Can I secure my lord’s affection by pretending to go rescue his dog? (The answer Downton Abbey offers is yes in both cases.)

Our English stupidity is a point of pride for us. P.G. Wodehouse, whose spirit haunts the corridors of Downton, had the fundamental comic insight, when he made the manservant Jeeves well-read, cultivated, and sly, and his master Bertie Wooster genial, candid, and dim. So that, when Bertie occasionally rises to an apt Shakespearean adage—“And thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought”—he will always add the modest disclaimer: “Not mine—Jeeves’s.” The clever servant had been a stock figure in comedy way back in antiquity, but the master had never been so completely the servant’s creation as Bertie Wooster was.

Mr. Carson, the butler at Downton (Jim Carter), has a Jeevesian conservatism and sense of the decorums of country house life. Unfortunately, he is not blessed with the Jeevesian gift of total success at thwarting all comers. His master, the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), commits the fundamental error of choosing his former batman from the Boer War, John Bates (Brendan Coyle), as his valet. In doing so, he has allowed his heart to influence his head. Bates…

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