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'Downton Abbey: A New Era' does not, in fact, represent a new era

Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern and Laura Carmichael in <em>Downton Abbey: A New Era.</em>
Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern and Laura Carmichael in Downton Abbey: A New Era.

The answer to why franchises last too long is usually money; let's say that plainly. Few people are naive about it. That's often the practical reason why stories that have gone dry are wrung out again over and over, yielding less and less.

The result is often something like the new movie Downton Abbey: A New Era, which does not represent a new era. It represents a revisiting of the comforts of the old era, the old characters doing exactly the same things they have always done: Barrow trying to reconcile his sexuality with the homophobic reality of the society he lives in, Daisy being chipper and excited about things, Carson hating change, and so forth.

And where new stories do appear, they cannot carry the weight placed upon them. One story is shamelessly copied from a classic film, another is a rote execution of a story that's been a soap staple for decades, and one is essentially a reenactment of a story from the last Downton movie. A subplot is devoted to dressing inappropriately for the weather. There is no gas in the tank; there is no water in the well.

Here's the thing: That's okay! From both my history as a critic and my history as a writer, I have come to believe the best fiction finds characters at the most interesting moments of their lives. These are the moments in which they face a huge challenge, or they change the most internally, or they have the most complicated relationships with other people. The reason sequels often don't work is that most characters who feel like they are leading real lives don't live every chapter and phase of those lives in a manner you'd want to read about. People settle in, they live, they love each other, they work, they get sick and get well.

Think about the exceptions, the cases where you can read about a character over and over. They're often detectives, doctors, lawyers, spies, criminals – people who are constantly confronted by stories external to them that are fresh and new. You don't have to find a lawyer or a detective at the most important moment in her life if you find her client at the most important moment of his.

Penelope Wilton and Maggie Smith.
Ben Blackall / Focus Features
Penelope Wilton and Maggie Smith.

In an ensemble show like Downton, this is sometimes easier to overcome. That's how a show like this lasts for so many seasons. We met Mary when she was coming of age as a woman expected to marry for position rather than love, and Robert and Cora when they were preparing to enter the phase of their lives when they would ready Downton to outlive them. We met Edith when she was chafing under the sense that she would always be ignored, Sybil when she was pushing against her parents' politics and finding love, Barrow when he was wicked and lacking in self-awareness, Bates and Anna when they were meeting and falling in love, and so forth.

These arcs, and most of the others that resonated emotionally, gave a lot of room to work with, but they have largely concluded. Marriages became happy, futures were secured, people died and were born. The ensemble is large, but it is not infinite. Increasingly, the franchise has turned to little stories that offer a tiny amount of screen time to simplistic romances just to create two ends that can be tied into another bow. Meanwhile, the main cast – the group of people audiences want to see – has run out of conflicts that don't feel forced or borrowed.

There is no shame in ending a story. It doesn't happen for business reasons, or it doesn't happen for contractual reasons, but the idea that a tale centered on a core cast should be able to run forever defies what we know about life: If it were full of fiction-worthy challenges indefinitely, we would be exhausted.

This piece first appeared in NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter so you don't miss the next one, plus get weekly recommendations on what's making us happy. Listen to Pop Culture Happy Hour on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes
Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.