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‘Downton Abbey’: A franchise for the rest of us

Sophie McShera (left) and Lesley Nicol in a scene from "Downton Abbey: A New Era."Ben Blackall/Associated Press

I’m still tickled by the popularity of “Downton Abbey,” which has been one of the more enduring franchises of the past decade, after it premiered on PBS in 2011. It’s as unlikely as anything in the current world of mass entertainment, which keeps going ever-further around the bend for flashier, starrier, and less gravity-bound stories. It’s an international phenomenon with legs, the little Julian Fellowes show with the big footmen, the enduring entails, and a long, long line of syoo-ters.

When I think of most franchises, like “Star Wars” and “The Avengers,” I think of special effects, product marketing, and the race for billions. When I think of “Downton,” I think of a sassy old lady, a leaky estate, fancy words, and, at least until the movies arrived, a TV channel devoted to documentaries and Dickens. And yet there it is, a valuable piece of intellectual property spawning new product on the regular. (The series, and the first movie, are available on Peacock for catch-up and rewatch purposes; the new movie, “Downton Abbey: A New Era,” will begin streaming there on June 24.)


Generally, I’m a franchise resister of sorts, and I say “Obi-Wan Ke-NO-bi” and “Captain NO-merica” to the endless stream of dollars-driven product at the movies and on TV, where Disney+ has gone all-in on the Marvel Comics assembly line. They’re not my bag; I don’t think of them as creatively exciting or surprising, as they wring every last drop out of a given brand. I think of them as lazy and unabashedly prefabricated, and yet many millions of people love and support them, big time. Ultimately, though, I’m happy for those who find pleasure in them.

That said, I guess I am willing to go franchise for “Downton.” The truth is, I’ve seen every episode of the show, and spent plenty of time thinking about the world Fellowes has created. Fellowes was in Boston in 2013, and I had the chance to fanboy out on him in person, while he described having met a woman who prays for the show’s characters. I have fully embraced the phenomenon, and I can’t imagine not seeing everything associated with it, even a forced prequel, or an unnecessary spinoff, or a sequel of some kind, if any of them come to be. “Mrs. Patmore Pouts”? “Master George Goes to Riverdale”? “It’s Marigold!” Sure, why not. Squeeze that sponge!


Maggie Smith as Violet Crawley in "Downton Abbey."Nick Briggs/Associated Press

I know I’ve bought into the “Downton” franchise because I’m really not too angry that the latest product isn’t very good. The first movie was so slight it was little more than a long, ordinary episode of TV. “Downton Abbey: A New Era” is only a tad better, as a movie crew rents Downton and, in a plot shamelessly reminiscent of “Singin’ in the Rain,” the director and actors have to deal with the advent of the talkies. Lady Mary winds up playing an absurd role in the filming process, while other members of the family explore the villa in France left to Violet by a mysterious stranger.

There are far too many plots in the air in “A New Era,” as Fellowes tries to advance too many characters’ stories in 125 minutes. Edith, for example, gets a meager handful of scenes to establish a full arc regarding her desire to go back to work, while Barrow seems to fall in love in an instant. The other plots that are afoot — I don’t want to spoil them — are either a rehash of old ones or underdeveloped. There’s no true dramatic reason for us to be among these people again; most of their major stories were already told during the TV run, when there was plenty of time to flesh them out. And yet it’s just nice to see them. It is comforting.


All along, “Downton” has been a curious mixture of high and low culture, so I guess franchising fits the profile. On the one hand, it mimics classic novels of manners and money, it’s an elegant-looking production, and it incorporates history — political and cultural — into the story lines. It arrived as a “Masterpiece,” a few seasons after the series featured “The Complete Jane Austen.” On the other hand, it’s a juicy soap opera with secret pregnancies, rich people’s problems, and mysterious murders, not too unlike our own “Dynasty” and “Knots Landing.” It’s sudsy, with the potential to last as long as people will watch.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew.gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.