Downer Abbey And The Two Types Of Television Shows

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 13.266% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

My wife inducted me into Downton Abbey like it was a cult.  She watched it one fine weekend when a friend had come to visit, and then kept bugging me.  “You have to see it before the new episodes start in January!” she cried.  “If you don’t, well….I’ll watch them without you!”
That was the worst threat she could muster.  And in our relationship, it’s a significant one.  So I snarfed down the Abbey over a drunken weekend, and adored them.
Now we’re indifferent.
Oh, we’re watching the series as it’s aired on PBS, but the storylines seem insipid and when did Lord Grantham get to be this bloody stupid?  And while S4 has A Particular Storyline that sets my teeth a-jangling, aside from that, I don’t think it’s that bad…
…it’s just that the flaws are so magnified when you have to wait a week between episodes.
It’s not that Lord Grantham wasn’t an idiot before – Ponzi scheme, anyone? – but when we were watching them all in one slurried flow of upper-crust shenanigans, his idiocy lasted like three hours tops before he did something noble and we loved him again.  Now, his latest dumbness leaves a bad taste in our mouth all week as we contemplate his complete inacumen with anything financially-related (and worse, his utter inability to fathom this), and what the hell are you doing with that maid, Tom and every bad plotline leaves us heavy with regret for a week as we wonder, “How long will this botched storyline go on?”
Which isn’t to say that the previous three seasons didn’t have that, but that was resolved before the end of the day, so we could be content.
Now, we’re forced to watch in drips and dollops, and the flaws are so excruciatingly magnified when that’s all we have to pick over.
Admittedly, in this case we have a choice – we could Torrent the last season and watch it in a gout – but this makes me think that Downton Abbey is a show that is utterly meant to be watched in one huge lump.  Its strengths are magnified in marathons, its weaknesses minimized.
As opposed to, say Arrested Development.
People felt let down by the Netflix-only season of Arrested Development, but it’s not that bad.  Then again, I was never a huge fan of Arrested Development.  It’s a funny show, but I never got the obsession people got over it.
But Arrested Development is a perfect week-wait show.  It rewards re-watchings, with subtle jokes that you have to scrutinize to get.  Its plotlines are so off the wall that theorizing what’s going to happen next is almost as pleasurable as watching the show.  The more you discuss, the more you appreciate it – and I think the fact that Netflix allowed us to gobble it all down in a weekend was actually a bad strategy, as I feel Season Four of Arrested Development would have been more appreciated if people had been forced to appreciate it one slow drip at a time.
Thus my theory: there are Marathon Shows, and Wait Shows.  Some shows shine when watched in a breathless rush, a day spent in front of the television.  Others do better when you anticipate from week to week.  And I think that’s why some shows really shine on DVD – Breaking Bad was a show that had some pacing issues in the middle seasons as a Wait Show, but goddamn if it didn’t feel brilliant when you watched them all together.  And then you have this weird phenomenon where people flock to the show because of the Marathon, then bitch and bitch about the current season because it’s slow, this plotline’s dumb, when will this end.
It’s not that the show broke bad.  It’s that your experience of watching it changed.  And that change made a bigger difference than we could realize.
(That said, I think S4 of Downton Abbey thus far is an actual drop, as we have more dumb storylines working in parallel than I recalled before, but the principle remains the same.)


  1. Yamakage
    Jan 28, 2014

    I really think over the next decade, there’s going to be a good hard look at format, and which a story is best suited for. Especially with the web and time shifting/marathoning on the rise.
    You’ve got half hour shows and, hour shows, and they usually come in runs from 13 to 26. Then hour and a half films (or up to three), which generally are singular. About the only variation is the UK, which will give a series three to eight episode runs, as needed.
    And then there’s stuff like Sherlock and Wallander, which while people think of as a TV series, are pretty much a quick fire string of films!
    You’ve basically got to shoehorn whatever narrative you’re trying to do in one these handful of formats. Sometimes one is right, sometimes one is close, sometimes none are, and sometimes it’s the wrong one for whatever reason*.
    And this is independent of the skill of the writer. Great people have made it work, and great people have had their work broken by it.
    With text at least, you can go as long as the story needs it. Maybe it’s a short story, or a novella, or you’ve become David Weber. Singular, or perhaps serial even. But with video, unless you’re a single long or trilogy feature production, you’ve got a rigid box you gotta fit.
    Consider The Lord of the Rings and A Game of Thrones. Both have close enough page counts, and have a visual adaptation. The theatrical cut of LotR clocks in at a bit over nine hours, a season of GoT is ten. Again, very close.
    Besides production values, the only real difference is that one is cut into three hour chunks, the other into one. Personally, I think it’d be worthwhile for someone working on an academic degree in media to compare the execution of the two as a serious subject.
    And if we can just manage to kill channels/networks/timeslots, we can use that study to turn the formats from a rule, to something more like a suggested starting point.
    *Personally, I’m still a little miffed over the Dresden Files TV series. A creature of the week show was just so wrong. I believe a BBC style 3-8 run of a season, one season each book, would be EXACTLY what’s needed to properly adapt the series to video. Or if not a series, at least use that production style to put together something that runs a bit longer than a long film, instead of the whole “HOLLYWOOD” feature process.

  2. laura p
    Jan 29, 2014

    while I agree with the concept of your post, I disagree with arrested development being a “wait” show. I didn’t watch it when the original 3 seasons aired – my family and I marathoned the hell out of it over thanksgiving and christmas one year (5 days maximum, give or take a few hours for eating ;-)). it was the perfect marathon show and while it does get better on rewatch, I don’t think that’s related?
    (going to rewatch season 4 in the next few weeks and really hoping it’ll be better on rewatch; I think it suffered more from a change in formatting (one week being played over and over from diff POVs instead of sequential days?) and being spread out might have frustrated me even more)

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