View Count: 109 |  Publish Date: February 19, 2014
'Downton Abbey' jumps ye olde shark

Its time to stop being polite about whats going on with Downton Abbey. The fourth season, which comes to a close Sunday night, has had some nice moments, but the increasing weakness of creator Julian Fellowes writing skills is harming the series, especially in comparison to its first season.
PBS always sends the entire series to TV critics, except for the last episode. Last year, that was to ensure that we didnt tell you about Matthew Crawleys death. This year, the Christmas episode also has something they dont want us to tell you: Its just plain dopey and the series is in trouble.
While the episode continues plot strands from the rest of the season, the main story is something out of either a French farce, a 30s American screwball comedy or the Three Stooges - take your pick, depending on how irritated you are about how much the shows quality has slipped.
Amid all the usual sighs and whispers of class coexistence, we suddenly find a handful of major characters - from upstairs as well as down - absconding with our attention as they conspire to get a potentially dangerous letter out of the hands of a sleazy minor character. With even less plausibility than weve had to get used to all season, the co-conspirators hatch a ridiculously farcical scheme that occupies much of the finale episode.
Once again, Fellowes shows little respect for the characters hes created and, for the sake of cheap entertainment, I suppose, cooks up an absurd plot device to keep us from falling asleep.
When the new season started, my take was that it was still entertaining but that I was disappointed that the characters were being undervalued in the script. By that I meant that Fellowes increasingly manipulates characters to do things that are not true to who they are. I wont even get into the fact that no one seems able to have a conversation without someone else conveniently overhearing it, but more and more, convenience in general is ruining Downton Abbey.
The season finale goes beyond that, though, achieving a new level of implausibility. By disrespecting his characters as much as Fellowes does, he is disrespecting the fan base Downton has built over four seasons. Weve developed interest and even affection for the characters, but by batting them about with amateur abandon, as he does with increasing frequency, Fellowes is taking his audience for granted. Viewers deserve better.
On a less offensive level, Fellowes also contorts the script for Sundays season finale to include an otherwise unlikely scene of the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) trading veiled insults with Martha Levinson (Shirley MacLaine), who shows up at the Abbey with her son, Harold (Paul Giamatti), Lady Granthams (Elizabeth McGovern) brother.
The hissing interplay between Smith and MacLaine is amusing and not unwelcome. But its also pure pandering to the fan base. In the ever-expanding gallery of Julian Fellowes cheap tricks, its far from the worst offender.
Downton Abbey is in need of a good housecleaning, upstairs and down - not to get rid of any cast members (several have already seen the cliche-ridden handwriting on the wall and have bolted) but to restore the series to what it was at the beginning and what its loyal fans deserve.
Downton Abbey: Season finale. 9 p.m. Sunday on KQED.
David Wiegand is The San Francisco Chronicles executive features editor and TV critic. E-mail: Twitter: @WaitWhat_TV

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Time: 0:58  |  News Code: 378104  |  Site: San Francisco Chronicle
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