The '80's reigning aristo-soap has endured culturally. Today's, while diverting, won't.
Downton Abbey is entertainment. Its illustrious predecessor in television mega-success about the English upper class, Brideshead Revisited, is art. This distinction between entertainment and art helps explain the decline in Downton this year—it is simply not as entertaining. For those, who have a chance to see the Brideshead DVD (of the 30-year-old series) its power as art is undiminished.
This entertainment/art schematic was used, early in his career, by Graham Greene to describe his own work. To oversimplify slightly, Greene's entertainments, like The Confidential Agent and Ministry of Fear, were well-plotted mysteries, espionage thrillers, and psychological melodramas aimed at stimulating emotion more than the mind. His more serious "novels," like The Power and the Glory or The Quiet American—his art—were aimed at both.
This useful, if not precise, distinction between entertainment and art occurred to me as I began watching the third season of Downton Abbey. Like millions of Americans (and Brits), I found the first two seasons great fun—a superb entertainment with its multiple stories, opulent sets, and remarkable character acting. It never made me reflect on much, but I was eager for the next week to see what would happen. Sadly, I have begun, like others, to find this year's version less enjoyable (see James Parker in The Atlantic and a recent New York Times review). The plot twists ever more sharply, threatening to careen over the cliff of credibility. The characters remain largely unchanged, even as they find themselves in a Britain changed by the Great War. The main drama of seasons 1 and 2—will Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley find destiny with each other—loses its poignancy, wit, and vibrancy. Downton still entertains: Season 3 isn't a bust. But it shows its age, because by no stretch of the imagination is it art that raises hard, important questions the viewer can't shake off.