Question: Which group is in more danger, the English aristocrats of "Downton Abbey" or the rag-tag survivors wandering through "The Walking Dead's" apocalyptic landscape?
It's a trick question: Both shows are such massive hits for their respective networks that there's no way the Granthams of "Downton Abbey" or "The Walking Dead's" core crew will ever be in any serious danger. "Downton Abbey's" fourth season premiere on Sunday broke ratings records for PBS, and "The Walking Dead," which is also in its fourth season, is one of the most successful scripted shows in the history of cable. Unlike zombies and certain "Downton" characters, these shows are way too successful to ever kill off.
So the question becomes, are they too successful to evolve?
I'll return to that idea in a bit, but first, it occurs to me that the shows have a striking number of parallels. Of course, they're not the same show -- you can't simply swap aristocrats for zombies, though both groups frequently lack brains. But here are just a few of the major similarities between the two monster hits:
1. They both feature well-paced, visually exciting set pieces.
Each season of "Downton Abbey" is punctuated by a few gatherings -- dinners, funerals, house parties, etc. -- that the show's directors usually pull off with a great deal of panache. There are often a number of big developments at each gathering, and half the reason to watch the show is to see the clothes, the jewels, the crystal and the characters' gorgeous surroundings, both inside and outside the ancestral home of Robert, Earl of Grantham.
The action scenes on "The Walking Dead" are the inverse of the ones you see on "Downton Abbey": The people moving through the show's destroyed towns and houses are caked in sweat and grime, and they spend a lot of time fighting creatures that emphatically do not resemble fresh-faced housemaids. Despite that, these scenes are often the best part of any "Walking Dead" episode. The show's special effects gurus and directors continually find new ways to gross out and freak out the audience, and when characters stop blurting exposition long enough to fight for their lives, it's possible to forget that most of them (except Daryl) are interchangeable and expendable. Speaking of Daryl ...
2. Daryl and the Dowager Countess of Grantham: Are they the same person?
The breakout character on each of these shows is a strong-willed, independent-minded survivor who has done a great deal to keep his or her group afloat. The fact is, they're the kind of supporting characters who often shine far brighter than the leads. Fans are so devoted to Daryl (Norman Reedus) and Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith) in part because they don't blather too much, yet almost every time they open their mouths, they say something memorable. Both are capable of caring behavior, but don't cross them: Don't the Dowager Countess' bon mots wound as much as one of Daryl's well-aimed arrows?
Yet one reason both shows are frustrating is both actors are clearly capable of much more than the limited material they're typically given. Smith is always exceptional in the scenes in which the Dowager Countess is allowed to be sympathetic, and it's encouraging that she gets to play that note a few times in "Downton's" new season. And I'm not advocating that "The Walking Dead" turn Daryl into something other than a laconic, brooding hunk, but why not expand the characters' emotional palette a little bit more frequently? Why not even put him in charge and remove Rick from his position as leader? That actually brings me to my next point:
3. Both groups have very questionable leadership at the top.
Isn't it clear to even the dimmest "Downton" aristocrat that if Robert, Earl of Grantham, were allowed unfettered control of the estate, he would run it into the ground? He already lost a big chunk of money in bad investments, and many of the other decisions he's made -- aside from hiring Mr. Bates -- have been disastrous. (His devotion to his own kind even contributed to the death of his daughter last season.) Over the course of four seasons, "Downton Abbey" has tried to make a strong case in favor of England's landed aristocracy, but Robert's stubbornness, his limited vision and his exceptionally poor judgment are not exactly a positive advertisement for inherited positions and unearned wealth. If he weren't played by the warm, talented Hugh Bonneville, Robert would seem even more controlling and petulant. It's hard to sympathize with the "plight" of a rich man who grumbles like a spoiled child when he doesn't get his way.
That said, Robert may be a better leader than Rick, who's done a terrific job of leading his group from one disaster to another. For reasons that escape me, everyone continues to defer to Rick, despite the debacles at Hershel's farm, the nightmare of Woodbury and continual crises under his leadership. Sure, not everything is his fault (just about everyone on this show has been an idiot at one time or another), but Rick's wavering, his inability to stick with a decision and his gullibility frequently reach epic proportions. (Here's an idea, Rick: When the Governor's troops try to take over the prison, how about you don't try to make a deal with that murderous lunatic? Just a thought.) "The Walking Dead's" lowest point may have been its hamfisted attempt to make another terrible leader, the Governor, appear sympathetic. ("But he likes kids!" Really? That makes up for everything else he did?) The good news is, "The Walking Dead" viewers don't have to put up with that guy's toxic arrogance anymore. But Rick is still around, and the death duties are still due -- the fact is ...
4. Both groups are under siege.
"Downton's" titled family is always under some kind of threat or other: There's always an inheritance kerfuffle floating around, servants are forever quitting or being fired and characters are often being killed off in heartrending or abrupt fashions. Beyond the fate of individual characters, the drama is founded on the idea that the aristocracy's gilded way of life may be ending -- an idea that apparently fills creator Julian Fellowe with as much horror as a pit filled with zombies (or badly trained footmen). In the early seasons, there were hints that "Downton Abbey" might try to critique the hidebound British class system of the early 20th century, but that element has largely gone away and the pace of progress -- if any -- is glacial. Servants or family members who question the old ways are co-opted by their betters, distracted by romantic diversions or written off the show. And Fellowes would rather repeat dumb stories about conniving maids than seriously examine the idea that the "Downton" way of life might actually need to change significantly if the whole group is to survive.
Of course, "The Walking Dead" survivors have it rough in ways the Earl can only dream of. Finding enough food and water and simply surviving each day is a huge chore. Of course, all dramas need to have danger baked into their premises in order to function, and the presence of zombies means we always know what we're getting with the AMC show. But I've begun to wonder, are threats really all we're ever going to get with this show? Unlike "Downton Abbey," which is entirely written by one man, "The Walking Dead" has had three showrunners -- but none of them has been able to supply textured characterizations on a consistent basis. Speaking of consistency ...
5. The characters' behavior can be mighty predictable.
I wish I had a tiara for every time Robert's wife, Cora, was deceived by a devious servant. She is honestly the most clueless employer in the Western world, I swear. Also, I would like a nice biscuit and a cup of tea every time something unfortunate happens to to the long-suffering Molesley, or every time the closeted servant Thomas says something snide or smarmy. At least I can remember the names of half the people on "Downton Abbey": As for "The Walking Dead," after four years, I have trouble remembering the name of anyone who isn't Carl, Daryl, Rick, Michonne or Carol. The AMC show has a maddening way of introducing new characters and then showing them making such terrible decisions that you don't actually mind if they get chomped on by walkers.
So why stick around? Well, I'm not sticking with one show. I've lost hope in "The Walking Dead."
To be clear, I don't have much hope that either show will change its ways; their present formulas have proved too successful for that. No matter what thoughtful, well-considered criticism is lobbed at "Downton Abbey," Fellowes is determined to keep writing the same show and harping on the same themes (many of which revolve around what a capital fellow Robert is, really). "Downton Abbey" is a deeply conservative show -- creatively, socially and politically. Its jewel-toned nostalgia for the Old Ways hides an iron will as strong as that of the Dowager Countess': According to the unspoken Downton-ian creed, we all should live in a society where the many unquestioningly serve the few. I mean, what kind of anarchy would be loosed upon the world if lords and ladies had to dress themselves?
That said, it's ironic that the collective nature of the "Downton" world is what's deeply attractive about the show, which depicts a caring community in which hard work and honesty are often rewarded and those who are weak and troubled are looked after and cared for. The show's tendency toward repetition and predictability makes me want to scream several times per season (or per episode), but some characters -- particularly Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) -- are trying to change and evolve. The stories this season involving Matthew's widow and mother are proof that "Downton" can be moving and that the cast is full of performers who can elevate middling material and make good storylines even better.
The same can't be said of "The Walking Dead," I'm afraid.
No matter how many showrunners "The Walking Dead" cycles through, it always lands on the same kinds of moments: Rick stares off into the distance as he ponders some quandary; zombies shuffle around; supporting characters sweat and squabble and get worn down by the drudgery of their lives. The big fight scenes used have their attractions, but the truth is, we're now very familiar with everything in "The Walking Dead's" bloody bag of tricks. I've heard zombies' heads squish in any number of ways now. Is that all there is?
What is there to hope for on the characters' behalf? That the devastation will be slightly less bleak at their next broken-down destination? These frequently bland characters keep moving on, but what are they moving toward? The show's flaws are such that I can no longer ignore the hopeless, even pointless nature of the whole endeavor.
Both shows, at this point, aren't unlike zombie hordes: "Downton Abbey" and "The Walking Dead" exist to keep replicating themselves. They will go on forever, and they will probably keep on traversing the same narrow circles. The Dowager Countess will eviscerate unfortunate socialites; Daryl will skewer walkers by the dozen. On and on they will go.
Their reassuring predictability is part of the reason they're such big hits. It's not a bad thing to crave dependability. But Rick and his crew will have to get along without me (not that the show will notice or care if one weary traveler falls away).
As for me, I'll be in the library, drinking tea and hoping that Lady Mary -- even if she can't inherit -- will eventually control "Downton's" Iron Throne.