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Beware of Backlash, From ‘Downton’ to … ‘Dead?’

There’s no percentage in quibbling with other critics. Besides, what could be more pointless than debating someone else’s tastes?

Yet this one passage in Maureen Ryan’s exhaustive analysis of “Downton Abbey’s” second season made me laugh — not because I agreed or disagreed with it, but because the underlying point was addressed quite cleverly during Sunday night’s Writers Guild Awards ceremony. In her assessment of “Downton,” Ryan wrote:

The problem is, like another refugee from the world of film, Frank Darabont, [Julian] Fellowes doesn’t know how to knit together believable incidents and compelling character development and form that into a consistently interesting season of television. I know, it’s weird to compare a costume drama with a zombie horrorfest, but both “Downton” and “The Walking Dead” stumbled in their second seasons.

Ryan acknowledges it seems strange to compare the two. It reminded me of a warning I used to give film critics when I was editing the entertainment section in college, urging them not to veer out of their lanes in order to make a point about an unrelated topic nagging at them.

But both series have one thing in common, beyond her criticism: When something flames this brightly, the backlash and “Where did it go wrong?” lamentation is virtually inevitable.

ModernfamilyThat’s why I found it so hilarious Sunday when “Modern Family” co-creator Steve Levitan said — after the show collected two more awards to add to an already packed trophy case — he was worried about all the success engendering hostility.

The response conceived by the writing staff, perfectly choreographed, was for each member to get up and say something intended to earn him or her sympathy. It won’t work, of course — as soon as the series runs a couple of weak episodes, somebody will pounce all over it — but I can’t help but admire both the realization the pendulum will eventually swing in the other direction, and the futile effort to preempt what is obviously such a natural impulse.

Of course, this also brings to mind a fundamental difference between film and TV critics. Both get to be the first to discover something terrific and share the news with readers. But because TV programs keep going and going, only the latter can also be the first to announce that what was terrific suddenly isn’t so great anymore.

Seen that way, all admired shows are, in a way, living on borrowed time — their own version of “The Walking Dead.” Unless, of course, they have the good sense to vacate the premises — be it a mansion, suburban neighborhood or farm surrounded by zombies — before they risk overstaying their welcome.


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