Warning: Contains details from Seasons 1 and 2. Look for a future post on the whole idea of “spoilers.”
You know a show has had a cultural impact when doing a Google search for the perfectly reasonable term “Downtown” (notice second “w”) prompts Google to say “Showing results for downton abbey instead of downtown.” Huh.
My first impression of Downton Abbey was that it mashed up Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility with Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, pleasant enough but nothing that special. It’s the familiar-to-Jane-ites tale of a family of wealthy daughters who risk being dispossessed of house and fortune unless the eldest can marry the new heir to the property, or at least marry rich. Ishiguro, writing centuries later, was also concerned about the butlers who remained anonymous and invisible to earlier readers. Fair enough.
Two seasons crammed into less-than two months later, it’s still Sense and Sensibility and Staff, but I’m hooked and jonesing for Season 3.
So: how exactly did a BBC via PBS costume drama quickly became what seems like the most talked-about show in television?
So far, at least a few critics seem drawn to the class question. As Katie Roiphe says in Slate, “One might wonder why, at the precise moment that we are condemning class divides in this country, so many of us would develop a passion for a show like Downton Abbey; why suddenly lawyers, unemployed artists, stay-at-home moms, and assorted liberals find themselves glued to a drama about an English country estate a hundred a years ago where the entire staff of footmen and ladies’ maids lines up outside to greet a titled guest.” But Roiphe’s analysis doesn’t take the show’s fictional status into account. Lots of us—all of us?—are entertained by characters, scenarios, and depictions that are different from, even counter to, who we are in real life. Do cops watch Law and Order? Did doctors watch ER? Maybe, but it’s the regular people outside the subcultures who made those shows huge. If anything, Roiphe gets it exactly wrong: OF COURSE the very people she lists are fascinated by the extravagant wealth portrayed. KR contrasts viewers’ love the show with America’s current anger at the top 1%, but DowAb is a work of elaborate, intricate fiction, not a documentary on the real or contemporary or boringly wealthy.
As a work of fiction, DA allows viewers to identify with everyone, not just the fortunate: the Crawleys, certainly, and our wishes that the titled could be as admirable as they often seem, plus of course our fantasies of wealth—even as we get to snicker over the ironed newspaper that begins the series or the dowager countess’s confusion over what a “weekend” is. We get to be Carson, the butler, so fastidious, so dignified, and in his own way ironically the most powerful person in DA; Matthew, who really is the in-between figure for middle-class Americans to identify with, since he is the only Crawleywho has had to work for a living, and he’s both fascinated with and a little dismayed at first by DA’s opulence; and the rest of the staff, who have to work for everything but, as we begin to see, have dreams of their own. The British setting adds another layer of distance: the English do not think of class in the same mutable way that Americans do, rightly or wrongly. And the WWI-era historical time frame (more on that in a minute) cements the remove required for Americans to enjoy the show conflict and hypocrisy free. It’s British Historical Fiction, and there are no overt heroes or villains (except, perhaps, the war itself, and, later, Carlisle a little), so it’s safe. It’s better than safe—it’s fun.
But there’s more to the show than class, so let’s examine the possibilities.
It’s the quality, stupid. That’s certainly the angle from PBS and Masterpiece Theatre (nothing says sophisticated like “-re” instead of “-er” in “theatre,” although sadly, the whole word, it seems, has been dropped). Before DA even begins, we get the beautiful and talented Laura Linney introducing the show and the opening advertisement sponsorship (this is ad-free public television!), luxurious, sumptuous Viking River Cruises. (Why does Roiphe think that the audience is primarily “unemployed artists… and assorted liberals,” anyway? Because Republicans keep trying to defund PBS?) The costumes, the sets, the details, and clothes are gorgeous, impeccable, and lovingly captured. OK, the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary has taken the show to task for its period-inaccurate idioms like “I am fed up seeing our lot get shafted.” (Interesting—coincidental?—that one of the chief examples of anachronistic slang is also the rare case of class resentment to sneak into the show, spoken by the sneakiest sneak, Thomas.) But even for me, fretting about a few phrases is the costume drama equivalent of a superhero movie’s continuity error—nerdy nitpicking at best and belligerently missing the point at worst.
In any case, if it seems unfair to call the show Eye Candy, than let’s call it what it really is: Eye Caviar. Expensive, posh, and symbolic of wealth. But is it any good for you?
Well, it’s also the acting: Britain’s best, and not a single one of them is wearing a pointy hat and teaching wand waving or foolish incantations in this class. But even leaving aside the lack of CGI, unlike much of what’s out there, Downton is clearly a show about, by, and for grownups. There aren’t even any children ON the show, and, like her wedding, I don’t see Sybil’s future baby having much screen time either. And while I loved seeing Matthew and Carlisle scrap, most of the acting is subtle, expressive, and understated. The WWI trench scenes only underscored the usual quiet and equanimity—I found myself scrambling for the volume button each time the scene shifted from Manor to battlefield or back. The overall refinement counts for a lot when so much American film acting is all physical and kinetic. Maggie Smith’s many zingers would not be nearly as funny without her wry delivery. She’s the show’s special effect.
High/low, not just upstairs/downstairs: But the real beauty of the show is that is seems like it’s supposed to be good for you. British, historical; no elves, no aliens. But it’s really like those Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s granola bars—you can imagine that they’re healthful all you want, but they’re really fancy candy. Downton Abbey: looks like homework, feels like a soap opera. (Original betrothed to Mary [possibly!] returns after surviving the Titanic post-amnesia and burned beyond recognition? OK!) The Onion, as usual, nails it: Watching Episode of Downton Abbey Counts as Reading a Book.
The World War I Era: For all the corsets and fretting about eldest daughters, we’re over a century from Jane’s World. Writer/creator Julian Fellowes (has there ever been a more British name?) has mentioned that the Downton time period—roughly 1890-1940—is a time of great upheaval, the making of the modern world as we know it. He’s right. But World War II is like The Godfather II and Empire Strikes Back—the sequel that surpasses the original in scope. The lead up, war itself, and post-war era—especially the 1920s—is one of the most historically interesting times, yet, today, it seems under-examined. Here, we see the end of Victorian England—the class stratification, the entitlement, the empire itself. But it’s only historical hindsight that makes us so aware. Like the wealthy passengers on the Titanic who drowned on the opening episode, the Crawley family has no idea that their urgent plight over the heir to Downton is like fretting about the deck chairs when the entire ship is about to go under.
For Americans, thwarted romance never gets old: In the end, the center of the show is, of course, Matthew and Mary. So while the set up steals Sense and Sensibility, the conflict, like every other rom-com, pilfers Pride and Prejudice. The Youtube montage below is one of many fan creations that inadvertently helps explain both why and what makes DowAb special: because unlike many of its poorer Austen-American relatives, it never resorts to awful sentimental terrible musical montage sequences.
But even with the M&M engagement, don’t toss out your hankies or get your hopes up. Downton has painted itself into a narrative corner. As everyone knows, fictional courtships may be dreamy, but fictional marriages are a nightmare. And Mathew and Mary are just in time for the seismic shift in gender attitudes of 1920s, the decade that saw the rise of iconoclastic Brits DH Lawrence and Virginia Woolf and Americans like Hemingway and Fitzgerald and the most scathing literary critiques of marriage in history. The story is supposed to end when the couple marries, or else we’re forced to watch their dissolution and misery. The Season 2 finale—the snow, the proposal, the kiss, the hope for the future, the resolution of Matthew’s pride and Mary’s prejudice, the security of the Crawleys, should be the end. It’s where Austen would have known to end it.
Look for Julian Fellowes to invent reasons to keep his poor puppets apart even longer. As everyone knows, 100% of marriages end in divorce or death.
Time: OK, 75 minutes again, not including reading the other articles and links, which I did separate from writing the entry. If I had more time, I’d have made it shorter. Sorry.