Yeah, it’s a soap. I get that it’s a soap. It even used amnesia (amnesia!) as a plot point. I’ve heard all the criticism. It’s conservative in its politics–seems to think the class system was fine, and that Lords and Ladies were just swell. It’s conventional in its morality; the one gay character is also the most loathsome. Plus, it’s a soap. I don’t care. I’m going to sound like the gushingest fan-boy on the planet here, and I don’t care–I flat love Downtown Abbey.
My wife and I watched Season One, and were totally hooked, and then put Season Two at the top of our Netflix queue, where it stayed not budging for six months. Finally, Netflix informed us that Season Two disc one was on its way–that’s the one that got lost in the mail, first time ever. It got funny, after awhile–we had many friends who offered to lend us their copies, but it got to the point where we were just stubborn about it. We were going to watch it, by crikey, and via a Netflix DVD, and that was all there was to it! Then Season Two finally showed up, and was as good as promised.
So, in case you’ve been lost in the Australian outback the last two years, here’s Downton Abbey: it’s a British TV series that reads like a Waugh novel, but is in fact a new creation. Julian Fellowes is the talented fellowe who wrote every episode, created the more or less twenty main characters, living in a British country estate in the first decades of the twentieth century. Downton Abbey is home to Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, his American wife, Cora, and their three daughters, Mary, Edith and Sybil. The show follows their loves and losses, but spends as much or more time with their servants, especially Carson, the butler, Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper, two footman, Thomas and William, and various maids, particularly Miss O’Brien, Lady Crawley’s personal maid, and Anna, who serves the daughters, most especially Mary. And Anna is in love with Bates, Lord Grantham’s crippled and honorable valet.
A lot of the plot involves the tangled love story between Mary, an independent, beautiful, bored and not entirely nice young woman, and Matthew Crawley, Lord Grantham’s heir, a thoroughly nice young barrister who thinks the Downton lifestyle is rather absurd. Which it is.
And that’s one of the reasons we love the show. It shows a lifestyle that is absurd, with its regimented routines of dressing, dinners, hunts and balls, with wealthy and bored aristocrats desperately holding on to their rapidly vanishing culture. But they’re also good folks. Lord Grantham, for all his failings, is a basically kind-hearted and decent man, genuinely trying to do his best for his people, while Carson, the butler, is the most benevolent of downstairs dictators. That’s a lot of the fun of the show; the rich and multi-layered characters. Thomas the footman is a rotter, to be sure, but also has moments of generosity, and the fact that he’s gay adds, to my mind, poignancy to his nastiness. Miss O’Brien, his accomplice, is a nasty old gossip, but also a woman who nearly kills herself caring for Cora when she becomes ill. Mary and Edith are generally at each other’s throats, but come together to prevent Sybil–generous, idealistic, hopelessly naive–from destroying her life. We care a lot about Mary’s love for Matthew, but we care a whole lot more for Anna and Mr. Bates. (Joanne Froggatt is tremendous as Anna–plays her as an intelligent, independent, deeply compassionate young woman–I want Anna’s life to be good far more than anyone in the Crawley family.)
Plus, it’s got Maggie Smith. And I take it as given that any movie or show with Maggie Smith in it has a leg up on any one without her. She’s wonderful in this, plays the Dowager Countess–Lord Grantham’s mother. Her role is essentially to comment waspishly on the goings-on around her, which means she gets all the good lines, each of which she delivers with the snap and wit of a great comedienne.
And here’s what’s interesting. Maggie Smith’s character is the ultimate conservative–she wants to preserve as much as possible of the privileged life she’s always known, and she’s not about to give quarter. Her bete noire is Mrs. Crawley, Matthew Crawley’s mother, a fascinating character in her own right. Mrs. Crawley is a nurse, and a smart and effective one. She wants to be useful–she thinks the Downton Abbey lifestyle is ridiculous, and during the war (WWI, on-going during most of the second season), she succeeds in turning the home into a convalescent center for wounded officers. She’s a proto-feminist, a champion for women’s rights and a trained, seasoned professional. She’s also a busy-body and a scold, and we don’t like her. She and Maggie Smith’s character are at loggerheads throughout, and frankly, my wife and I are entirely on Maggie’s side.
And that’s been some of the criticism I’ve read about the show. Mrs. Crawley is a feminist heroine, and the Countess, an anachronism–the show urges us to root for the wrong side.
But I think good drama should transcend what strike me as petty political considerations. I’m on the side of well-written, interesting characters, characters who change and grow–or don’t, and pay the price. I love the fact that we can find Mrs. Crawley admirable, but also annoying. I love the fact that we can be amused by the Dowager Countess, like her energy and wit, but also recognize–as she does, grudgingly–that she’s fast becoming a relic.
I love politics, and I’m a liberal and a committed feminist. Good drama’s more important to me than that. And that’s why I love Downton Abbey.