My Thoughts amid a Downton Abbey Binge

Until 4 days ago I had actually heard very little about Downton Abbey. I knew it was a Masterpiece Classic show about a rich family and their servants, set in WWI-era England. I knew it was supposed to be sort of a soap-opera. I knew it was stealing Emmy nominations from shows I actually watch and like. I knew that it seemed incredibly and inexplicably popular. So maybe I knew more than I thought. Though I was somewhat reluctant to put it on my “to watch” list, as the following/fandom it had reminded me too much of a show I will probably never go back to (Glee), I decided I would be open to giving it a try eventually, if only because it was easily accessible on Netflix.

Well, in the post-holiday hangover of January 3-5, my wife Beth and I plowed through the first 12 episodes of the show like Edith behind the wheel of a tractor. We haven’t watched any episodes today, and we’re still 3 episodes and a Christmas Special away from being caught up (to US airings, anyway), but I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re up to date by this time tomorrow. With season 3 (series 3, if you want to be a nerd about it) premiering tonight, I figured it was a good time to share some of my thoughts on the show.

The Good

The show is ridiculously watchable. RIDICULOUSLY. There are very few 1-hour shows of which I could watch 4+ episodes in row without getting tired or just needing a break. This has proven to be one of them. I think the aforementioned soap-opera quality has something to do with it. Half of these characters are in some form of unrequited, unspoken, forbidden or unfulfilled love. The others are either scheming, providing laughs or just being excruciatingly upper-class. The upstairs/downstairs dynamic, combined with the period setting make this a fascinating look at a place, a time, and a type of people that don’t exist anymore, at least in the way portrayed on the show.

In discussing things with Beth, perhaps there are still Crawleys in the world today, who have everything done for them and who would be lost at sea when forced to live like the middle (or heaven forbid, lower) classes. Perhaps what is missing today is the master/servant dynamic and the dedication, devotion and dependence that come with the live-in nature of the staff of Downton Abbey. That may be a discussion for another time.

Given my own personal class/station, I can’t say that I have any good reason to relate to either the Crawley family or their servants, but I think the believability and humanity of these characters, and the depth of feeling they (sometimes) have, is what sucks me in. Yes, things get a bit melodramatic, but that is a help more than a hindrance. I just really want to know what happens next for these people who are from a world that seems so distant, but which is really not so far removed from our own.

It is supremely well acted, decorated and costumed. Attempting to quote a comment Beth made: “I think one of the things that makes me like the show so much is because I don’t know any of these actors.” I completely agree. In the 12 episodes we’ve seen, I only recognized 6 actors from something else in which they’ve appeared: Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess, of course, Samantha Bond (Moneypenny in the Brosnan Bond films) as Lady Rosamund , Rose Leslie (Ygritte in Game of Thrones) as Gwen the maid, Iain Glenn (Jorah Mormont in Game of Thrones) as Richard Carlisle, Maria Doyle Kennedy (Catherine of Aragon in The Tudors) as Mrs. Bates and Charlie Cox (Owen in Boardwalk Empire) as the Duke of Crowborough. That may seem like a lot, but considering that only two of them are what you might call “regulars,” I think it’s notable. In fact, apart from the above, and Hugh Bonneville, I don’t think I could match an actor/actress to his/her character.

Everyone is talented and they all look and play their parts well. I don’t know if I could pick a favorite, though I tend to like the servants more than the Crawleys. Who doesn’t love Mr. Bates and Anna? Carson and Mrs. Hughes are great too (“How is Carson going to buttle his way out of this one? is my new favorite, non-existent, catchphrase. Feel free to try it). Also, based on the characters, Beth and I have decided that she’s most like Sybil and I’m most like Mr. Molesley (ha).

The sets and costumes are great as well. I think the show is helped (at least in season 1) by confining itself almost exclusively to the Crawley home. Sure, there are dozens of rooms in the house, but it’s really just one immaculate building. Season 2 branches out a little bit with some war scenes, but it doesn’t stretch itself too far. Props also go to Oscar-winner Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park) for creating and writing the bulk of the series. The show doesn’t avoid some odd twists and certain bouts of forgetfulness or “brushing under the rug” of plot points, but on the whole it’s quite good.

The Bad

This doesn’t mean much when discussing a TV show, but it all seems a bit shallow. It’s production values are too high for it to be declared simply a soap opera, but the problems of the upper-class English Crawleys just don’t seem to be as significant or at least not as familiar as any in real life. Of course, half of the fun is seeing just how put out or offended these people are by things like the addition of electric lighting to the house, or the thought of having a formal dinner served by (gasp) a MAID. Plus, there are always the love stories to fall back on. Still, I think I could just as easily have watched the first couple of episodes in the wrong mindset and decided that this was fluff that wasn’t worth my time. It’s hard to feel bad for these people (or invest in their problems) when even on their worst days, they’re living better than I could ever dream of living.

This can’t be said for the lives of the servants, as they’re probably more in line with the average viewer (if that comparison could even be drawn). I think they are probably the heart of the show. They also break my heart, because looking at them from the outside, it’s sad to see how much of their lives are invested in serving the whims of the Crawley family. Yes it’s their job, and the Crawleys are mostly understanding and kind, but when the servants almost literally live or die by how wrinkled a jacket is, how shiny a soup tureen is, or simply how happy their employers are, it makes me kind of sad. I think maybe it’s my 21st Century view that stirs these feelings in me, and the fact that I’ve never been employed as a real servant of any kind. Sure there are maids, housekeepers and perhaps the odd butler around today, but these people (might) get to leave work and go to their own homes and live their own lives at some point.

Where are the stakes on this show? Yes, we hear about the importance of “the entail” and trying to make sure that the Crawley house is inherited by the right people, but again, that’s not a subject to which it is easy to relate. Sure we get WWI (with injury and death), but we never get a real feeling or perspective on the war (so far anyway). There is very little life outside of Downton, it seems (though I’ll agree that this fact is in keeping with the standard of communication in the 1910s, the show still doesn’t bother to show us too much outside of the titular estate).

While we’re captivated by the love stories, it seems like obstacles are standing in the way of everyone who isn’t already married. Hearts are at stake, which makes for delicious drama, but it’s almost overkill. I know I sound like I think I should be able to relate to everything I see on TV, but even if I don’t entirely understand the world, I don’t want this to be Entourage, where we watch beautiful, rich people do beautiful, rich things with very little lasting, beautiful, rich conflict. (for the record, I’ve seen almost all of Entourage and while I hesitate to go with my gut and say that Downton is truly the better show of the two, I think the comparison might be more appropriate than one would think)

This series has an awkward (if not completely confusing) sense of time. The series began in April 1912 and is now somewhere in the middle of 1918 (at the point where I am). That’s 6 years in 12 episodes. Nobody seems to age. The task of marrying off Lady Mary doesn’t seem to be as pressing as everyone makes out, particularly considering her “indiscretion.” Granted, there’s the war, but still. People come and go, a lot of meals are eaten, a lot of dresses are worn (some multiple times, thanks Beth), the blind are cured, tours of duty are completed, etc… but it all goes by so fast.

It wouldn’t be so bad if the conversations between characters didn’t flow so beautifully and coherently. Yes, narrative clarity is essential for television (if you’re not David Lynch), but when two conversations that logically seem days apart are actually several months apart, things get a little bit wonky. The action is at odds with the timeline. I guess I’ll just chalk it up to “life moved a lot slower back then.” Any other fans take issue with, or at least notice this? (as a side note, this series is much more graceful with time shifts than The Tudors, a show I need to write a post about sometime in the future)

The Rest (a few observations to which I haven’t given much thought)

Given my own background, I have absolutely no basis for this, but I can’t help but thinking of Downton Abbey as “television for white people” (or perhaps more specifically, middle-class white people, or maybe just British people). There are no real non-white characters of any kind, and there are almost no non-British characters either. I know my initial statement is a broad generalization, and I know that “popular” film and television is already whitewashed as it is, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about.

Almost every single episode has a moment where one character is talking to another character about a third character, only for them to find out that the third character has just walked into the room or has overheard them. I call it the “s/he’s right behind me, isn’t s/he?” moment.

Also, the rumors and secrets on this show are almost unbearable. They spread to the point that everyone seems to know the secret, but nobody knows who else knows and so they’re trying to hide it from everyone. It’s pretty crazy, and quite British.

I can’t help but reference Pride and Prejudice every single time Matthew and Mary fail to declare their love for one another.

How much more mustache-twirly can Thomas and O’Brien get as the “villains” of the show? It’s gotten to the point where I doubt I’ll ever be able to have any sympathy for those characters because they-re such jerks. Also, I’m waiting for O’Brien’s big “crime” from season 1 to come back (seriously, Fellowes, you’re just going to let that go?).

Where the hell does this show take place? In 12 episodes (covering 6 years, as mentioned above), we’ve never seen a single drop of rain. I’ve never been to England, but really? Rain aside, we’ve never seen any other weather or season at all! It’s always sunny in Downton, I guess. I’ll forgive them since all of the episodes are probably shot in a 2 month stretch each year, and because they do everything else so well, but with so much time passing on the show, it seems a little strange. Maybe they got a budget for rain/snow machines in season 3.

That’s it for now, I’ve already written over 2000 words. In case you can’t tell, I’m a fan (though perhaps not a fanatic, yet). Maybe I’ll catch up in time to do weekly analyses of the series. If you’re interested in watching it, season/series 1 is on Netflix and 2 is on Amazon Prime. I’m not sure if 3 will be available streaming, but I think it goes on sale at the end of January.

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