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TV Quickshots #15

Downton Abbey (ITV; 2010-present)

A hit in its domestic country with Brit broadcaster ITV, English period drama Downton Abbey has proven phenomenally popular with American audiences who catch it on Masterpiece Classic on PBS. British audiences can mostly be counted on to situate such a frothy soap opera of conservative ruling-class historical apologia in its proper context. But the show is convincing proof that their Yankee cousins will buy into nearly anything of even a vaguely respectable British pedigree as richly nuanced serialized artistry. Downton Abbey is, at its heart, as frothy and sensationalistically-plotted as Stateside primetime soaps like Dallas, and every bit as addictively watchable. But lacquer on some stiff manners, posh Received Pronunciation, and a country manor house setting, and many viewers will greet it as a latter-day televised Forster or Galsworthy novel, despite its lower leanings.

Taking place about a century ago, Downton Abbey is set in and around the titular (and fictional) aristocratic estate in Yorkshire. Presided over by the locally-admired but generally inept and rusting hereditary Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), Downton is a busy little world of shirt-and-tails dinners, fickle marriageable daughters, distantly-related male heirs, gossiping and squabbling servants, and a gradually encroaching and shifting social function. Incorporating historical events like the Titanic disaster, the Russian Revolution, women’s suffrage, the Irish independence movement, and World War I, the narrative and themes focus on a traditional ruling elite whose centuries-old position at the top of Great Britain’s socioeconomic pyramid is becoming gradually more precarious.

But the world(view) of Downton endures, and for all of his gestures towards historical progression, creator Julian Fellowes feels that preservation of the ruling class’ gilded status quo is right and good. No less than a Conservative member of the House of Lords (imagine a Republican U.S. Senator showrunning a fawning portrayal of honourable Texas oil tycoons, and you might get at the idea of his creative placement), Fellowes indulges the air of noblesse oblige with extreme fondness and patience, introducing hints of its eventual undoing only to provide narrative conflicts to be overcome by his aristocratic principals. When a genuine break with the traditional and the customary is achieved, it is only admitted with the expressed approval of the ruling elite. Maggie Smith’s barb-tossing Dowager Countess deigns to allow a talented but long-underappreciated county gardener win a flower show prize instead of awarding it to herself as she usually does, for example. This is a perfect example of Downton Abbey‘s strain of paternalistic conservative permissiveness of incremental social change. Only through the magnanimity of the haves can the have-nots share in any larger measure of the socioeconomic spoils.

This conservatism, with its very British emphasis on order and decorum, dominates the show. World War I breezes by, claiming minimal sacrifices from the great old house and its denizens and spurring plentiful platitudes about brave boys serving their country while non-servicepeople keep spirits up on the homefront. Newly-minted heir to the Grantham estate Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) seems to spend more time on leave at the house than he does in the trenches, and when Downton becomes a convalescent home for wounded officers, the family’s hardship at eating meals as table tennis goes on at the other end of the room is constructed as practically equivalent to the anguish of warfare.

Look behind the hints of ideology and the prim quasi-literary exterior, however, and Downton Abbey is really a slice of silly, manipulative trash entertainment. Plot and subplot supply lines are maintained mainly through constant eavesdropping and ineffectual confidences. “Can you keep a secret?” lady maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt) asks her mistress Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), apparently unaware from two-plus seasons of onscreen history that nobody in the damned house can. Someone is always listening in or about to waltz into a room when something of consequence is being discussed by others. When loose lips are not sinking proverbial ships, developments of convenience abound. The Great War arrives just in time to shuffle the servant ranks which were becoming unsustainably tense, as well as to provide independently-minded Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) an occupational outlet in the form of nursing. A perfectly-timed outbreak of the Spanish influenza removes Matthew’s devoted but soppy fiancee (Zoe Boyle) just in time for him to belatedly get together with longtime love interest Mary.

This is enjoyable potboiler material, but it’s a dime-store version of imperial-vintage British social literature distilled into episodic portions for modern tastes and attention spans. Eventually Lord Grantham is snogging the new maid, Sybil is running away with the Irish socialist chauffeur, and the servants are employing a ouija board to anticipate narrative developments. It’s got to be hard for even the most devoted Downton fan to fail to fess up to the fundamental pulpy goofiness of the whole enterprise, when faced with such evidence. Fellowes’ realm of romantic anachronism lacks the depth and subtlety of the great literature it is referencing, yes, but that doesn’t mean that the politically conservative but wonderfully frivolous Downton Abbey is not appointment television anyway.

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Categories: Reviews, Television
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  1. May 22, 2014 at 4:50 am
  2. February 15, 2015 at 10:49 am

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