Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Downton Abbey: What We're All Missing

Here's the picture in early 2012: The presidential race is heating up, and it has been largely informed by the inequalities in the American social fabric-- and inequality that has been brought to light by the efforts of the Occupy movement. It is such an effective area of discourse that the incumbent President is incorporating it into his platform, promising that the very wealthy will start paying their fair share of taxes. This focus on inequality is so prevalent that even Republican candidates-- long the eager sidekicks of the moneyed class-- cannot avoid bringing it up, slinging mud at Mitt Romney's fifteen-percent tax bracket.

So it is quite incredible that in this charged atmosphere of near-class warfare (call it the undeclared hostilities preceding actual class warfare) that the American viewing public would fall so hard for “Downton Abbey,” an ITV melodramatic series about the trials and tribulations of the House of Grantham in early 20th century Britain. The overarching theme of the series is how absolutely rigid the social classes were in Edwardian England-- There are Earls, Lords, Ladies and gentlemen of bestowed titles enjoying elegant meals prepared by an army of servants toiling in the lower floors of their stately home. Relationships between Upstairs and Downstairs are excessively, ritualistically formal. The middle class is almost invisible in this show: Social mobility has yet to be invented.

In short, the socio-political world of “Downton Abbey” should turn even the most rock-ribbed Republican into a raving anarchist. But it doesn't. It's a hugely popular show on both sides of the Atlantic: It's coming back this fall in a third season, and will be guest-starring Shirley MacLaine as the American mother of the Countess of Grantham. So why has this show captured the public's attention and imagination? A few ideas:

Matthew Crawley and Lady Mary.
Compelling historical detail. We're moving through a moment in entertainment where the past is examined with clinical fascination. Shows like “Mad Men” and “Boardwalk Empire” are more than just dramas set in the past: they delve into the fashions, attitudes and social mores of their settings. We're fascinated by Don Draper's cavalier womanizing, chain smoking and narrow lapels. 1921 Atlantic City is reproduced right down to the wallpaper patterns and brass-trimmed stick phones. Same with “Downton Abbey,” which was definitely the UK answer to these shows. We get to see the elegant trappings of Manor living, the grinding amount of work it took to make Manor living so elegant, and to hear odd archaic sayings like “she was a guinea a minute” and “ship-shape and Bristol fashion.”

It's an insane Douglas Sirk-style melodrama. Servant or Swell, Drudge or Toff, everyone falls violently in love, has wrenching personal disclosures, and carry all sorts of secrets. Dalliances and liaisons coalesce, evolve and dissolve like blobs of wax in a lava lamp. Lady Mary, the eldest daughter of the Crawley family, has had so many suitors die on her she is thought by some “Downton” observers to have Black Widow Powers. Some characters--- such as valet Mr. Bates and head housemaid Anna-- are so soulful and appealing I defy anyone watching to deny they had tears in their eyes when they finally wed. Granny-- The Countess Dowager, played by Maggie Smith-- is a grand Victorian Lady who is constantly horrified by both the excessive snogging and Edwardian modernity in general. She gets the best, funniest lines in the show.

The Earl of Grantham.
• Everyone has a place. Sure, England in 1912-1920 was rigidly stratified, but it was also a smoothly functioning society, where both the high and the low had roles to play-- and, most importantly, each protected the other. The servants conduct themselves with a constant awareness of how their actions will affect the prestige and standing of Downton: In particular Carson, the head butler, understands his duty as a retainer to the dynastic estate, rather than as just a manager of servants.

Conversely, we can see that the Crawley family, Lord Grantham in particular, do not just employ their servants, they defend and protect them as well. The writers of "Downton Abbey" to great lengths to show that he Lord Grantham not just another snobby old aristo. He is the one who brought in his former Boer War aide-de-camp as his personal valet, resolves disputes with the help-- and even allows Sybil, his youngest daughter, to marry the family chauffeur. He even steals a few kisses with a comely (and widowed) new maid, but soon comes to his senses and discharges her--but only after setting her son up for life. Regardless of how you may feel about the legitimacy of peerage, he's the ideal boss.

This, ultimately, is the core of what makes “Downton Abbey” connect with viewers: Noblesse Oblige. The concept that the wealthy have an obligation to respect and care for those below them in class and status. Tune in and you get to see this concept elaborately enacted in every episode. Read the news, watch the presidential race or follow Wall Street and you will see how noticeably absent it is in 21st century life-- and the social decoherence that it's absence is inflicting. Of all the period details on lavish display in the halls of Downton, this abstract concept is likely the only one we wish we could pull forward into our troubled times.

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