Downton Abbey

September 30, 2011

I’ve already complained enough about the milquetoast tastes of Academy Awards voters and their love of inoffensive, tarted-up junk food like The King’s Speech, and though I will certainly wheel that bugbear out again in a few months, it is a little bit harder to say the same thing about the Emmys.  Sure, they tend towards the conservative (as you’d expect), but they’ve also spent the last decade as a platform from which to praise HBO, which is without a doubt the single most artistically interesting (and, indeed, revolutionary) television channel of our times.  You can make arguments that the middle of the road taste still wins out when Modern Family receives best comedy series or even that Mad Men’s four successive best drama victories represent a handy intersection of those milquetoast values with genuinely complex artistic achievement, but really, this has been HBO’s decade and it will continue to be for some time to come.  It is, then, only under these circumstances where a five-part mini-series adaptation of James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce by idiosyncratic director Todd Haynes (Velvet Goldmine, I’m Not There) would be seen as the all-but-unbeatable juggernaut of the night.  So it was a shock when plucky ITV-produced upstart Downton Abbey, aired in the US on PBS, swept in and took the prize from under poor old Mildred’s nose.  This isn’t to say that Mildred Pierce was the best possible winner – that went to the not-even-nominated Carlos – but it was still a deserving one.  I subsequently watched all of Downton Abbey, and all those King’s Speech feelings came flooding right back.  Once again, the “discerning” American viewer gave into their baser instincts for easy, melodramatic nonsense, only this time it was incredibly offensive. 

Downton Abbey revolves around the titular estate in the early 1900s, beginning its first series just after the Titanic sank in 1912.  It was created, and is mostly written by, Julian Fellowes, who won an Academy Award for his script for Robert Altman’s Gosford Park.  Now, one wouldn’t expect a leftist tirade against the class system from a Tory Peer, but it’s interesting to compare Downton Abbey to Gosford Park.  They’re both about the travails of the ruling class and their servants on a posh country estate, but note the difference in tone between them.  If ever there was an argument for the creative control of a director, it resides right here.  Altman’s outsider – and crucially American – perspective on Fellowes’ script gives Gosford Park a satirical, absurdist edge.  The whole system seems so alien and ridiculous to him that his viewpoint bleeds through on screen.  It’s one of my favourite films of the 90s for its ability to weave its way through these two completely distinct but spatially intertwined worlds.  There’s a real sense of tragedy and drama for the servants whereas the privileged are simply (and comedically) unable to comprehend the weight of the world around them.  It is a film in which the two classes intersect in highly volatile ways, their differences being so unbridgeabley great.  Altman builds the two worlds separate-but-together in such a way that when Emily Watson’s housemaid speaks out to one of the guests during dinner to defend her now deceased lord and lover, the air goes out of the room and the audience is left in utter shock, even though modern audiences would never consider her to be speaking out of turn.  Downton Abbey, without a director like Altman to mediate (and this would get into the larger difference between the writer-as-auteur of television and the director-as-auteur in film), is almost exactly the opposite.  The two worlds aren’t operating as different; they are in total harmony.

Even for a Tory Peer, this level of restorative nostalgia is fairly shocking.  This is the period where the old class system was in decline, often unaware of its decrepit, backwards nature and the progression of the rest of society.  British antecedents to this kind of drama include the 1970s series Upstairs Downstairs, which featured a sharp, fatalist edge that is nowhere to be found here.  In the cinema, this type of society was critiqued throughout the entire 20th century, notably in films like Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, which took a fierce, satirical look at the culpability of the French aristocracy for the troubled times of Europe in the late 30s.  Downton Abbey might be depicting the end of an era, but nobody on the show can really see it coming, and worst of all, the creators themselves don’t want it to.  When the heirs to the estate die, it falls to the closest male heir, who happens to be an upper-middle class lawyer from Manchester.  He’s unaccustomed to this level of extravagance and initially balks at having a valet dress him.  It is not long until the lord explains to him his role as the landowner and master.  If that valet doesn’t dress him, he doesn’t have a job.  Here we have a version of the modern argument that the ruling class are the job creators, and though it might seem odd that these human beings must scramble for the lord’s and lady’s every need, it is their job and it is by the good graces of those lords and ladies that they have one.  The lawyer, Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), soon learns of the importance and virtue of the position of the lord, whether it be employing the servants or maintaining the cottages on his property.

Of course, these lords – Hugh Bonneville’s Robert, Earl of Grantham and his wife Cora, played by Elizabeth McGovern – are somewhat modern in their compassion.  They hold onto that sense of duty and goodness that supposedly gave the upper class its virtue, as opposed to Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess of Grantham, who represents a scolding, immovable even-older class of sneering entitlement.  It’s meant to be a great humanizing moment when she deigns to lie about an award for a flower show so it will be given to a lowly peasant, but it smacks of the pleading of an apologist.  This big moment is really just a pittance, but Fellowes and co don’t see it that way.  The value system reflects that of a wistful Tory looking back on the good old days of foxhunting, extravagant dinner parties, and the lower rungs of society knowing their place.  Hugh, Cora, and their eldest daughter, Mary (Michelle Dockery) are all fair and decent people.  They have good, even disarmingly (for the servants) friendly relationships with their staff.  This no doubt happened on occasion in real life, but there was always an undercurrent of superior/inferior lives that Downton Abbey chooses to ignore.  The best and most virtuous servants are the ones who care for nothing but the honour of their position.  They do the best job in their abilities because they are good people and every bit of self-worth they have is tied up in their post.

This general atmosphere is ever-present but largely passive when compared to the more aggressively offensive representations of Labour voters and homosexuals.  The chauffeur, Tom Branson (Allen Leech), is an Irish socialist whose revolutionary efforts are treated as a bit of fun by the Earl.  It isn’t long before Branson, though maintaining his desire to see this class structure destroyed, concedes that the Earl is both a decent man and a good employer.  When the Earl’s youngest – and naively politically engaged – daughter Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay) goes to a by-election, she’s confronted and assaulted by beer-swilling, drunken Labour voters who only turn up to pick a fight with aristocrats.  One imagines that Fellowes is the type that actually uses the phrase “the great unwashed”.  Likewise, the most cartoonish, dastardly villain of the first series is Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) is the only homosexual main character. He spends his time trying to get the unbelievably noble valet Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) fired for no good reason.  He even deliberately ruins the courtship of the sweet kitchen maid Daisy (Sophie McShera) and the earnest footman William Mason (Thomas Howes) just because he can.

Downton Abbey’s flaws extend beyond its ideological obsessions and its dewey-eyed desire to a return to ‘proper society’.  It is also poorly written much of the time and given to extensive bouts of repeated exposition and convenient plot developments.  Early in the first series, Mary is wooed by a Turkish diplomat (Theo James) who takes her virginity in a secret tryst where he promptly dies mid-coitus.  Why he dies is neither here nor there, apparently; he just did.  It leads to a very amusing moment of blackly comic farce where Mary, her mother, and a servant must move the body across the house to his room so it seems as though he died in his sleep.  This incident, however, hangs over the entire series, as though the narrative were punishing itself for stretching so far out into such broad territory.  It leads to a vague excuse for the conflict of the final episode, when Mary refuses to accept Matthew’s proposal on the grounds of honesty until she suddenly decides it doesn’t matter, but by then it’s too late because of the ridiculous plot contrivance of another possible heir.  It’s sloppy and cloying, and it only exists to keep the two should-be lovers apart.

Beyond its occasional dubious creative qualities, it will be interesting to see how the second series develops.  It will largely deal with World War I, which was an epochal moment that spelled doom for this kind of society. I doubt it will approach anything near the level of pathos of Blackadder Goes Forth, where societal circumstance was largely absurd in the face of such unrelenting death.  It was a war fought for the ruling classes that cost the working classes the most lives.  It might have been a great leveler (many from all strata of society died), but the cause was always strictly imperial and, by extension, aristocratic.  I don’t get the impression that this series will deal with that element at all.  Two episodes into the second series and I have little hope of any kind of redemption, but it might happen.  As it stands, even Doctor Who has dealt with the senseless massacres and loss of life of WWI in a more adult manner.

Despite all of that, it is a reasonably enjoyable show.  I don’t believe in guilty pleasures, but if ever there was one, this is it.  It is handsomely produced and the acting is solid-to-exceptional across the board.  Its denial of class struggle means it is all rather cozy and not at all difficult to watch.  It coasts on cheap, soapy (literally!) plot devices and hokey melodrama.  One can argue endlessly about why the supposedly discerning middle class of America has embraced it as much as it has, and it’s an interesting argument to have.  Perhaps we Americans view this sort of thing as an exotic curiosity because we believe we don’t have class systems in the United States.  That willful ignorance might explain why we don’t want to view television shows about ours own difficulties on that front, such as The Wire.  I think it’s much more simple than that, however, and this goes back to the success of The King’s Speech.  These “discerning” viewers want the same exact thing as every drooling punter in the country wants, and that’s easy, escapist entertainment.  For most of the country, it might take the shape of a CGI transforming robot, but for a particular class of viewer, it is a tarted-up period piece.  The aesthetics are polished and “civil”, but the substance is the same. Trash is trash.



3 Responses to “Downton Abbey”

  1. DRush76 Says:

    I liked “DOWNTON ABBEY” a lot. But if there is one aspect of it that really annoyed me was some of the characterizations, especially of the servants. Most of the characters seemed rather one-dimensional at times. The servants were either “noble” or one-note villains like the footman Thomas, or the lady’s maid O’Brien.

    Perhaps you were right. Perhaps the series needed a Robert Altman to give ALL OF THE CHARACTERS some much needed ambiguity.

  2. Kate Says:

    You utterly convinced me, although I could have done without ‘drooling punter.’ I think there is definitely such a thing as pure escapism and have no problem with it. My problem with ‘Downton Abbey’ is that it isn’t content to be mindless fluff. It thinks it has important things to say about a period in history and the people that populated it and yet we’re confronted with such offensive stereotypes and unapologetic classism. We all clearly should be rooting for Thomas, but they make him so loathsome and petty that’s it impossible. Instead we’re meant to cheer on the staff who’s identity and loyalty are focused on the family they serve.

    I thought the second series was actually worse than the first. Thomas is punished for his ambition, and Branson is reduced to a purely romantic figure with no articulated political beliefs.

    • chiaroscurocoalition Says:

      I meant to put “drooling punter” in quotes to set it against the “discerning viewer” – I imagine a certain type of person feels they are watching ‘quality’ television and not something as crass as whatever The Great Unwashed are consuming.

      I have no problem with pure escapism either, and to some extent, I think Downton Abbey works on that level, but you’re right that it thinks it has important things to say, but those important things are so nauseatingly misguided that they can’t be ignored.

      The second series provided a steady stream of laugh-out-loud soap opera clichés that bordered on outright parody, so I kind of enjoyed it a little more in its outright trashiness (even if I suspect that Fellowes never intended it to slowly move into Footballers Wives territory).

      Agreed on Thomas and especially Branson. I think Mary’s fiancee Richard might be a good example of the classist mentality the show struggles with time and time again.

      He’s a ruthless capitalist, and a Hearst-esque media mogul to boot, so it’s no real surprise that he’s depicted as a kind of slithering, manipulative, blackmailing ass. The problem is that he’s also “new money”, and I genuinely can’t tell if the show believes his negative characteristics derive from his business ambition or his ‘low-born’ status. When he’s looking into refurbishing that estate, it feels like there’s a sense of sadness that this old place is being taken over by the culture-less. When he says he can buy all the decorations, and Mary replies that her kind get them passed down, I almost felt like the show preferred the tradition of the latter and that throwing money around ‘in the wrong way’ is just so gauche.

      All that said I enjoy the show for because its kind of silly and kind of fun and I get a kick out of watching the fantasies of an ageing Tory yearning for bygone era that never existed as he would have liked.

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