The Sunday nights of my childhood, at least four years of it, were spent sitting hard against the footboard of my parents’ bed watching “Upstairs, Downstairs” on Masterpiece Theater. For a child who spent summers in England, read Burnett, Enright and Nesbit, and answered the phone “Graham, residence, Ann speaking,” it was a natural fit. The family at 165 Eaton Place was real to me, and I rejoiced and suffered through war, scandal, and love affairs thwarted and successful.
When I heard the buzz about “Downton Abbey,” I was skeptical. It is often compared to “Upstairs, Downstairs,” and although I heard that the costumes, acting and scenery were wonderful, I also heard it described as a soap opera. There is also something in me that resists liking anything that everybody likes; I am a unique and special snowflake with sensibilities so highly polished that I cannot choose my entertainment based on group-think. In the spirit of misguided loyalty, I avoided the first season of Downton. I smiled politely at those who rhapsodized, but remained smug in the certainty that it was a false heir to both the Upstairs and the Downstairs of my heart.
Three weeks ago I was invited to a party at which all assembled would consume tea and scones whilst watching the final episode of Downton’s second season. Some of my favorite ladies were going to attend, and they seemed so surprised that I wasn’t already a fan, that I succumbed, falling gracefully into a swoon of acquiescence made easy by the availability of Season One on Netflix. I asked Rob to watch with me, telling him that many of my friends with notably macho husbands had posted on Facebook that their spouses had become totally hooked on the drama. We queued the episodes up, assumed our television watching positions and became addicts. We raced through Season One in a weekend, and then moved on to Season Two (available through the PBS website), reaching the penultimate episode the day before the Finale Party. It is a soap opera, but it's a very, very good one.
For starters, “Downton Abbey” is astonishingly lovely to look at. The “Abbey,” actually Highclere Castle in Hampshire, is filmed with such love and respect for every hallway, column and fringed lamp that it becomes a character in and of itself. The costumes are meticulously correct, from the stout shoes and starched aprons of Daisy the “dog’s body” to the sumptuous beadwork on Lady Mary’s evening gowns. The acting is also as good as it gets, with Dame Maggie Smith playing the role of Dowager so acerbically that it seems her conversational victims should wither on the hand-woven Oriental rugs.
The historical perspective is also fascinating. The sinking of the Titanic, the brewing “troubles” on the Continent and the impact of World War One and its aftermath are all made human, as is a class system hard for modern Americans to imagine. It was, among other things, a brutally hard thing to be a woman of any class in early 20th Century England. Even if you were born into a privileged family it was necessary to make the right kind of marriage, and property was often entailed in such a way that it could be inherited only by a male relative, no matter how distant.
There are things I don’t love about Downton, mostly having to do with character and plotline. It is a soap opera, and there are plot twists that cause reflexive eye-rolling. (I am hoping that if you haven’t watched Downton, you will, so I will refrain from giving examples; suffice it to say that after one episode my brother wrote on Facebook that Downton had “jumped the shark.” I’m pretty sure, however, that he was back the following week to watch the finale). There are also characters that, for just a bit too long, appear to be predictably and unrealistically evil. They are delicious in their wickedness, and they do, eventually blossom into multi-dimensional creatures, but there was a period during which I found them difficult to “buy” as fully realized humans. Finally, there is one character whose behavior did not ring true to me, and whose stubbornness chafed so much that I was unhappy to see her appear in the frame, but (and this is a big “but”) there is often a character in a good movie or novel who makes no sense to me. There are often such characters in my actual life. It’s entirely possible that this person who made me long to shake her is precisely the stuff of which good drama is made – the demanding nuts to break up the pliant smoothness of a brownie.
What I love most of all about “Downton Abbey” is the very restraint, even repression of all things emotional and personal. It is, for me, the antidote to a world of Snookis, Kardashians, Real Housewives, and all of the other noise, vulgarity, and TMI that swirls through our atmosphere on a daily basis. I see, at The Abbey, the subtle social signals of Austen, and the well-checked sexual impulses of Wharton. I see a world in which public opinion is valued too highly for our standards, but in which there is a thoroughly refreshing value placed on being a real “gentleman” or “lady,” walking the walk of noblesse oblige even when it is not aligned with one’s personal desires and impulses. I would not, for one minute want to live in a society in which I could neither vote nor speak my mind in public, with class lines impossible to cross or erase. I would, however, be thrilled to see any sign that circumspection and propriety held as much value as impulsiveness and self-satisfaction.
“Downton Abbey” is not the Second Coming, and it is not (as suggested by The Onion) the equivalent of reading actual books. It is television, it is a soap opera, and watching it will not make you a better person. It might, however, make you a happier person, and (unless you harbor a dark secret which means that you deserve no happiness and must, instead, suffer silently in the hopes that you can grow happy with your tragic lot in life) you deserve a little happiness.