The Curious Appeal of “Downton Abbey”

For my regular readers who have not seen the Season Two finale of “Downton Abbey” yet, do not worry: I will not be providing any spoilers in the following blog post. Nor am I going to expound upon why I find it ridiculous, which I did at the conclusion of Season One, as you can read here.   Instead, recognizing that the show seems to have struck a chord with many people, and is being referenced in everything from Ralph Lauren’s Fall/Winter 2012 collection which just walked the runway last week, to the popularity of YouTube tribute videos such as [please forgive the vulgarity] “Sh*t the Dowager Countess Says“, I want to ask the question: why is this decidedly old-fashioned type of British melodrama attracting such a significant audience here in America?

One school of thought can best be encapsulated in a conversation I had yesterday afternoon with an elderly gentleman in my neighborhood with whom I have had a nodding acquaintance for many years.  A New Englander by birth and education, he holds an Ivy League doctorate in cultural anthropology, speaks several difficult languages fluently, and has lived all over the world.  We discussed the convoluted plot lines and numerous anachronisms of the television series, and yet both wondered aloud at the fact that two reasonably educated fellows such as ourselves were still watching the thing, for some inexplicable reason.  “For me,” my learned if lefty friend concluded,”the truth is that ‘Downton Abbey’ is a lot like President Obama.  It’s bad, and I don’t believe it, but there’s no appealing alternative.”

While that might explain the attraction for some people, it certainly does not speak to everyone’s interest.  Since so much of popular dramatic evening television in this country at the present time is the worship of hyper-sexualized violence, “Downton Abbey” is something else entirely.  It is probably a relief for many to be able to watch a program that looks good and, while dealing with adult themes, exhibits at least some restraint in its portrayal of sex and violence, compared to other television shows which have captured the popular imagination of late.

Another possibility is the escapism of a more glamorous time, which becomes particularly engaging when economic and political times are hard.  The appeal of shows like “Pan-Am” or “Mad Men” in this country, for example, is in part due to a reflection back on when things seemed to be a bit more elegant and attractive than they are now.  It would be hard to imagine people becoming engaged in, for example, a soap opera set in the Dust Bowl during the Depression, though stranger things have happened.

However another explanation is something I raised at brunch after Sunday mass, in the company of a largish number of friends of both sexes: Could it be that “Downton Abbey” is the new “Desperate Housewives”? When the latter show premiered, I found it watchable because it was so surreal, and wicked in its send-up of soap opera clichés.  I actually enjoyed the first few episodes quite a bit, until Oprah Winfrey picked up on the show and decided to give it her imprimatur; that, in turn, made it too popular and I stopped watching it.  However it is interesting that both series share a certain kind of fantastical unbelievability rooted in realism: “Desperate Housewives” was set in contemporary American suburbia, of course, and “Downton Abbey” in Edwardian English manor life, and yet neither of their universes seems entirely plausible, no matter how much attention to detail is put in by the filmmakers.

Like “Desperate Housewives”, the female characters on “Downton Abbey” are all beautiful, highly complex women from different socio-economic classes, who often find themselves struggling to assert ideas of their own purpose in life, or to follow their dreams of forbidden romance.  There are in both series the same cartoon-like characters who are marked out as black-and-white evil, without nuance; they occasionally do a good turn for someone else, but inevitably they do not learn from their experiences, and go back to being villains.  And just like on “Desperate Housewives”, the campy-slapstick factors in “Downton Abbey” are sometimes rather high, despite the serious tones and the furrowing of brows.

That being said, I did wonder aloud in conversation with the ladies at the table whether “Downton Abbey” is what the old Hollywood movie moguls used to call a “women’s picture”.  While the term would be viewed in some quarters as a misogynistic categorization today, it really is no different from the term “chick flick”, though of course cultural morays have changed rather dramatically in the transition.  A film or a novel where the men are not really particularly complicated characters, but the women all go through very complicated storyline arcs, will naturally appeal more to women than to men, even if men can enjoy them.  Indeed, the last British television series to make a big splash on these shores, “Cranford”, was an almost stereotypical “women’s picture”, based on novels that, with apologies to Mrs. Gaskell, one might consider something like Victorian “chick lit” –  or perhaps more accurately, Victorian “granny lit”.

We shall have to wait another year or so to see what happens next with the Crawley family and their retainers.  No doubt the choice of Shirley MacLaine to play the American grandmother to Lady Mary and her sisters is specifically intended to draw in an even larger American audience, in order to see her go toe-to-toe with Dame Maggie Smith in some Dynasty-style geriatric catfighting.    However, I also have had a suspicion from Season One onward that Lady Cora and her side of the family are going to turn out to be Jewish, or at least partially Jewish, based on some things Lady Cora has mentioned in passing during the course of the series.  This would seem to be further borne out by the announcement that Ms. MacLaine’s character for “Downton Abbey” is to be named Martha Levinson.  Having this in the mix it will allow the filmmakers to explore the themes of antisemitism that in part led to the development of European fascism during the 1920’s and 30’s.

As indicated briefly above, there are many possible theories as to why “Downton Abbey” has attracted such a significant audience in this country.  They may all be valid, or none of them may be; the reader is of course free to agree or disagree with them.  However regardless of why other people watch it, or indeed my regular mockery of it on social media and in conversation with others, I must admit that I will be looking forward to seeing what comes next.

Scene from last evening’s Season Two Finale of “Downton Abbey”

2 thoughts on “The Curious Appeal of “Downton Abbey”

  1. I think it’s pretty safe to assume that people are watching other shows on TV as the whole thing hasn’t folded yet. Downton Abbey just happens to be one of the few shows that practicing Catholics, for one example, can admit in public to watching. Which, along with what you’ve written, might be a good thing if word of mouth is still considered an effective form of publicity in Hollywood.


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