In the latest issue of ‘New Republic’ (Feb. 25), in an interview(p. 34) with Aussie film critic Clive James, the topic of ‘Downton Abbey’ came up and he’s asked why Americans are so into it. First, he dismisses the series as “a dime a dozen” comparing it with previous Master-servant drama series, and ‘Upstairs-Downstairs’. He then adds, referencing Yankees’ addiction:
“It’s a reflection on America. They’d like to have that kind of aristocratic structure. Very soon Julian Fellowes will be in America writing the American equivalent.”
Having watched the first two seasons of the series with wifey, and started the third, I can’t agree. This makes me wonder if Clive James himself has watched it through, as opposed to cherry-picking a couple episodes and forming a presumptive opinion. The thing is, you have to watch it continuously and consecutively, you can’t do a ‘cafeteria-style’ pick and choose then arrive at any valid conclusion.
What we’ve found is the series is absolutely riveting, as much or more so than ‘Babylon 5’ the gripping scifi series produced and written by J. Michael Straczynski, which we’d just finished viewing for the 2nd time before commencing Downton. No, there are no Vorlons, TEEPs or ‘Shadow Wars’ in Downton Abbey, but none are needed. The intrigues with the servants downstairs, and the subtle collisions with their flawed ‘masters’ are every bit as engrossing as when Sheridan and his alliance takes up arms against Earth, and the Vorlons are found to have been the real masters of the Earthers and lesser races in the galaxy. (After the Shadow war).
The ‘Shadow war’ in Downton, meanwhile, is fought at multiple levels, between the footmen, butlers, maids, and cooks and between them and the aristocratic Crawleys. Just as Babylon had it’s n’er do wells, so does Downton, what with the scheming footman (now valet) ‘Thomas’ and Lady Crawley’s servant, O’Brien.
But Downton is not scifi, so why are hard-core science fiction aficionados like wifey and myself so attached to a post-Edwardian period drama set in old England? Maybe even addicted to it? This is hard to say, but perhaps boils down to the spectacle and drama of an isolated and privileged human enclave or mini-society (based at Downton) passing through one of the most turbulent eras of human history, taking in the sinking of the Titanic, the First World War, then the aftermath and the Spanish Flu epidemic (which killed 100 million) and the turbulent 1920s with the rise of fascism and formation of the Irish free state.
But do I think of aping the entitled British aristocrats while watching it? Hell no! How could I? Not with what they have to themselves endure. (And the one scene from season 2 when the chicken falls on the floor while being cooked, then brushed off and served to the Crawleys and friends, is choice.) Then there was O’Brien, believing Lady Crawley (Cora) had it in for her, i.e. to replace her, leaving a bar of soap near her tub and thereby inducing a miscarriage when Cora slips on stepping out of the tub. Terrorist servants anyone?
The image that occurred to me wasn’t lording it over the ‘help’ or grinding them under, but realizing that when a whole class of humans is demeaned and yes, exploited (though the servants believe they’re being cared for) it is likely they will strike back at their oppressors, and yes, become de facto terrorists. After all, the modern phenomenon of terrorism itself is a product of the weak being preyed upon by dominators of more powerful nations, then finally using the only means they know….terror, to strike back.
In Downton, one can even see a budding (IRA) terrorist lurking in the Crawley household in the person of the chauffeur Branson, an Irish rabble rouser and sympathizer of Irish nationalism and ‘hurling off the yoke of English oppression”. The weird thing is that he actually marries one of the Crawley’s daughters (Sybil). She is determined to break away from the entitled clan anyway, and her announcement of her impending choice of fiancée nearly brings the Crawley household to eruption of its own.
So no, the attraction of Downton isn’t viewers envisaging the adoption of an American aristocracy, but rather seeing human struggles played out in a miniature cosmos, in a controlled setting that gradually sees their lives unraveled owing to outside pressures, and class wars.
In this way it bears close similarity to Babylon 5. The latter saw its own servant class fighting to stay alive in "down below" (Brown sector) while the principals in the higher levels engaged in their own conspiracies, bickering, and infighting, in a space station housing 250,000. Downton, meanwhile, is set in the confines of a mammoth home housing 25, masters and servants - all involved in their own conspiracies and struggles to get ahead. Terrorists, conspirators and loyalists stand out in Babylon and also in Downton. Both show that beneath the veneer of superficial physical setting we all face the same fears, basic goals, e.g. of security and a better life for our offspring. The human saga is thus both timeless and unlimited by geography, location.
This is perhaps a lesson that Clive James and other Downton critics need to learn.
Downton has been recognized by Guinness World Records as the most critically acclaimed English-language television series of 2011, and became the first international television series to receive the largest number of nominations in the history of the Primetime Emmy Awards, with twenty-seven in total. It was the most watched television series on both ITV and PBS, and subsequently became the most successful British costume drama series since the 1981 television serial of Brideshead Revisited.By the third year, it had become one of the most widely watched television shows in the world.
People in the U.S. could do lots worse than to invest time in Downton Abbey!