Thanks to Netflix, I had the first two seasons of the show at my disposal, and I burned through them in just a few days. I have to say I am addicted to this show. Like any addiction, though, there are side effects. One such side effect is the inability to meet reading and writing goals that I have set for myself. Another such is that I have sunk back into British-isms. Allow me to speculate about the reasons that people are drawn to Downton Abbey: harkening back to a simpler time, a dose of the aristocracy that we love to read and watch but do not want to live with, the interesting upstairs/downstairs dynamic, and the change from an aristocratic system, to a democratic system.
Nineteen-twelve isn’t all distant. When Downton Abbey started four years ago, 1912 wasn’t even a century in the past. So much has changed in those hundred years that it feels as though several centuries have passed. In the first few episodes new fangled inventions like cars, electricity and the telephone are introduced, with varying degrees of acceptance and amusement (The Dowager Countess’s comments about electricity: “I couldn’t have electricity in the house, I wouldn’t sleep a wink. All those vapors floating about.”).
While we do have our dynamics of the upper and lower classes represented in the Crawleys and their servants, the biggest storylines (apart from my beloved Bates) follow the upstairs family. It is a British show, of course, and a period drama, but the draw today is the glimpse of the aristocracy. I think the same thing draws us to this show as draws so many people to following the current British royal family. The most recent wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton drew billions of viewers. And if I hear the phrase ‘royal baby’ one more time I might have to hurt someone. While rants about ‘royal watching’ are for another post, the snapshot of royalty on a smaller scale is present here. When we think of the aristocracy, fairy tales come to mind along with all of their happily ever after nonsense. And I think that, in the first two seasons at least, Downton Abbey suffered from living too much in the fairy tale world, along with evil kings and queens to boot (Barrow, O’Brien).
For all of its interest, Downton is not perfect. The first two seasons, as mentioned above, were very much about all of the happy times, and simply resolved story lines. Sybil elopes with the chauffeur? Cue outraged father who comes around in the end? Bates is disabled and can’t do the work? He must leave, but Lord Grantham changes his mind in the end? The heirs to the title die on the Titanic, causing trouble with the entail? Let’s bring a cousin, Matthew, who falls for Mary, and she him, without too much fuss. (Yes, I am glossing over Mr. Pamuk’s role in changing Mary). I have not read many, or really any, reviews of the show so perhaps this has already been said. Perhaps it was such comments that lead to season three, which I found dead depressing. With Sybil’s death, Matthew’s death, the long story of Bates’s imprisonment, there wasn’t much cheer in the show. It was like they tried to balance all of the happiness with a little more darkness and swung the pendulum too far the other way.
Having said all of this, I suppose that thematically, the choices of the show make sense. We start off in a time just before the first world war, when there weren’t many cares. After going through that first war, people were changed and we start to see the shift in society. We start to see more cynicism, and violence. We see the downfall of the aristocracy here, all of which are dark things. Nowhere is the shift from nobility to common folk better represented than in the two doctor’s argument over whether Sybil is suffering from eclampsia, and Cora’s reaction thereafter about how Robert put his faith in someone with a title.
All in all a good show, but suffers the pitfalls of too much self-correction. Soon as I’m done writing this, however, I will go to watch more.