Ten Miles Square


December 06, 2012 11:49 AM My Pathetic Weakness for ‘Downton Abbey’

By Michael Kinsley

As an Anglophile, I’m as pathetic as the next chap.

My idea of a good time is to be in London, drinking at lunch with some well-lubricated British journalist friends, stumbling out when it’s already getting dark, tea at a fancy hotel, and then theatre in the evening. Then repeat.

And, yes, when I’m not in London (that is, almost all the time) I rarely miss an episode of “Downton Abbey.” But at least I have the decency to be ashamed about it.

The shameless popularity of this blue-blood soap opera, which starts its third season in the U.S. next month, is astonishing. We just had an election in which European-style social class divisions — possibly for the first time — were the predominant theme, and the working-class side of the argument won. That is social class, not wealth.

“Downton Abbey” gets this right: For its characters, having too much money — or, worse, making too much money — is vulgar. True aristocrats are in debt. If Mitt Romney had just a bit more of the common touch, his fortune wouldn’t have hurt him. As it was, the notion that he didn’t really give a damn about people did him in.

But here’s the puzzle: Wouldn’t you guess that the PBS audience went for President Barack Obama in a big way? Yet it goes just as big for a costume drama in which it is top and bottom against the middle, and (spoiler alert!) the middle loses. “Downton Abbey” always sides with the toffs.

Not Art

Ever since “Upstairs, Downstairs,” which aired in the mid- 1970s, the traumas of the British upper class have been PBS’s bread and butter. “Brideshead Revisited,” the almost excessively scrupulous 250-part adaptation of the Evelyn Waugh novel that aired in the 1980s, also sided with the toffs. Waugh, though middle-class himself, was a legendary snob. In “Brideshead” there was no pretense of concern for the servants. (It might as well have been called “Upstairs, Further Upstairs.”)

Then, too, “Brideshead Revisited” is great art (certainly the book, and I’d say the TV series as well), and great art gets to play by its own rules. “Downton Abbey” — not based on a literary classic but written to order by its executive producer, British ITV’s Julian Fellowes — gets no such dispensation.

Here is a typical subplot. In an echo of “Pride and Prejudice,” a family full of daughters but no sons is due to lose its fortune to a distant relative (a lawyer this time, rather than a minister) when the patriarch dies, due to the bizarre and complicated British rules of inheritance.

Unlike Jane Austen’s Mr. Collins, Mr. Crawley is charming and handsome. Nevertheless he is middle class, and has no time for aristocratic nonsense. Or so he thinks. Then he discovers that he has hurt the feelings of his valet by insisting on choosing his own cuff links. A stern, self-righteous lecture from the head of household teaches him — and us — that the employment of maids, footmen, valets and so on creates jobs, and so the lawyer submits to the indignity of being served hand-and- foot.

“Downton Abbey’s” plotting in general is amazingly lazy, backing out of every interesting situation it creates. A problem will arise that threatens the tranquility and order of the household. It hovers in the air briefly then dissipates.

For example, a male character comes back from the Great War paralyzed from the waist down (and you know what that means). Will his fiancee lose interest in marrying him? Well, just as we’re all sweaty with nervousness over that question, it turns out that he’s not permanently paralyzed after all. The doctor made a misdiagnosis! All is fine in love and war. Problem resolved. Next?

Not Believable

So why is Carson the incredibly upright butler stealing potatoes? Carson explains it all to the assembled company in a touching speech reminiscent of the scene in “Tootsie” in which Dustin Hoffman unravels the plot of the soap-opera-within-a- movie. Except that this one, within the context of the drama, is supposed to be true.

Are you ready? (Spoiler alert.) Well, wouldn’t you know: (Answer: No. How could you possibly know?) Carson — now a dour enforcer of aristocratic tradition — in a former life had been a Vaudeville song-and-dance man. Can you believe it? (Answer: No.) When his former dance partner showed up to blackmail him over this disgrace in his past, Carson had stashed the fellow in one of the estate outbuildings while he contemplated his next move.

This situation is rife with fairly obvious possibilities of murder and mayhem, which any red-blooded U.S. TV series would have found impossible to resist. But in “Downton Abbey,” the butler didn’t do it, and nor did anyone else.

Carson confesses abjectly about the potatoes and tenders his resignation, which is refused. His lordship gives the intruder 20 pounds and sends him on his way. And so we move on to the next crisis.

I almost stopped watching when they wanted me to care who would win the village orchid contest. But I didn’t stop, even when Maggie Smith went into her sweet-and-sour dowager routine for the umpteenth time. The damned thing is: I love that routine. Pathetic, I agree.

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  • Kurt Cooper on December 06, 2012 12:19 PM:

    Gotta love those "party on" Edwardians. I love PBS for bringing us a vision of an era which was, after all, the last great world economy, and its fashions and fads. Yes the über rich of the day did contribute to help the poor, as the RW wants it to do here in lieu of gov support, but the help always came w a price. And a dose of condension.

  • Richard Hershberger on December 06, 2012 4:03 PM:

    '“Downton Abbey’s” plotting in general is amazingly lazy'

    Testify, brother! It is not only lazy, it is incredibly cheesy. Recall that Upstairs Downstairs' use of the Titanic for plot purposes was far from a high point. Downton Abbey starts the first episode with the Titanic, in no better a manner than did Upstairs Downstairs. The plotting generally is on the daytime soap opera level.

    So why do we PBS-watching middle-brow Kenyan-Muslim-voting types love it? (And I do!) We are always a sucker for a British accent, and gosh the acting is good, even if the material isn't. Making it a historical costume drama also gives it a vaguely educational cachet. Toss in excellent production values (much better than Upstairs Downstairs) and we can determinedly overlook the plotting.

  • Steve P on December 08, 2012 11:07 AM:

    Yes, it's a fantasy, but what about our own? "The Sopranos" was an even bigger fantasy about a world whose denizens are overwhelmingly in the Eddie Coyle strata instead of upscale suburbanites who got to Paris on shopping trips, and talk to an OC maven sometime about the puissance of the Jersey mob--they're basically toll collectors between NY and PA. "Deadwood" was a show set in South Dakota without Indians--ever been there? Our fantasies are overwhelmingly fantasies of power and sex, by and for people who seem to think they are deprived of both.

    Downton is a fantasy of decency. The Earl is schooled in it every few episodes by his valet, whose regained nobility after a abyss of despair and drink is almost masochistic. Asked if he is happy, Robert replies that he has no right to be unhappy--turning his back on an offer of affection from a housemaid. Has anyone on "Grey's Anatomy" ever turned down an offer of sex from anyone?

    Cool stuff from the past does indeed matter. Look at the AC Matthew drives in the season opener; Dan Stevens said he had to pried away from it. Of course it's deceptive; Highclere Abbey was in fact a mere 80 years old in 1920, quite nouveau compared to the Dowager's Wren house. (I live in a suburban house that was built in 1951, not so long ago.) Even more nouveau: that sad/funny Downton line Ralph Lauren is pushing.

    And if it's melodrama, a lot of life is, and it's a recognizable part. Take a look at Robertson Davies' "The Mirror Of Nature" sometime; it's one of those things, like religion or philosophy, that helps us make sense of life--except it comes with a chocolate coating.

    And yes, the acting is brilliant; sometimes eerily so:


  • boatboy_srq on December 09, 2012 8:57 AM:

    Ditto Richard Hershberger and Steve P.

    Fellowes is a terrible writer. One look at "Gosford Park" should be enough to tell anyone that: brilliant cast, interesting plot - but characters so far out of the sphere they might as well have forklifted the entire arrangement from the Hamptons. Expecting him to produce something in Downton Abbey that was any better is a bit beyond reason. One doesn't watch Downton Abbey for the plot, but rather the opportunity to watch the best and brightest from Pinewood, Stratford and the West End chew the accurate-to-a-fault scenery.

    Enjoy your watching. Wake me when Kingsley Amis starts doing the scriptwriting.

  • Decatur Dem on December 09, 2012 6:34 PM:

    Watched one episode of Downton. Mad Men, Sopranos, Deadwood: none, none, none. This 66 yr-old white guy is still mourning the loss of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

  • buddy66 on December 11, 2012 4:49 PM:

    This 82-year-old white guy, descended from the Boleyns (Bullen), says it's all confounding claptrap. As for the Edwardians: Never have so few done so little with so very little.