Art Weekly Review

Weekly Review: Downton Abbey

Ah, good old English period drama. What is it about the follies and foibles of the upper-class Edwardians that we Americans enjoy so much? I just finished watching the first series of the BBC drama Downton Abbey, and now I await a second season to provide some denouement to the various romantic entanglements and class intrigue a’brewing for the fictional Crawley clan and their various servants and hangers-on.

I’m extremely comforted by these BBC productions, be it Foyle’s War or a Dickens adaptation or this little soap operatic confection. And it is a soap opera, with all of the genre’s ups and downs and inexplicable coincidences and scheming villains and breathless maidens. Downton Abbey is astoundingly not-groundbreaking, its characters fitting into their roles with the same rigid convention as certain brands of horror movies or a locked-room mystery: we’ve got the spoiled princess with a heart-of-gold-if-only-she’d-let-herself-fall-in-love, the terrified kitchen girl, the dandy evil valet and the scheming maid, and the Maggie Smith-type dowager, (happily played by Maggie Smith).

Plus the brooding valet with a heart of gold and a secret, the mean-spirited sister with the big nose, the sweet-hearted but sheltered younger sister who practically screams “I’m the new generation full of innocence and hope, about to be disappointed by the horrors of The Great War, which should reach us sometime at the beginning of the next series.” The stiff upper-lip butler who’s more or less a nice old guy, the head maid who gave up on love long ago and is now married to the house, and so on.

The conventions don’t bother me. This Julian Fellowes fellow, the creator and head writer for the program, ably plays with the form, hitting all the proper historical notes and drawing room twists and turns, and only once, near the end of the series did I sniff a little bit of forced “relevance.” The suffragette storyline, with Lady Sybil and her socialist Irishman chauffeur, got a bit clunky. Whenever characters in a period piece remind the audience what an exciting time they live in or change is in the air or whatever, I cringe a little (this plot device was handily skewered in Walk Hard; The Dewey Cox Story).

Downton, like the characters it showcases, is just so darned civilized it’s hard not to find it appealing. And as a man who has always had an aversion to WASPs in real life, I’m continually surprised how often I find myself deeply infatuated with fictional WASPy English maidens, from Lucy Honeychurch and her view of the Arno, to poor little Dorrit, to Foyle’s girl Friday, onward to the non-evil, non-big-nosed Crawley Sisters. There’s some sort of knee-jerk class-consciousness at work here–a love-what-you-hate something or other, like Gatsby or Martin Eden. Hopefully my tale will end happier than theirs.