In the opinion of one transplanted Brit, it’s a soap opera as inept as any other – and it doesn’t live up to the new U.S. standard
The other night, rather behind the rest of the known planet and probably some parts still unknown – the deepest Amazon, say, where naked tribesmen agonize weekly over poor old Mary and Matthew – I sat down to catch up on my Downton Abbey.
It’s mine by birthright, I suppose, as an Englishman in America, land of the free and home of the binge-watch. Beset with a small child, I had lost much of that free time, and thus fallen far behind – further even than the one-season lag the US must still endure. But perhaps I had enough in me to sync up in time for tonight’s season-four finale on PBS.
Indeed, House of Cards may be America’s weekend-killing addiction of the moment, but Downton, we are told, is worth it.
The Netflix political drama itself derives from a British series, a suave if aging shocker reanimated with American energy, camp and schlock-horror verve. In Downton, we have a living transplant, a stately if seductive fairytale playing out in the years around the first world war – a time of unchecked elite excess featuring frocks and frock coats that are really rather lovely … or at least that’s as far as I got.
This time around, two episodes was quite enough to remind me that America’s love for this rotten show is drawn from the same well as that baseless love so many Americans maintain for the British royal family. You know it’s not for you – in fact, it’s rather silly. And you know it’s not even worth an hour’s attention on a Sunday evening, what with True Detective and soon, once again, Mad Men and Game of Thrones. Given the vigor of your own institutions, you know that, ultimately, it’s beneath you.
But you watch it anyway.
America, you can do better than Downton Abbey.
You can do better TV, obviously. Where to start? At the beginning of the revolution, perhaps, with The Sopranos. Or with The Wire or Breaking Bad. Even with House of Cards, if you must. And, oh, how you must: at least half a million of you watched all 13 hours’ worth of Frank Underwood’s maneuvering last weekend.
I understand the need to binge. Oh, how I do. Before I became a parent, my wife was in New York and I was in London, and so I still had hour upon hour for such things. Back then, my entire social life seemed to revolve around Tony, Paulie, Carmela and Artie Bucco. I’d watch two or three episodes of the Sopranos each night and then call transatlantic to express my exhilaration, fear or both.
Surprisingly, I still got married, and once the resulting small child was safely asleep, we pitched into Mad Men, Orange Is the New Black and all the rest.
In such company, Downton Abbey is all show-off and no substance. It is little more than an enormous confidence trick played by writer Julian Fellowes, ITV and PBS on the world – and especially Americans, those suckers for something to talk about around the water cooler. If it looks good and the write-ups say it’s good, it must be good. Right, America? Mustn’t it even be … grand?
Grand with what? Its ludicrous melodrama? With its stultifying lack of ambition beyond flogging the hoary old country-house potboiler of upstairs, downstairs and out over the hah-hah and back? Or with its script? With that insulting, inept, dashed-off, corned-beef hash of a script it force-feeds its hugely talented, entirely wasted cast?
It’s a grand waste of time, is what it is, enough to leave David Chase, Matthew Weiner and a dozen other talented show-runners weeping into their martinis. Five seasons and Christmas specials – and counting? Big deal with NBC to rehash it all for the Gilded Age? For this?
America, you can do much better than Downton Abbey.
It thinks it’s better than you, too. This is a show about class in the way that Britain is about class, which is the way in which America is supposedly not. And Downton is not just about the British class system. (If you want to read or see something about it, read or see The Shooting Party, quickly.) Downton is a product and expression of the British class system. A highly approving expression, a show of and for the 1%. And 99% of America doesn’t need any more of that.
Downton’s sickly harmony between nobs and proles is a ludicrous facade erected by an avowedly elitist Conservative life peer who is married to the daughter of a real one and once wrote a supposedly satirical novel called Snobs.
Poke this facade, even lightly, and it falls. The Granthams are top dogs. We are constantly told, by every character from Daisy the sweetly dim kitchen maid to the loveable old lord, that “times are changing”. Cosmetic codswallop, I tell you. In Fellowes’ world, which is the world of Britain’s Conservative-led government, the times are not changing – and have not changed. Let the nobles lead, indeed.
Yet still the numberless hordes allow themselves to be cowed and babied, every Sunday night for five seasons and counting. And all while True Detective is on. It’s extraordinary.
It’s also extraordinary that I even made it through the season and a half that I did. I suppose it was because Downton, despite itself, kept offering consolations. However many times Fellowes allowed Anna the maid to comfort Cora or had Carson the butler offer lonely-hearts advice to Mary, there was always something to lull – or gull – me right back. A nicely delivered line here; a plausibly nasty edge to Thomas there. Or, tellingly enough for an angry but class-bound Brit, an opportunity to tell anyone and everyone I know that, back when I was in London, I used to work with the girl who became Lady Edith.
But this time, in America, re-engaging, I was brought up short. What did it was this: the realization that in the world of Downton Abbey everyone, but everyone, knows their place. The lords, the servants. Branson the chauffeur, who being both Irish and a bit of a lefty should have known his from the start, despite his wholly unlikely success in marrying in. Even, I suspect, everyone behind the camera, down to whatever is the crew equivalent of the girl who lights the fires. Even the audience.
Obviously, this worldwide love for the Granthams, as much as that for the cursed Windsors, springs from all humanity’s love of a good soap opera. That I get. In that case, the best that can be said for the soap that is Downton Abbey is, well, at least the sets don’t wobble.
But those sets being the unyielding walls of a genuine stately home, Highclere Castle (which could never be in Yorkshire, let me tell you), built with the blood and sweat of others for the continuing profit of a gang of genuine aristocrats, the whole thing should make anyone remotely normal feel distinctly, queasily ill.
America, you can do so much better.
Or if you really think you can’t, there’s always Sherlock, I suppose.
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