Downton Abbey

Downton AbbeyI almost never use the word “romantic” to describe sexual attraction and relationships. I generally mean it to indicate that something involves heroic archetypes. Sadly, I’m afraid that I got this way reading Ayn Rand. However, it is a far more useful word when used this way. I think it is a mistake to cloak sexual love in airy words.

This comes to mind because I just watched the first season of a very romantic television show: Downton Abbey. My sister Kim has been bugging me to watch it because she likes it and thought it would appeal to me. I checked and noticed that it was created by Julian Fellowes, whose script for Gosford Park is as great as anything ever created for a film. So I got very excited for about a minute, before forgetting that Fellowes had anything to do with the series. But yesterday, I finally sat down and watched the show. And I swear I am not making this up, I though, “Oh! Julian Fellowes create this!” It was only after talking with my sister that I was helped to remember that, in fact, I already knew it was by Fellowes.

The series is very good and I find it deeply affecting. This is mostly because the vast majority of the characters are so noble. And, of course, the characters are rather familiar. Bates seems very much like Parks from Gosford Park, for example. But Fellowes does a good job of mixing up things that it all feels comfortable without being stale. It also shares about the same mix of up and downstairs plot, with the downstairs getting a bit more of the focus.

The first episode works the best. As the series progresses, it gets more and more far fetched. Even apart from this, there is the continuing problem of Thomas and O’Brien, the male and female Iagos[1] of the series. It would be one thing if they, like Iago in Othello, were critical to the plot. But they are nothing but working in the alleys—mostly making trouble for Bates. Add to this that Downton Abbey is a modern drama with otherwise fairly well developed characters, and these two create problems that are much bigger than any of their evil machinations. Namely: they add an unwelcome melodrama to an otherwise fairly sophisticated modern drama.

There is a theme that is everywhere in Fellowes’ work: the responsibility of rank. I am deeply divided on this point. On the one hand it is true: the rich have traditionally had responsibilities that went with their positions. On the other: it is much easier to be rich, and today the rich have no such obligations. So I wonder why we talk about this. The idea that the rich have responsibilities continues on today, of course. But it now manifests itself in the myth of the Job Creator where the rich flatter themselves they are doing good moral work when all they’re really doing is getting richer. But in Downton Abbey we see a very clueless young man learn that his valet needs a sense of self-worth as much as he does. It is a nice sequence.

Overall, Downton Abbey is a very good series. It does have its problems. Sometimes, I think the directors try too hard; there is too much Steadicam work and artistic touches that pull me out of the story. There are character problems, as I’ve noted. And I don’t think that Fellowes does a good enough job as Executive Producer—there is not enough subplot resolution; I feel that the series is nothing but loose ends going forward. But all of this is transcended. I have enjoyed spending time with these characters and I want to spend more time with them.


I really liked this bit of dialog by Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith), “When something bad happens, there’s no point in wishing it had not happened. The only option is to minimize the damage.” Alas.

[1] I am going to try to be a little more understandable. Iago is the villain in Othello. He is the one who, through insinuation and other machinations, convinces Othello that his new bride is unfaithful to him. This causes Othello to kill her and then when he learns the truth to kill himself. Whenever I talk about Iago, what I’m getting at is not so much that he is evil. It is rather that there would be no story without Iago. Truly, Iago is a pathetic plot device. Basically, because he is evil he causes trouble that the plot depends upon. A modern drama generally provides much more motivation for an “evil” character. In Othello, Iago does have some motivation: Othello passed him over for a promotion. Is that enough of a motivation? I don’t think so. Similarly, Thomas doesn’t like Bates because Bates has the job he had temporarily. Is this enough for him to still be plotting years later? Again: I don’t think so.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “Downton Abbey

  1. One of the things I loved — positively loved, with a capital "L" — about "Gosford Park" is it represented the antithesis of all those ’90s Merchant/Ivory productions. You know, the one based on Forster’s love/hate relationship with the English upper class that, in Merchant/Ivory’s hands, became a love/love relationship with the English upper class. James Ivory (of Klamath Falls, OR) thought those nifty mansions just so cool, and Forster’s anger was all but lost in the translation. Swank Americans loved those movies; they attended "Room With A view" and told everyone how much they enjoyed seeing films aimed at the "intellectual" audience, AKA, snobs.

    My late mom was an Anglophile, and I hesitated taking her to "Gosford Park." She loved it; she thought it was everything about the British caste system she’d learned from reading which had never truly been in a movie before.

    I checked out "Downton" because people told me one of the creators had a hand in "Gosford Park," and it struck me as everything I’d loathed those Merchant/Ivory productions for. It worshipped the rich while playing both sides and pretending to care about the servants. (Like how those Merchant/Ivory productions always got Oscar nominations for "Set Direction," even though all they did was rent houses from broke aristocrats without changing a single decorative vase.)

    I understand that "Downton Abbey" has led to an upsurge in employment for British servants, as plutocrats feel more comfortable hiring "dpmestiics" now that a show about benevolent masters is a cross-Atlantic critical hit. And I’m not in the business of insulting anyone for anything they like, so I won’t go to town on "Downton Abbey" — it has good actors and is well-done.

    But I, personally, loathed every second of that fucking show, and I never got past three episodes.

  2. @JFM – I understand what you are saying. But I don’t think that [i]Gosford Park[/i] paints the upper classes any worse than [i]Downton Abbey[/i]. The problem is that it has been TV-fied. All of the characters are more morally pure than they are in the film: toward good or evil. The downstairs cast are on the whole more noble than the upstairs cast. Maggie Smith, for example, plays exactly the same part in both. The Duke in the first episode is shown in a very bad light. The same is true of the oldest and middle daughters. I think the most noble of the upstairs characters is Matthew, who is a lawyer, not a member of the owner class.

    By far my favorite characters are Bates and Anna. And they are the ones who have pulled me through the series. But there are problems. A big one is how the Earl of Grantham treats Bates. In general (and this is shown much better in [i]Gosford Park[/i]), these people care exclusively about appearances. I don’t think he would care what Bates actually did (this happens toward the end of the first season), only how it [i]looked[/i]. So when it turned out that Bates was not guilty of the crime he was found guilty of, I don’t think it would have mattered. It would be unfortunate, of course, but here’s your last pay check. Cheery oh!

    I also think you are painting Merchant-Ivory with far too broad a brush. For example, I think that [i]Remains of the Day[/i] is a wonderful film and it definitely does not present the owner class in a good light. Similarly with [i]A Room With a View[/i], it deals with class consciousness, but most of it is distinctly anti-classist. Also remember that it is about Forster’s least angry book.

    It does bother me that people are looking on [i]Downton Abbey[/i] for any ideas of how society ought to function. Other than highlighting the importance of meaning to everyone, there isn’t much to be gained. But here’s something to think about: our society is now more unequal than it was in England at that time.

  3. Anyone can like anything. I never attack people for their tastes in entertainment. I reserve the right, however, to attack the creators of that entertainment.

    I saw "Remains Of The Day" when it came out (odd choice of words, considering Forster), and I quite liked it. I thought Hopkins and Thompson were excellent in it. Because of that, I saw "Howard’s End," which I loathed. Words cannot express how much I despised that movie. Later on, Merchant/Ivory went from Forster to Henry James (they’d done an abysmal adaptation of "The Bostonians" years earlier) and this is horribly, horribly wrong. Spielberg can fuck up history as much as he likes, but if he dares fuck up quality ancient writing I might have to hire someone to kill him. Forster was good, and I resented him being adapted by Merchant/Ivory, but James? Get your damn hands off my Henry James, you assholes.

    It’s moot, now, since nobody pays attention to Merchant/Ivory anymore (thank the Deity.) If I sound annoyed that critics once lauded them, it’s because I’m annoyed that critics now laud "Downton Abbey" for many of the same reasons (oh so British, oh so refined.) "Gosford Park" might be the absolute triumph of Altman’s career (there are other candidates) and it was all but critically ignored.

    I watched one or two episodes of "Downton" and I thought it well-made, well-written, well-acted. I was captivated by the injured WW1 veteran who couldn’t quite keep up to snuff. And the minute his benevolent master insisted on retaining him, I lost interest. More accurately, I maintained interest, but refused to let my sympathy make me watch more episodes of a show I intensely disliked.

    This may be a mistake — but I’ve had better results from watching things critics deplored than I have from watching things critics worshipped.

    "DA" sucks. "Sherlock" is very fun, though, even if critics like it.

  4. @JMF – That is Bates. However, you’ve got the war wrong. I assume that they were together in the second Boer War. And I agree with you: the Earl of Grantham [i]is[/i] too nice. However, he is even teased about this in the series. But it would have been better if he had been an asshole like in [i]Gosford Park[/i].

    Might I recommend [i]Ballykissangel[/i]? It is more or less [i]Northern Exposure[/i] in Ireland. I am very fond of it, and only part of it has to do with my crush on Dervla Kirwan. No landed gentry in it!

    I’m not a big James fan, but I thought that Merchant-Ivory did a fair job with [i]The Golden Bowl[/i]. I’m more a Thomas Hardy man myself. Jude is my hero. But I’ve never seen a filmed version of this most noble man’s book. And I don’t recall Merchant-Ivory ever attempting any of his work. Not really there kind of thing.

    (I’m not that found of any 19th century American novelists. But then, I’m not that fond of [i]any[/i] 19th century novelist…)

  5. Hardy is awesome, but James is THE all-time, genius novelist. In my head. I understand that other people’s heads prefer other novelists, and perhaps even non-19th-century ones. I find this curious. Their heads, however, are different from mine. This is strange . . .

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