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My Pathetic Weakness for ‘Downton Abbey’

By Michael Kinsley
December 05, 2012 6:30 PM EST
Downton Abbey
Downton Abbey

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.

(Michael Kinsley is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this article: Michael Kinsley at mkinsley@bloomberg.net or @michaelkinsley on Twitter.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Michael Newman at mnewman43@bloomberg.net.

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