The first thing to do is to admit that I’m a Downton Abbey fan. In fact, I’ve watched every episode twice. But in my defense, I counterbalance my Downtonviewings with at least one hour spent with my chainsaw for every hour tuned into Masterpiece Classic.
One of the first things one notices, if one is a regular viewer of BBC productions, is that Downton is unusually ideologically and religiously balanced. One of the other effects one notices when one watches a lot of BBC is that one starts referring to oneself in the third rather than the first person. But one digresses.
If the viewer is expecting vintage BBC, Downton is full of surprises. This is not PG Woodhouse, with Jeeves the butler easily thinking rings around his Lord. This is not Brideshead Revisted‘s take on the upper classes, packed with alcoholic elders and simmering, repressed homosexuality amongst their offspring. It is not Noel Coward’s Easy Virtue with easy satiric shots at the hypocrisy which arises amongst the upper classes and their dysfunctional patter of religious and sexual…yes there it is again, repression.
The upper classes at Downton aren’t repressed, they’re restrained. They are not inbred, intellectually backward fools; they are intelligent and thoughtful. As a general rule they treat their servants well, care about their welfare and are generally respected by them in turn. They are, in a word, admirable. And for a period drama, that treatment is, in a word, surprising. And surprise is an essential element of compelling drama.
Films and series about Edwardian upper caste manners which portray the genteels uncharitably are boring, like the steady, unending (until one turns the switch off) hum of a fluorescent lamp.Downton Abbey is what George Gilder would call the entropic disruption to the background noise of revolt against the old world. To portray Lord and Lady Grantham as anything other than drunks, fools, hypocrites or either sexpots or sexual glaciers (or best of all, alternately both) is itself an act of cultural rebellion.
That’s arguably why the left is bashing Downton Abbey. The New York Times Art Beat column has reported that British critics are ‘torching’ Downton Abbey. Apparently Downton Abbey is snobbish, culturally necrophiliac (and if you don’t yet know what that word means, I suggest you leave it that way) and its popularity in the United States is due to the rise of the Tea Party movement and conservative opposition to the death tax. Even worse, creator Julian Fellowes is the holder of a Tory Peerage. Definitely not the right sort of people.