Among the servants and the aristocrats there is thwarted romance, betrayal, cunning, generosity, and gentility. The viewer sympathizes completely with the servant who longs for a better life and takes up a correspondence course in typing so that she can earn a better living and escape the grinding work and foreshortened possibilities of a parlor maid. And the viewer’s compassion is aroused even for one of the least admirable servants (a thief himself, he had schemed to frame another) when he is sent to the trenches in World War I. Shaking with fear, he reaches a hand above the trench holding a lighter. When an obliging German shoots through his hand, he manages an escape from the torment of trench warfare.
It’s not an honorable escape — but that’s one of the things that elevates Downton Abbey above the usual TV fare. Set in an era when honor was considered as essential as oxygen, the series always sets a moral frame for the characters’ behavior.
Downton Abbey doesn’t succumb to the modern prejudice of portraying all aristocrats as morons or monsters, the better to grind the ax about the evils of the old class system. The earl is an honorable man who tries to live up to the code of the gentleman. His mother is spoiled and willful but basically decent.
There isn’t any need to reach for the smelling salts because Downton Abbey is a hit. We Americans have not fallen into a swoon for dead British aristocrats. We don’t need lectures on the injustice of the class system. We’ve never had one. When we meet the Queen, we shake hands (1776 and all that). We’re simply enjoying a good yarn, beautifully executed. Come down off your barricade Mr. Schama.