The Corner

On Downton Abbey (Spoilers)

Okay since I already outed myself as a weak-kneed animal lover let me go completely over the top and admit I watch Downton Abbey. I was a late convert — my wife and I basically caught the bug while travelling last summer. As an Anglophile I think it’s great fun (with the obvious caveat that it, like most such period pieces, could use more zombies).

I do wonder what the left, particularly the British left, thinks of the show. For starters, one of the chief villains is gay. But more interesting, I think, is the way it treats wealth and class. For the most part the working class types — i.e. the servants — are basically very happy to live up to the standards and expectations of the wealthy aristocrats upstairs. Meanwhile the wealthy aristocrats are a really decent and nice bunch of people. Sure, they have their foibles. But the whole point of the show is to sympathize with the landed gentry. 

Indeed, the news that Downton Abbey may be sold and broken up is clearly intended to produce gasps of fear and existential panic among the show’s fans, even though the proper lefty response should be cheers. “Good! Give the land back to the people!” Also, we’re all supposed to despair of Matthew Crawley’s ridiculous high-mindedness in his apparent refusal to spend his new found inheritance on saving the estate. Meanwhile, the one fairly radical lefty in the show — the Irish chap — was admittedly spruced up for the season premier, but for the most part he remains something of a bore. The character certainly isn’t written heroically and, unless you were already deeply sympathetic to his causes already, he’s hard to agree with even when he may be right.  I doubt one viewer in a thousand has been persuaded by any of his little speeches and tirades.

A few other points on the premiere. First and foremost, I think the Shirley MacLaine character was awful. She was awful in conception and awful in execution. Her lines weren’t clever or well delivered. She was so two dimensional she felt almost allegorical, like an updated character out of Pilgrim’s Progress. How many times did she insist that change is good? I understand that Americans are less bound-up in tradition than the Brits, but MacLaine’s leadenly didactic character didn’t feel like a real person at all.  She suffers particularly in comparison to Maggie Smith’s dowager countess, a brilliantly written and acted character who manages to avoid self-parody while still delivering the show’s most outrageously funny lines. 

More broadly, I thought the editing of the whole thing was bizarre. They cut away from the wedding wildly early, even though the last two seasons have been building up to it. They even foreshadowed the wedding in the kitchen, making it seem like we’d see the big party. I can imagine how many Downtown Abbey partiers threw their popcorn in the air screaming when the wedding scene ended so abruptly. Indeed, the whole show felt bizarrely cut up, like they had to put it together at the last minute. 

Okay, now I shall prepare myself for your scorn. 

Update! Mea culpa, I completely forgot to mention Matthew’s incredibly annoying lefty mom. Yet another reformer (who’s right on some things, we should admit) that the audience is expected to basically dislike. 


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