In spite of its success, Downton Abbey has been maligned by critics on both sides of the Atlantic this year. Some of it is just criticism -- Season 2 had an awful number of poorly done plots. But much of it has been directed at this firestorm of controversy asking -- why do we love such a classist show? Isn’t it a bad thing, to be nostalgic about it? And aren’t we bad for liking it?
I can only speak from personal experience, but I will say that I did not decide to start watching the show, or start loving it, because it was glamorous. Glamor is all very shiny, but it has to have a heart and soul. And however much the cares of the characters at Downton can sometimes feel trivial, they represent something deeper that we all care about. Sure, to change clothes three times a day, to wear a tux or a custom-made dress to dinner every day seems superflous. But don’t we spend a lot of time buying our clothes or perfecting our appearances? Perhaps the Earl and Lady Grantham’s reaction into losing their half their spacious home to soldiers seems overblown -- but don’t we all value our personal space? For the Grantham ladies, fighting the entail is not trivial, it’s fighting an unjust law that regulates their future.
To answer the first question, we love it because it is, for the most part, a really good story. The cast is large, and we manage to care about them each in our own way -- to hope for Gwen’s employment, to cheer on Anna and Bates, to boo Richard Carlisle, to wish for Matthew to stop tormenting himself, to hope for Daisy’s independence, to shake our fists at Thomas’ schemes, to laugh at the Dowager Countesses’ quips.
If the opening sequence features a smooth-running house being spotlessly cleaned by an army of happy servants, the show itself is different. We see, first-hand, that the servants downstairs aren’t always happy nor perfect. Thomas and O’Brien scheme, Mrs. Pattmore goes blind, Gwen plans to get out, Ethel flirts with soldiers, Jane kisses the earl, and Bates gets arrested for murder. Sure, Mr. Carson’s idea that the honor of Downton requires everything to be held to the highest minute standard can seem obsessive, but that same obsessiveness is what makes him good at his job, and what allowed him to rise, presumably, from a footman.
And if it is a little nostalgic? Any show set in the past which does not damn the period, in a way, encourages a fond remembrance of it. The fact is, nostalgia is in all our souls. Things were so much simpler back then, is a thought that, however untrue, has crossed all of our minds at some point. And if we can’t deny that we are nostalgic, what’s wrong with enjoying it?
Though a period expert could spend all day picking out the historical inaccuracies (whether objects, actions, or phrases like “step on it”), that seems to me a waste of time. Even as a history major, I prefer to enjoy the show for what it is. For there are things that it does do extremely well. The limited position that women hold, for instance. The naievete leading up to the Great War, and the horror of it. The divide between the upper class, and everyone else. The tenacity and precarious nature of the self-made man. And yet, the equally precarious titled wealthy class, whose old life has been slowly stripped away, and will continue to be in the next season, and next few decades. That is what I’m looking forward to seeing.
That, and the dresses. Or as a friend calls them, the ultimate in garb porn.