Downton Abbey addiction has arrived here, if a bit belatedly.  I missed the first season since I normally never watch television and hadn’t gotten the word of its pleasures.  But with the help of my TV/DVD competent granddaughter I am now up to speed. What a treat! It’s equal to eating mountains of almond joys and riding a sugar high over the rainbow.  

How much fun to view the scenery, the houses, the clothes, the jewels, the furnishings, the dinners and formal goings on! The precise diction and elegant manners of the upstairs set remind us what articulate speech sounds like, with its range of subtle maneuver and veiled insult.  Of course the plot and characterizations are completely familiar but as in all soap operas, this lack of intellectual challenge is part of the appeal. Familiarity breeds affection and comforting identification. Oh Dame Maggie Smith, we could watch you forever.  Only Dame Judi Dench is your equal.

Yet before last Sunday’s episode I met a dissenter dinner guest.  A bright high school senior observed that she finds the episodes boring and the characters unengaging.  Was this a generational difference? Or perhaps the addictive appeal of the Upstairs Downstairs genre is engendered by reading hundreds of 19th century English novels during your formative years. The characters’ dilemmas became your own, you identified with aristocrats, middle class strivers, yeomen farmers, servants, orphans and the destitute.  In a word, we compulsive readers became saturated with class consciousness and the way a class system operates.    

America too produced its classic novels depicting its own class distinctions and confrontations. Fiction depicted real life hierarchies operating well into the 20th century.  My southern military family inculcated us with a curious class mix of yeoman populism and elite values. You must uphold your family’s good name, behave with honor, display charm and wit, but without pretension. Be a gentleman like our idol, Robert E. Lee.  Display noblesse oblige to those “beneath” you while acknowledging that rank has its privileges or RHIP.

This indoctrination in subtle class snobbishness took years to get over.  Ivy League academic circles reinforces it. But once your eyes are fully opened you see the hidden power of class: how it perpetuates privilege while inflicting psychic wounds and cultural deprivation.  Can it be that a new generation like my young friend has managed to say good bye to all that?   

Unfortunately, as the economic plight of the 99% becomes clearer, the problems of class inequality will dominate the country’s agenda.  It could be curtains for class- drenched entertainments that require no serious analysis.  In the meantime, with nothing at stake, ‘viewers like us’ can succumb to the series’ charm.  Or have I got this Downton Abbey thing all wrong?

Sidney Callahan

 

Comments

Liam Richardson | 2/11/2012 - 7:19pm
Gerelyn

I didn't say Lady Mary was like Edith Wharton. What I meant is that Fellowe's characterization of Lady Mary was out of the Wharton tradition (in the generic sense of upper crust women's whose attempts to test the corsets of their station ends up producing Drama (sometimes Tragedy)); Lady Mary's predicament is not Austen, Dickens, Trollope, Bovary, James, Tolstoy, et cet - it's just a kin to the Wharton family of predicaments.  The Turkish diplomat twist was, however, too exotic and lurid for Wharton, which is kinda shown by the fact of how implausible it was as a dramatic development (Richard Carlisle is more plausible).

The one good thing in the brief revival of Upstairs Downstairs was Eileen Atkins (who co-originated the original series with Jean Marsh but was not cast in it). Eileen Atkins had it all over Maggie Smith in the battle of the dowagers. And that is saying something.
 
Gerelyn Hollingsworth | 2/10/2012 - 9:46pm
Julian Fellowes channels Edith Wharton reasonably well in his development of the Lady Mary character, other than the melodramatic Turkish diplomat tangent.

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Edith Wharton was nothing like Lady Mary.  See, e.g., ''A Rooting Interest'', by Jonathan Franzen in the current New Yorker.

http://archives.newyorker.com/default.aspx?i=2012-02-13#folio=060

(Subscribers only.)

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 Oh Dame Maggie Smith, we could watch you forever.  Only Dame Judi Dench is your equal.

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Disagree.  Maggie has no equal.
Liam Richardson | 2/10/2012 - 6:49pm
DA is very derivative. It is, however, blessed with two very fine actors in roles that suit them without being caricactures: namely, Elizabeth McGovern (now one of America's finest character actresses) as Countess Grantham and Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary. Julian Fellowes channels Edith Wharton reasonably well in his development of the Lady Mary character, other than the melodramatic Turkish diplomat tangent.

Pace the encomiums to Maggie Smith, she is miscast by being typecast here: in the sense that her role is written as a pastiche of her prior roles. The role would have been better served (at least more interesting) by, say, Eileen Atkins. Gemma Jones or Phyllida Law (not Judi Dench), to keep this list to names familiar to American viewers. 

Upstairs Downstairs was the superior goods. DA is worth seeing (since there is such a wasteland out there), but it is merely dressy junk food.

 
Anne Chapman | 2/10/2012 - 5:52pm
I too am a Downton Abbey addict (and so is my husband!).  Not surprising since we were Upstairs, Downstairs addicts long ago.  Your speculation about the reaction of your young guest to the series may be correct - not so much a generation gap, as it is a gap between adolescense and adulthood.  I remember being bored, bored, bored by Jane Austen's novels - required high school reading. A decade or so later, in my 20s, I reread them - and I ''got'' them.  The nuances, the humor, an appreciation for the fascinating glimpses into another time and culture, told by a master storyteller and sage observer of her society, had escaped me when I was younger.

Perhaps someday your young friend will revisit Downton Abbey.  For the rest of us, it is escapism at its very best.
Liam Richardson | 2/11/2012 - 9:38pm
I am definitely not seeing the wisdom of Shirley in that role. 

Someone like Marian Seldes, perhaps... 
Gerelyn Hollingsworth | 2/11/2012 - 9:04pm
Hi, Karl.

Yes, I misunderstood.  Sorry.

Fellowes' touch in Snobs, e.g., is much lighter than Wharton's, but in Downton Abbey, he does get heavy.  
 
A great series.  Wonderful hair, makeup, costumes, settings.  Lots of allusions to what was going on in Ireland, Russia, etc. 

It will be interesting (maybe) to see Shirley McClaine as Martha Levinson.  I'm betting on Maggie in that match-up.
Gerelyn Hollingsworth | 2/11/2012 - 11:57am
Agree that a show about O'Brien and Thomas would be good.  (On one of the spoiler sites, a poster suggested that Thomas is O'Brien's son.)

And a show about the Crawleys being part of the Tribe would be good, too.  Many in the  English aristocracy, nobility, and royalty are descendants of the Exilarchs, including  Queen Elizabeth II.

http://tinyurl.com/6v4f3cl
Anne Chapman | 2/11/2012 - 11:41am
Abe, you are so cruel - raising false hopes - such a brilliant concept, a whole series about the evil twins. Alas, it is doubtful the producers will follow up.  But, in the meantime, all those delicious soap opera sub-plots - who really killed Vera? And was it all set up to deliberately frame Bates?  Maybe Thomas snuck out..... or maybe it was O'Brien.  And how will P. Gordon's (undoubtedly) duplicitous plot be exposed?  Will the fiance/scandal sheet publisher (his name slips) really expose Mary when she dumps him for Matthew, who is in the process of experiencing a miraculous healing courtesy, perhaps, of Padre Pio? Well, he wasn't around then. So maybe Joan of Arc intercedes with the cure - one soldier helping out another?  To repeat your sage counsel - stay tuned!
Craig McKee | 2/11/2012 - 1:06am
On the 200th anniversary of his birth, I wonder what the original British social commentator on the evils of class distinction and entitlement, Mr. Charles Dickens, would have to say.

Bravo, PBS! Keep Congress angry and always threatening to pull your plug!
Kang Dole | 2/10/2012 - 11:50pm
This show is genuinely awful, and I love it. I was really drawn in by the first series, but I soon realized that it's the sort of show where instead of having characters develop, they just reveal secrets about them.

The second series has demonstrated a real drop in quality. Which I'm all for.  A show that was kind of light has taken on the soapiest of qualities. (see especially the episode with the P Gordon fellow-amnesia! murder! the return of a man thought drowned! passion in the carriage house! villainous newspaper men! Canada!)

3 observations:

I would watch a spinoff show called "The Adventures of Thomas and Miss O'Brien."

I would step over my granny's grave for a shot at Lady Sybil, and no Irish pinko with a heart murmer would stop me.

The Grantham Girls are part of the Tribe, as will be further explored in series 3. Will Cousin Matthew succumb to matzah fever? Tune in to find out.
Anne Chapman | 2/10/2012 - 8:03pm
Ah, Karl, a little junk food now and then is good for the soul. Escapism can be quite restful. Not being much of a movie watcher, nor a TV watcher, I am only familiar with Judi Dench and Maggie Smith - and Judi Dench is not, as you note, in the series.The original Upstairs Downstairs was the ''superior goods'' (not the failed attempt for a sequel last season) and I doubt Downton Abbey will be as long-lived, especially if they make the plot too convoluted - there are signs of this, the continuing fall-out from the Turkish escapade just being the first. Perhaps since I have not seen many movies nor TV shows, I am not a bit put out by Maggie Smith being ''typecast'' - she is obviously perfect for the part and it does not bore me in the slightest. I am not familiar with the other actresses, but I'm sure they too would be good - I'll take your word for it - but am quite pleased to have the chance to enjoy Maggie Smith in the role, since I have had few chances to see her work - she never disappoints.

That said, it is one of the few shows on TV that is both visually beautiful to watch and entertaining - without the murder and mayhem and just plain gruesomeness of the cop shows, the mindlessness and tastelessness of the situation comedies, and the unwatchable varied horrors of most ''reality'' TV.  Once the cable subscription ends, it is likely that we won't sign up again. PBS and streaming netflix will do the job.