Hooked on Downton Abbey
By Jim Poling
After six seasons I’m still wondering why a guy like me became a fan of the British TV series Downton Abbey. Not just a run-of-the-mill fan – a rabid fan. I would rather miss dinner than an episode of Downton.
For the uninitiated, Downton is a period drama following the lives of the aristocratic Crawleys and their domestic servants at their magnificent old castle in the English countryside. It is set in the years running through the First World War and into the 1920s.
Downton first aired in Britain in the fall of 2010 and the sixth season, said to be the last, ran last fall. The series is aired later in North America with the sixth season now underway on American PBS, where I watch it.
The show, a sophisticated soap opera, has become wildly popular in Canada and the United States, attracting many prominent viewers. Michelle Obama is said to be an avid viewer, as are Chelsea Clinton and her parents. Other prominent fans are actors Sandra Bullock and Harrison Ford.
Boxer Mike Tyson has said he likes the show and hopes to land a role in it.
Those folks are among the estimated 120 million viewers who tune into Downton in 220 countries and territories.
For me, Downton offers relief from the constant mayhem shovelled out to North American TV audiences. It’s nice to watch drama unfold without shouting, shooting, wild smash’em up car chases, and increasingly inventive forms of physical violence. When I want to see that kind of stuff I can shut off the TV and drive to Toronto.
I also appreciate Downton Abbey because I know there is an end to it. Many North American series clunk along with hundreds of episodes over many years. They keep going long after their most interesting stories and characters have been exhausted.
Downton usually has seven or eight episodes per season. When a season ends in late February or early March, that’s it for the year. Nothing more until next January and by then you really are looking forward to its return.
Much of our North American TV fare looks and sounds like reality TV. Little is left for the imagination.
Downton is packed with subtleties. The expressions and dialogue of the characters are delicate and intelligent. The characters are no less nasty, sometimes even brutal, than those on North American TV, but it is nastiness delivered with finesse.
One of the nastier characters is Thomas Barrow, the scheming under butler. He’s not likeable, but once into the story you realize he is struggling with his homosexuality, which was a crime in the 1920s. The viewer comes to understand why he is the way he is and develops compassion for him.
As devastating as Barrow is with cutting remarks, the show’s champion zinger slinger is unquestionably Lady Grantham, the aged mother of Robert Crawley, the earl of Downton. She is played by the famous British actress Maggie Smith.
One of her classic zingers is delivered early in Downton’s history when she is told that one of her granddaughters is entitled to her opinion.
“No, she isn’t until she is married – then her husband will tell her what her opinions are.”
In another scene, her granddaughter Lady Mary tells her sharply:
“How many times am I to be ordered to marry the man sitting next to me at dinner.”
“As many times as it takes,” Lady Grantham shoots back.
All the characters in Downton Abbey are complex and well fleshed out. Dislikeable as some are, the more you see of them the more likeable they become, despite their faults.
Lord Grantham is an example. He is a military man of honour and conviction and an upholder of British upper class beliefs. The world he knew is falling apart and he is not sure how to handle that.
Despite this he is not a stereotypical English aristocrat bitter about his lot. He displays compassion and treats his servants almost like family.
Downton Abbey is a flashback to a time no less complicated than today, but a time when life’s problems were faced not as an unfortunate victim, but as a determined person with quiet resolve.