Sometime back in the fall of 2011, Downton Abbey happened. I don’t mean that the show premiered; it actually premiered in the US in the fall of 2010. But sometime back in October or November, what were little whispers about Downton Abbey all over my Facebook feed became shouts of “you must watch this!” Then around the first week of January, my social networks overflowed with fanatics trying to convert the uninitiated before Season Two started.
So, what’s the deal — why is everyone going nuts for a stuffy period drama on public television and why should you care? Alright. I got this.
First of all, it’s Downton (“Down-tun”) Abbey, not DownTOWN Abbey, and it is not, as I originally assumed, about a group of nuns living in a convent above a nightclub in the middle of London (Channel 3 — call me I have a show to pitch ya!).
Second, it was wildly successful in the UK when it first aired on ITV/Channel 3 (basically PBS in the UK, from what Wikipedia tells me) in 2009, and was adored by critics and viewers alike. That’s right, people, we are two years late to the DA party. Season Two has already aired over there and they’re working on Season Three because the US audience is so eager for more. (And it cleaned up at the Primetime Emmys so, there’s that.)
But, ok. Just because it’s good doesn’t mean people are watching it. Who watches public television? How did everyone start obsessing over this show and not another period piece? My guess is that it’s a perfect storm of Netflix streaming availability, social networking word-of-mouth recommendations, and great content. Yes, Downton Abbey is a Masterpiece Classic. It plays on PBS. It’s as British as British can be and features the generally flawless Dame Maggie Smith (“Ten points to Gryffindor!”) as the Dowager Countess of Grantham. It features gorgeous costumes and great acting. It’s a period drama. It’s a family drama. It’s a history lesson. But most of all it’s a soap opera. A very pretty and smart soap opera.
Now, this isn’t news. Everyone knows this is a soap opera. It has all the trappings: ongoing and episodic, multiple intersecting storylines, a focus on family life, moral dilemmas, sexual intrigue, scheming villains, and emotionally manipulative cliffhangers. No evil twins…yet.
Interestingly, Downton Abbey came to the US same year that ABC cancelled All My Children and One Life to Live. Maybe it somehow filled the void they left behind? Or perhaps we all love soap operas but just don’t have time to watch them every day at 2pm. My guess is that everyone likes to feel smart and watching a show on PBS helps us feel that way, and even more so if it’s a costume drama. And if that costume drama happens to have soap opera elements that suck us into the drama, well, kudos to the writers for making something smart and a little trashy.
But it’s not just a soap opera. Just a soap opera is an episode of whatever show currently features the Kardashians. This is a soap opera that will teach you history and make you a suffragette. Can a show be a guilty pleasure if it makes you think about bigger social issues? I think not.
Sure, some haters will say that it’s still a trashy soap opera and the only reason people are proud to like it is because there are pretty costumes and British accents and Maggie Smith and it’s on public television so of course it’s wholesome, even if there are sex scandals. And I say, yo, remember when women couldn’t own property and had to marry their first cousins to keep the estate in the family? And when “going into service,” that is, domestic service, for life, was considered an admirable career choice for someone not born into money? Them’s serious social issues. And there’s nothing like a soap opera to illustrate them for you and remind you that your own ability to earn a paycheck and own property is actually pretty sweet.
At its core, the show is about two families inhabiting the great house of Downton Abbey (great house being like an estate or mansion with staff). Upstairs, the Earl of Grantham Robert Crawley lives with his family and downstairs are their servants. Of course the servants aren’t related to each other but Downton is their home and many of them are working “in the service” at the expense of having families of their own. They’re a unit and attached to each other, just as they’re attached to the house and the Crawleys. As Carson the butler says in the first episode, “They’re all the family I’ve got!” That’s enough for me to consider them part of the family drama.
(Fun fact, Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs were both based on Margaret Powell’s 1968 memoir Below Stairs. It’s fascinating if you can get past the folksy writing style; Powell left school and started working at age 13, eventually becoming a kitchenmaid at a great house moving through the ranks to become a cook.)
The first scenes of the series show the household waking up to bad news. From the chatter among servants up to the head of the house, something has happened. Something massive, shocking, unbelievable…something that could really mess up the lavish lifestyle the Earl and his family are enjoying. They are so the one percent!
The family drama and historical drama bits overlap as we learn about how the family has made its money and the law about who can inherit it and how. I usually don’t understand legal stuff in a historical drama, or don’t care enough to try to understand it — sorry Shakespeare — but in this case it’s very clear and touches on women’s right to be the sole inheritor of a family fortune, and her right to own property.
The back story is that Downton Abbey was near ruin until Robert Crawley married the wealthy American, Cora, and combined her money with the estate. The legal agreement when the marriage was arranged was that she would have a son who would inherit everything. But she had three daughters instead. And you know how women can’t inherit property! Did someone say feminism? That sleepy part of my brain is awake and panting for details.
But all this complicated legal business is no problem: eldest daughter Mary is going to marry her first cousin, Patrick Crawley, the heir apparent (even though middle daughter Edith is in love with him). With that marriage, Mary can stay at Downton Abbey and be rich and have lots of servants for life! But then! Patrick and his father hop aboard the Titanic and are lost at sea. What to do? Fight the law? Split up the estate and the money? Try to push Mary off onto a man with the promise of a hefty dowry, just not the whole kit and caboodle with the house and everything? Or, hunt down the Earl’s third cousin once removed and turn his world upside down with the news that he’s next in line for the Grantham fortune and then subtly try to get him to cozy up to Mary and keep it in the family. Intrigue!
Then there’s the situation downstairs with the new valet, Bates, who shows up just as Thomas the footman was sure he was going to be promoted. Who invited this guy? For one thing, Bates uses a cane and therefore can’t stand in for a footman and serve in the dining room when there’s an extra-large dinner party. (God forbid a female servant be seen in the dining room, ever.) And he probably can’t do other things, too, so Thomas is just helping the household out by pushing to get the guy fired. Additionally, what’s the deal with the visiting Duke being so keen to have Thomas serve as his valet? And remember the time that Daisy almost poisoned everyone by sending up the wrong salt for the chicken, but she didn’t specify which chicken, so everyone was saved?
This is all in the first episode. Did I mention that the Countess of Grantham gets in a few zingers about how she’s going to die from inhaling the vapors given off by the newly installed electric lights? Or when she says that Mary shouldn’t start seeing suitors until she’s finished mourning her dead finance since “no one wants to kiss a girl in black”? Yeah, that happens.
And then this Duke visits and all of the women wear some badass dresses to dinner where Edith is all “What were you doing sneaking around with the Duke earlier, Mary?” and everyone’s like, “Oooh…” and she’s all “Bite your tongue bitch; sorry your cousin-crush died but I was going to marry him and now I’m working on the Duke over here so chillax and eat your two kinds of chicken.” All while youngest sister Sibyl is thinking, I’m going to wear pants to dinner in a future episode and you will all shit yourselves.
This is the birth of British feminism, people. First, the Earl of Grantham refuses to fight the entail that binds the property to the next male heir, emphasizing to the viewer the inherently sexist laws of the time. Even though the Crawley sisters have grown up understanding that their fate always depended on whom they married, the situation becomes more complicated and the unfairness of the law is emphasized. Without her marriage arrangement, Mary needs to impress any eligible rich man who comes in the door, with her two sisters nipping at her heels. And with this rivalry comes sabotage — awesome, catty, epistolarian, soap-operatic sabotage.
Additionally there’s the Dowager Countess’ take on things. This is a woman who has “I inherited my money from my dead husband” in her title, and yet she’s torn between urging her granddaughters to marry for money or love. It’s she, in fact, who cries “the entail must be smashed!” in the first episode but neither her conviction nor Lady Cora’s pleading convince Lord Grantham to change his mind. So then she starts pushing Mary towards Matthew: If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. In matrimony. At the same time, the Countess is aghast at the idea of a working-class woman becoming a secretary or any woman becoming politically active. And we can’t even go into the idea of sex before marriage without encountering a major spoiler so let’s just say, it just wasn’t done in those days. Except that it was, and it was always the woman’s fault and problem.
To me, there’s no greater argument for equal rights than witnessing injustice, whether it’s in everyday life or on screen. Downton Abbey shows us a period of time when people began challenging these injustices and everything began to change. While the most dramatic changes occur when World War I breaks out at the end of Season One — women start working as the men went off to war– the seeds of these changes had already been planted. The differences in economic class were stark and the gender roles were strict. If you didn’t have to work, you probably weren’t challenged. As Lady Mary put it in Episode Three: “Women like me don’t have a life. We choose clothes and pay calls and work for charity and do the season, but really we’re stuck in a waiting room until we marry.” Comfortable, sure, but it sounds awfully boring.
But it isn’t boring because there’s so much intrigue at Downton! Seriously, what they lack in work, they make up for in general scheming and whatnot. When Matthew Crawley, the third cousin once removed, shows up and he’s all, “inheritance money wot wot,” and his mother starts getting on the Dowager Countess’ nerves and there’s a showdown at an overly dramatic flower show as well as sex, death, secrets, a political rally, romantic possibilities for all three sisters, and some funny stuff wherein Carson learns how to use the telephone. Complete gold.
Extra credit-mashups and things; you know a show is popular when there are memes:
Ghostbuster Abbey, because you know Downton is haunted, right?
Shit Dowager Countesses Say