It wasn’t until Downton Abbey was into its second season that I took the time to watch the first episode. After that, it didn’t take long for me to be completely caught up, and searching for ways to get my hands on advance episodes of Season 3.
I love the show. I’m not sure I can put my finger on all the reasons why, but there is great complexity in something that at first blush may seem like a simple story.
The Left in America is schizophrenic about the Abbey. It has had high acclaim in Hollywood, winning numerous awards, but others, like the New York Times, have pilloried the show.
Worse, is this screed by Simon Schama on Daily Beast. Here is an excerpt:
Downton serves up a steaming, silvered tureen of snobbery. It’s a servile soap opera that an American public desperate for something, anything, to take its mind off the perplexities of the present seems only too happy to down in great, grateful gulps.
Yes, I know it’s perfect in its way. Nothing beats British television drama for servicing the instincts of cultural necrophilia.
In response, Jerry Bowyer writes a very thoughtful piece for Forbes entitled, Down On Downton: Why The Left Is Torching Downton Abbey. (WARNING: The Bowyer piece has spoilers if you haven’t seen the entirety of all three seasons)
One of the first things one notices, if one is a regular viewer of BBC productions, is that Downton is unusually ideologically and religiously balanced. One of the other effects one notices when one watches a lot of BBC is that one starts referring to oneself in the third rather than the first person. But one digresses…
If the viewer is expecting vintage BBC, Downton is full of surprises. This is not PG Wodehouse, with Jeeves the butler easily thinking rings around his Lord. This is not Brideshead Revisted‘s take on the upper classes, packed with alcoholic elders and simmering, repressed homosexuality amongst their offspring. It is not Noel Coward’s Easy Virtue with easy satiric shots at the hypocrisy which arises amongst the upper classes and their dysfunctional patter of religious and sexual…yes there it is again, repression.
The upper classes at Downton aren’t repressed, they’re restrained. They are not inbred, intellectually backward fools; they are intelligent and thoughtful. As a general rule they treat their servants well, care about their welfare and are generally respected by them in turn. They are, in a word, admirable. And for a period drama, that treatment is, in a word, surprising. And surprise is an essential element of compelling drama.
Films and series about Edwardian upper caste manners which portray the genteels uncharitably are boring, like the steady, unending (until one turns the switch off) hum of a fluorescent lamp. Downton Abbey is what George Gilder would call the entropic disruption to the background noise of revolt against the old world. To portray Lord and Lady Grantham as anything other than drunks, fools, hypocrites or either sexpots or sexual glaciers (or best of all, alternately both) is itself an act of cultural rebellion.
That’s arguably why the left is bashing Downton Abbey. The New York Times Art Beat column has reported that British critics are ‘torching’ Downton Abbey. Apparently Downton Abbey is snobbish, culturally necrophiliac (and if you don’t yet know what that word means, I suggest you leave it that way) and its popularity in the United States is due to the rise of the Tea Party movement and conservative opposition to the death tax. Even worse, creator Julian Fellowes is the holder of a Tory Peerage. Definitely not the right sort of people.
Having watched all three seasons, I think one of the reasons the Left hates Downton Abbey so much is that it undermines their narrative about class warfare. Lord Grantham is not a greedy overlord looking to enrich himself on the backs of the serfs. He is actually a man who is trying to maintain Downton and the village to keep people employed.
When he learns that he has lost a fortune in a bad investment, he is angst-filled about those who rely on him for work.
And that is what most business owners think about. How to stay profitable and keep people employed.
My guess is that Hollywood didn’t quite understand the nuance of what Julian Fellows was writing because they were distracted by the British accents. But I guarantee that if it had been a show about Sam Walton building and protecting his fortune, it would never have even aired.
The lesson is this: one way to fight the culture war in the U.S. is to mask it with British accents and history.