THERE HAVE BEEN complaints. Downton Abbey, people are saying, has lost some of its polish.
It may be true; the soapy plot twists of Series Two replaced the carefully-crafted character development of Series One. Suspense over the fate of the entail, tied inextricably to Lady Mary’s suitor, which guided us through the first season, was brushed aside in favor of a clandestine romance between Lady and servant (a kind of sexless Lady Chatterley’s Lover), a potential affair between another Lady and a “local,” the estate overrun by injured WWI soldiers, a burn victim laying claim to Downton (a kind of sexless Martin Guerre), a miraculous recovery, the continuing saga of Bates and Anna finally consummated then sidetracked by Bates’ unpleasant wife, and the birth of a bastard child to a former Downton maid. Mercifully, we still had those zingers from the Dowager Countess and, more importantly, Lord Grantham restoring our faith in humanity with his unflappable integrity.
Some of my friends were less-than-impressed. The sophomore slump, attributed to second novels and second albums, is to be expected, disappointing as it may be. The Dowager Countess would certainly scold us. “A disappointment is hardly a disaster,” she’d say, wryly. “If that were the case, Great Britain would have given up after the American Revolution. I’d say that situation turned out better for all of us.”
Downton is a great big, costume-y soap opera on a small-ish budget. Amazingly, the show makes a few hundred thousand pounds look like a million bucks. Costume drama may be part of its draw. Maybe Americans have been so busy looking at themselves in the contemporary world that we need to see someone else in the mirror. I believe the answer to the mystery of Downton’s appeal is elementary TV development: we must like the characters. The people of Downton Abbey are the perfect protagonists in the battle against irony.
Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, set in an era of judgment and sharp class distinctions, bears an ironic title, as much a comment on the 1890s as it was on the era in which Wharton scribbled it: 1920 (the very year in which Series Three of Downton Abbey unfolds.) Irony was something Wharton did exceptionally well, and when her seminal novel was published, Wharton’s brand of irony – intelligent, complex, thought-provoking – was like “a delicate, exotic fruit,” to inappropriately quote another great ironist. Today, however unfortunate, irony is omnipresent and more than a little tedious, my dear, what with everyone racing around in Happy Bunny t-shirts with slogans like, “I’m happy, don’t wreck it by talking.” Again the Dowager Countess comes to mind. She’d certainly sniff, “Is there much more variety to what you’re doing?”
American television is populated with characters so ironic you don’t know who to root for. There’s Don Draper (Mad Men), Carrie Mathison (Homeland), Nurse Jackie (Nurse Jackie), Sister Jude (American Horror Story: Asylum), Dexter Morgan (Dexter). Walter White (Breaking Bad), Tony Soprano (The Sopranos) and Tommy Gavin (Rescue Me) also proved compelling while they lasted, making those shows into hits for the networks which gave them the green light. These characters – so fascinating to watch – are also so complicated or morally ambivalent or both that we don’t know which side they’re on, and in the case of Emily Thorne/Emily VanCamp/Amanda Clarke from Revenge, even what name to use. Don’t get me wrong – these shows make excellent viewing, and at least two of them have not suffered the same writing complaints as Downton Abbey.
With Downton, though, we get assurance, escapism, ideals. We also get certainties of which The Earl of Grantham and his wife (played with radiant warmth by Elizabeth McGovern) would certainly approve. If you walked through the doors, a footman would guide you, Carter would announce you, Anna would smile at you and Mrs. Patmore would provide a sophisticated meal. There might be some embarrassments at table but the service would be impeccable – unless of course a little drama caused a minor upheaval. But even then we know Robert Crawley would struggle with his conscience before doing the right thing. His mother would object strongly before hitting us with a truth exposing her loyalty and her righteousness. We know Isobel Crawley would top even the Dowager’s morality. The servants might have something to say about it, what with O’Brien pinching her face whenever she gets a chance. But even O’Brien was redeemed by a glimpse of humanity in the glow of Lady Grantham’s trust.
Other certainties are in the performances. There isn’t a rotten apple in the barrel. It is an ensemble of performers equally committed and equally skilled in their duties. Each, in turn, has had a satisfying moment in which to shine. It almost seems unfair to single anyone out when there is such uniform excellence but I’m especially fond of Penelope Wilton as Isobel Crawley, Siobhan Finneran as O’Brien (her first name is pronounced shi-vaughn), and Hugh Bonneville. But screenwriters and actors take note: you can be 100% certain that Dame Maggie Smith will give you a lesson on the meaning of the word “wryly” every time she opens her mouth.
The Penguin edition of The Age of Innocence references Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay Self-Reliance. “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.” Sounds familiar. How little people change! With Facebook and TMZ skewering everyone for every misspoken word, with liars and cheats expecting that a public apology will make us forget their hypocrisy, and with countless sensationalist attempts at fracturing solid reputations merely to sell a story, to whom do we look? Who are our role models in the age of irony and cynicism? The people of Downton Abbey, that’s who.