by S.D. Kelly
- February 5, 2015
It is a truth universally acknowledged that winter in New England, where I live, can be cold and long and dark. This is why, for the last four Januaries, I have looked forward to the return of Downton Abbey with the same level of anticipation that I imagine my ancestors brought to the lighting of an oil lamp on winter evenings: a bright spot of warmth and light to ward off the cold, dark night.
The misery outside my window is mitigated by the televised images of attractive people in custom-made Edwardian clothes milling about a beautiful—and massive—English country house in Yorkshire. From inside my climate-controlled 21st century house, I peer at the relics of a way of life, now a century past, that have retreated from memory into fantasy.
I’m not alone in my love of costume dramas, generally, and in my fascination with Downton Abbey, specifically. The show has been a critical and commercial smash hit for PBS, a combination unheard of until Downton Abbey came along. By any standards, commercial or otherwise, the show has been a blockbuster as millions of people tune in season after season—a tremendous feat in this era of fractured viewing—checking out the operatic machinations of aristocratic family life upstairs and prosaic servant life downstairs.
Downton Abbey is a sort of playhouse, its characters manipulated by writers in the way paper dolls are manipulated by children: one-dimensional figures propped up on various pieces of furniture, the primary function of which is to show off regular costume changes and to serve as mouthpieces for whoever is controlling them.What makes the viewing especially compelling, besides its enchanting cinematography (including the picturesque scenes set during the First World War), is its cultural setting. The show takes place during a time of enormous upheaval in England, from 1912 to 1924, the year in which the show’s present season takes place. Social change is Downton Abbey‘s bread-and-butter. No episode is complete without at least two characters complaining about how much things are changing and two others cheerily proclaiming that change must be embraced.
The funny thing about watching Downton Abbey—and I’ve watched it with an almost embarrassing level of attentiveness from the first night the show aired in the United States until this past Sunday’s most recent episode—is that there is really nothing much to watch. Downton Abbey, like several recent Masterpiece series, isn’t based on a time-tested work of literature, but was created and written expressly for the small screen. Maybe this is its problem.
Downton Abbey is utterly a product of today, and this dissonance is revealed in the script as its writers wander in our 21st-century moral wilderness while comfortably making pronouncements on the moral failings of people who lived in the previous one. These failings aren’t the same as our own; we are far more enlightened these days than those numbskulls who lived one hundred years ago, locked as they were in the British social hierarchy. No, their failings are ones of race and class and gender and sexual freedom, stuff we’ve since figured out. More or less.
Downton Abbey is a sort of playhouse, its characters manipulated by writers in the way paper dolls
are manipulated by children: one-dimensional figures propped up on various pieces of furniture, the primary function of which is to show off regular costume changes and to serve as mouthpieces for whoever is controlling them. So it is for all the various characters that populate Downton Abbey. No matter how many are added or taken away with each successive season, every player, from the head of household to the lowliest undercook, is trapped in their own set of behaviors, reduced, in laymen’s terms, to having “issues”—issues which are understood with total clarity by 21st century viewers, existing as we do in our enlightened age.
We the viewers are the diagnosticians, armed with all the knowledge contained in the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or at least its reddit-ized version, and the characters on Downton Abbey are our patients. We understand each character’s motivation immediately: this one suffers from PTSD; that one suffers from being a repressed gay man. That rich white girl would be so much happier if she could just make out with the black jazz singer judgment-free. The family patriarch’s problem is that he is patriarchal. If only the mother could find her voice, she would stop being so vacuous. If only the girl working in the kitchen could find the time to learn algebra, she would never make another cake for rich people again. And so on.
It’s not that these elements of Downton Abbey’s characters aren’t true or historically accurate; it is that these elements constitute each character in his or her entirety. There are no depths to plumb. Nothing to see here, except how dull or stupid or fractious a character behaves—due to his or her issues of course.
The implication is that, if only the characters trapped in the Downton Abbey of early 20th century had the chance to live the way we do now—what with our sex and science and internet—their happiness would be realized. They would be so much more functional. Far from making the characters on the show relatable by showing their struggles (which I imagine is the intent of the writers), viewers are placed at a remove, unable to relate at all to what is happening in the lives of the characters, since the challenges they face are limited to social change and defying convention—artifacts of an era that has little to do with us. The characters are trapped in their own time, their moral dilemmas used as props to tell, not a universal story of internal moral fortitude, but a very specific tale of how Lady Mary will get away with sleeping with men without marrying them in 1924.