All good things must come to an end, the saying goes, and this truism also applies to Downton Abbey – the British television show that delivered a ratings bonanza to public television in the U.S. and U.K. Who would have thought that a slow-paced period drama that demands the viewer’s full attention would capture such a sizable audience and draw in millions of fans?
A Winter Tradition
Over the past few years, Downton became a Sunday night tradition for my wife and me. In the dreary, dark months of January and February, we’d put our kids to bed, pour a cup of tea, and rely on Downton to transport us to another era.
There were times my wife enjoyed the show more than I did. There were times I enjoyed the show more than she did. We both cringed whenever the show veered close to a “sophisticated soap opera,” but we always enjoyed the detailed costumes and sets. We cared enough about the characters, and we were interested enough in the historical setting to endure the show’s occasional missteps.
Highclere Castle, the real-life setting for the production, loomed over the actors as the silent but ever-present star. I sometimes remarked to friends, “I don’t care what the characters are talking about; I just want them to stay all day in the library!” In the final season, the show’s producers wisely introduced us to other castles of the time, in various states of disrepair, which gave viewers an effective contrast with the glory of Downton.
The beauty of English filmmaking is its subtlety and wit. Shows like Downton demand a certain level of attention and only reward the patient viewer who appreciates the nuance in dialogue and character development.
Learning About, Never From
But there is one aspect of Downton Abbey that was never subtle, and it remains my primary point of criticism: the show’s view of history and progress.
From the first season to the last, we hear the characters talk about the changing times, either with excitement or with anxiety, either fretting about the future or falling head over heels for the new social and moral order.
The problem with all this talk about “being unable to hold back the future” is not that it is historically inaccurate. (Doesn’t every generation talk about the changing times?) It’s that Downton Abbey portrayed the time period in a way that made it virtually impossible to learn from the people of this era.
We learn about the people at Downton, as we are introduced to their way of life. But the show’s view of progress keeps us from learning from them, as if they might have something to teach us.
Pitying the Past
To clarify: I am not referring to moral lessons or character traits, like chivalry or honesty or selflessness. Like any good drama, the characters of Downton Abbey present us with illustrations, both good and bad, of being a sister, a father, a coworker, etc.
What I’m referring to is the show’s overall attitude toward the past, which is one of pity. All throughout the series, we are expected as present-day viewers to pity these people.
- We are to pity the rich folks as they watch their way of life disappear, even as we are supposed to cheer for the dissolution of the aristocracy.
- We are to pity the people who are trapped in the strange expectations and manners of the time period, even as we are supposed to be fascinated by them.
- We are to pity the people who must endure the intolerant sexual standards that lead to “houses of ill repute” or prohibit any notion of sex before marriage or attach shame to a child born out of wedlock or relegate a gay man to fear and loneliness.
- We are to pity the people “downstairs” as they become increasingly irrelevant due to modern conveniences, even as we are supposed to celebrate the arrival of technological progress.
The writers of Downton Abbey work from an Enlightenment vision of the past. Because they write from the standpoint that we have progressed in every way since the 1910’s and 1920’s (morally, technologically, socially), they keep the viewer from ever asking an uncomfortable question about our assumptions today.
Might we be unenlightened or wrong about something? Might our ancestors actually know something we have forgotten?
Learning From Grandma
A hundred years ago, the most popular tales and stories had to do with knights and battles and princesses in the medieval times. The point of those stories was not to pity the people who lived in less technologically-advanced eras, but to learn from our ancestors, to consider their morality and their actions and to allow them to guide us.
Downton never tells that kind of story. It’s like sitting down with your great grandmother and asking about her life as a child. And then, after she tells you her story, you walk away feeling smug and self-assured about how wonderful the world is in which we live today.
It’s one thing to learn Grandma’s story; it’s another thing to learn from Grandma’s story in ways that cause you to question your own.
Downton Abbey provides a glorious immersion into a world far different from our own. Do not let my criticism keep you from the show. It is most enjoyable and impeccably produced.
I only wish that the storyline’s vision of history had occasionally been subversive of our own era, rather than so boringly predictable. (“We can’t stop progress!”) That is the main thing about Downton that really let me down.