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Highclere_Castle_(April_2011)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.

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13 thoughts on “The One Thing About “Downton Abbey” That Really Let Me Down”

  1. Nathan says:

    Thanks for the excellent article, as usual. More importantly though, thanks for not having any spoilers! My wife and I are in the beginning of season 6.

  2. Meg I. says:

    “Does it ever get cold on the moral high ground?” Violet to cousin Isobel. After 6 years, the only aspect of Downton Abbey that I could really “take,” were Violet’s one liners – especially to cousin Isobel. What was it that C.S. Lewis said about history and what our attitude should be? You summed it up well Trevin. Now I will wait for a show that is not only very British and well done, but a detective story too. “Endeavour Season 3.”

  3. Jackson says:

    Well said, Trevin. I have felt the exact same way throughout the program’s history. It is layered on quite thickly as well throughout.

  4. Brodie Smith says:

    While I’ve watched very little of the show, I have invested in it by ensuring my wife has all six seasons and a companion book to enjoy more in depth commentary on the show and time period. So, suffice it to say I have very limited context. However, it seems that the problem you raise is less with the show and more with the consumer of the show. Are we to learn something from our entertainment only when they force us to or is the burden upon us to dive into it more deeply to uncover what we can learn from such things. A la your grandmother’s stories of childhood, the fault is not with the grandmother recounting her tales but with your walking away unchanged or unwilling to go further down that rabbit hole to see how your life/attitude can change today based on what you can learn from her if only the questions are asked and the investment in learning is made. We won’t know if they knew something we’ve forgotten unless we do some digging and don’t just expect them to set us straight.

  5. Philmonomer says:

    I too watched (and enjoyed) the entire Downtown Abbey series (indeed, my wife and I have seen the final episode–as a neighbor has the series on DVD). I’ll try to give no spoilers.

    While I think your criticism here is interesting (and valid), I think it overstates the case. In this regard, I don’t remember any sort of emphasis on “progress” in the show (I think that spin simply isn’t there)–rather, the emphasis is on change (for good and bad).

    Furthermore, I don’t see “pity” as the primary feeling that is supposed to be elicited from us.

    A few thoughts:

    1) The show’s emphasis on family. From Lord Grantham/Cora to Tom/Sybil to even Lady Violet (who concludes, if I remember correctly, that it would have been a mistake to run away with the Russian Count). There really isn’t a single dysfunctional family in the entire show (that comes immediately to mind). Think of Lord Crawley’s plaque on the wall for Ms. Patmore’s executed (desertion) nephew. Would anyone do that now?

    2) The shows emphasis on goodness/right behavior. I think, essentially without exception, bad behavior is punished in the show–never rewarded.

    3) The show’s emphasis on looking out for others. (Essentially, the show’s heart). The Crawley’s look out for each other (although the Mary/Edith tension was always interesting), and for the people downstairs, and the village. The people downstairs look out for each other, and the people upstairs. If the show teaches us about anything that’s missing now, I’d say it’s this. (The sense of “family” that existed then/under the systems in place at the time).

    1. Philmonomer says:

      Ugh. My comment should be slightly edited (too late).

  6. Nienna says:

    To this British viewer, the dominant tone of Downton is not that of pity but of nostalgia. The aristocrats are mostly portrayed as benevolent, kind, even considerate of their servants’ personal rights: the servants are mostly grateful, loyal, content with their lot and usually put in their place when they dare to challenge the social order. This is hardly a realistic reflection of my country’s social history, and I’m thankful that we’ve moved on from the rigid social order of 100 years ago. The Crawley family, after all, represent a way of life that Americans rightly rejected long before 1776. ;) The people “downstairs” were finally liberated from the “upstairs” people being dependent on them. I enjoy Downton, but it’s a fantasy.

  7. M.G. says:

    This article is remarkably puzzling in light of Julian Fellowes’s status as a Conservative member of the House of Lords and the show’s repeated emphasis that there is tremendous value both in the life of the aristocracy and in living a way of life that emphasizes one’s place in society and the comfort that comes from playing one’s part with as much grace as one can muster.

    Downton Abbey is a show that emphasizes that, yes, progress is inevitable, but that changes usher in both positive and negative consequences. I think Julian Fellowes would probably say that the best characters are the ones who can recognize both the value and the shortcomings of their time and the times that are to come (e.g., Violet, Tom Branson, etc.) Indeed, one of the worst characters in the entire series, Sarah Bunting, is the most modern of all the characters. And Julian Fellowes paints her as an absolute shrew.

    How on earth do you explain that? What a strange article.

  8. Beck Gambill says:

    I suppose I can see your point but truthfully you sound as if you have as much of an agenda.

    I’ve learned a great deal from the show and have rarely sensed the attitude of ‘pity’. There were some very unjust practices in that era and while not all progress has been positive, much has been. Part of the characters appeal to me has been the way they have transformed in their thinking. There was a great deal of prejudice and many lords were not fair in that time period. And while I may not agree with or embrace the effects of the sexual revolution, the suffering of people like Thomas was real and unnecessary. Idealizing the mistreatment of homosexual people isn’t, I should think, particularly enlightened. Certainly there is much that was lost in the transformation of society but much was gained, and I suppose modern women pitying the previous generations for their lack of suffrage and representation is to be expected. There is very little new under the sun. The characters struggled to respect, forgive, and show compassion to each other and outsiders, I learned a great deal from their struggle to value what’s most important – people.

  9. Maria Domingo says:

    Hi Trevin, Thank you for your thoughts. The way I saw Downton was really for entertainment value because that’s what it was, really – just an entertaining drama the helped us see how life was during those times. I don’t look to television for accurate historical depictions unless its a documentary. A lot of times we just want to escape from the daily grind and not have to think about substance or historical accuracy of a period piece. Cheers!

  10. Bryan Park says:

    Hello Trevin, I haven’t seen any of Downton Abbey, but the view of history that it has resonates with other TV shows and movies I’ve seen recently. I don’t think it’s just Downton Abbey – it seems that every time people of our era look into the past, the dominant form of storytelling is learning about, not learning from. Case in point: Mad Men and its view of the 1960s.

  11. Philmonomer says:

    FWIW, I’ve now had numerous conversations, with a wide range of people, about Downton Abbey. The attitude of “pity” to the past doesn’t seem right to people; however, “nostalgia” does.

  12. M.G. says:

    Yep, after watching the series finale–which was a treacly, overwrought exercise in “happily ever afters,”–I have to say that Downton Abbey’s effective aim was anything but exercising pity towards its characters. Nostalgia, glorification of the past, or sheer mindless escapism are all more apt descriptions of Downton Abbey than pity.

    Once again, what an absolutely bizarre reading of Downton Abbey. It shows that nothing in this world is free from Evangelical Christianity’s obsession with perceived persecution and mocking of Christian values. Even Downton Abbey isn’t safe from this highly politicized form of Christianity.

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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