I know, I know, it seems a little strange to review Downton Abbey when it’s already in its fourth series. And it’s probably a somewhat risky endeavour, given that, well, everybody loves Downton. With that in mind, this isn’t really a review at all; I just thought I’d take the opportunity to share one or two thoughts about it.
Downton Abbey belongs to that rare category of British TV shows that have hit the big time on both sides of the Atlantic – an honour which, among current programming, is perhaps only shared by Doctor Who. What is equally remarkable is that this particular period drama is not produced by the BBC. (It’s remarkable to me, at least; when I was a kid, the BBC was the unchallenged home of all “quality” programming; ITV was not even allowed to be shown in some homes, so profane and unashamedly commercial was its content.)
So, what can I say about the veritable cross-cultural phenomenon that is Downton Abbey? Well, I can give you two reasons why I watch it:
1. It’s become something of a family tradition: on a Sunday evening, I take a very long, very hot bath before sitting down with my wife and daughter to escape to the world of early twentieth century aristocracy. The combination of unspoken scandal and exquisite stiff-upper-lip keeping up of appearances somehow seems the perfect way to conclude the weekend.
2. Maggie Smith. She alone is reason enough to watch it. I might sit through fifty-eight minutes of banalities, but it’s worth it for the enjoyment of two minutes of her unashamed prejudice and rapier wit (along with the occasional glimpse of warmth and humanity). In spite of her character having not much screen time and being somewhat caricatured, Smith has made the Dowager Countess into the most enjoyable and engaging person in the show.
Having said why I watch Downton (and will probably continue to do so, at least as long as Maggie Smith remains part of the cast), let me now – at the risk of offending die-hard fans – offer three random thoughts:
1. Downton is really just a soap opera in fancy clothes. Take away the setting, the costumes and the archaic language, and what is there really to differentiate it from Dallas or Eastenders? That this is so gives me pause, because I generally hate soap operas and refuse to watch them. Perhaps Downton simply appeals to my sense of snobbery?
2. Downton is increasingly populist: its clever but sometimes contrived storylines are driven not so much by what actually went on in English country houses in the 1920s as by what will appeal to a twenty-first century audience eager for titillation hidden under a veneer of class and nobility.
3. Downton offers an entertaining and compelling but not necessarily accurate version of England a hundred years ago. Many British people today – particularly of the younger generation (under twenty) – have little knowledge of or interest in their country’s history. Combine this with the fact that the textbook (or, for that matter, any sort of book) has largely been replaced by the computer monitor and the TV screen, and what you have is a recipe for the rewriting of history. It doesn’t matter how people actually dressed or spoke in the 1920s – if Downton says that’s how they dressed and spoke, then that’s the way it was. If Downton says those were the issues that exercised people in both the upper and the working classes, then who are we to argue? I realise this concern is more about education and the predominant influence of visual media in general than about any one television programme, but it seems to be a point worth making. I can enjoy Downton without taking everything in it at face value; the same may not apply to a large proportion of its audience. Then again, maybe I’m just getting older.
All in all, I enjoy Downton Abbey, and that’s why I’ve kept watching it for more than three series so far. I enjoy the storylines (mostly), a lot of the acting, and the production design. I only hope that, in its efforts to continue riding the wave of transatlantic popularity as long as possible, it doesn’t spiral downhill out of control and end up sacrificing all pretence of integrity and quality for the sake of ratings.