Thursday, January 19, 2012

The appeal of Downton Abbey

We’re now three episodes into season two of Downton Abbey, and the show continues to enthrall and delight—a fact that has apparently flummoxed some commentators, not because they don’t like the series but because it seems odd that such a proper and mannered British period piece should find the audience(s) is has. What, it is asked, is the appeal?

The question seems to me at best ingenuous and at worst paternalistic, ignoring in the first case the fact that such stories have always had a broad appeal, and subtly suggesting in the second that if it doesn’t contain sensationalistic story and spectacle, contemporary audiences (especially non-English ones) won’t get it. Yes, the hidebound class system depicted in Downton is alien to contemporary social mores; and yes, the series proceeds at an appropriately stately pace, with little in the way of lascivious storylines (Mary’s near-affair with the Turkish diplomat being the exception, sort of), and much harrumphing among both upstairs and downstairs about tradition and custom and the difference in kind between the aristocracy and everyone else.

But to wonder why this all appeals to contemporary audiences doesn’t give enough credit to contemporary audiences, who know a good story well told when they see it. There was much the same sort of pondering during the Jane Austen renaissance in the mid-90s, starting with the Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice and continuing with the adaptations of Emma, Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion, and Mansfield Park (which, had a production of Northanger Abbey been done, would have run the gamut of Austen’s corpus). Why, everyone asked at the time, is Jane Austen so popular again?

Theories advanced at the time tended to focus on nostalgia, a wistful desire for the certainties of a stately and stable class system; Generation X (remember them?), stuck in their dead-end jobs and aimless lifestyles, thought longingly of the calm certainty of Mr. Darcy or Emma Woodhouse’s lives. The appeal of Downton Abbey, it has been suggested, lies in both the revisitation of Austen-esque manners, but also the social ferment underlying the action as WWI starts to show the fault lines in the British class system and heralds the slow decline of the British Empire. In a recession-stricken time, it has been suggested, the discomfiture of the aristocracy and the new possibilities for social mobility resonate with audiences angry at the predations of Wall Street.

None of which I disagree with—certainly the waxing and waning of Austen and the periodic prominence of such series as Upstairs, Downstairs, The Jewel in the Crown, and Downton Abbey reflect shifts in the popular imagination—but it does seem a little overblown to me. The better considerations I have read do get around to the more important question, “why now?” as opposed to just “why?” but then the appeal of Downton Abbey seems self-evident after watching just one episode … it is extremely well written, well acted, and well produced, and makes one want to know what happens next.

1 comment:

Fred said...

If I may offer 2 possibilities for Downton's appeal. Firstly, is its safely taboo nature in this day of Move On and the 99%. Who doesn't smirk when Maggie Smith asks of everyone at the table, "What is a weekend?" to the remark of the middle class, lawyer, heir to the estate, that he will work during the week and come learn about the estate on the weekend. The butler is as appropriately class conscious in his remarks supporting the aristocracy and its replication below stairs. Secondly, who are the audience who smirk at such caustic lines in our own age of democracy? They are the ones for whom the appeal of value and quality direct them to Public Television--after all isn't Public Television somewhat snooty? They are the sort who read Howard's End or Passage to India, and consider Dr. Who the height of sci-fi, and define human interest by the widely popular Antiques Road Show (British version). It is not just that Downton is well written, but that it appeals to what is now taboo in our society, namely a liberal snobishness, like that of Oscar Wilde, that in the mannered televised presentation of the Edwardian age is appealing. It is a softening, an amelioration of what was far starker than is presented every Sunday evening. Downton is the English vision of "the end", and in our own age of "the end" (of whatever, capitalism, empire, consumerism) the series offers a parallel we can all appreciate. Certainly, Downton represents an antithesis of Deadwood, but both series offer viewers an impression of the end of something--the West, the aristocracy. And who doesn't rubberneck at a car crash?