by Monica Weigel
This feature is from the Verily teaser issue.
I have to admit something up front—I have terrible taste in TV shows. I tend to hide the bulk of my DVD collection in a cubby above my door, and I will steadfastly refuse any and all inquiries to share my Netflix queue. It isn’t that I am ashamed (exactly), but sometimes it is hard to own up to the truth.
But for the sake of full disclosure, here it is—I love soapy TV. I grew up on Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman (a show I will defend to my dying day, but it must be said—the woman had a knack for finding herself in crisis after crisis), graduated to Dawson’s Creek and Felicity while in high school, and now find myself, almost thirty-years-old, firmly addicted to Friday Night Lights reruns and Pretty Little Liars.
I don’t tend to bring these facts up in polite conversation—it tarnishes my reputation as a well-educated woman with a specialization in Shakespeare. But I have noticed that there is one show I find myself talking about with anyone who will listen—my sister, my roommate, my coworkers, even strangers I meet at a bar.
Downton Abbey. It’s so civilized and highbrow, we say! Not only is it a period British drama, but its characters are as well spoken and put together as any Jane Austen heroine; it boasts high production value, a beautiful score, and enough accents to make even the reluctant Anglophile swoon.
And if that isn’t enough to convince you to take it seriously, it has Maggie Smith and it airs on PBS. You can’t argue with Maggie Smith and PBS. (Well, I suppose you could, but then you would not be a person whom I would want to sit down and have a glass of wine with.)
But as I anxiously await the beginning of Season 3, and rewatch all the episodes on DVD with my boyfriend (who started watching purely as a survival technique), I find myself reluctantly realizing that Downton Abbey, my critically acclaimed darling of a drama, is just as full of soap as Gossip Girl or Grey’s Anatomy. Much like its characters, who hide their scandal behind impeccable dressing and unflappable manners, Downton Abbey is a soap opera in Masterpiece Classic clothing, and I honestly think it would be a disservice to the show to argue otherwise.
Women especially love overly dramatic story lines, even when they won’t admit it. It makes us feel better about our own personal dramas, whether we are thanking the Lord that our love lives are not nearly as complicated as Mary Crawley’s, or we are sympathizing with Sybil’s struggle to be true to herself amid very strict familial expectations. I do not want to give too much of the plot away, because if you have yet to indulge in Downton Abbey, you can still redeem yourself by getting Seasons 1 and 2 on DVD, and I have no desire to spoil the fun for you. But I do find it curious that the show, despite all its dramatic tricks and calculated pulls on your emotional strings, retains a sense of legitimate entertainment and not pure escapism.
Perhaps it is just a general societal fondness and respect for Jane Austen novels, but there is something inherently romantic about stories of love and family set in England’s rigid class society. There are so many outside obstacles to love and happiness that a character’s internal struggles seem even nobler and worthy of attention. Add to that how everyone magically knows exactly what polite (yet cutting) remark to make at precisely the right time, along with their extreme care for detail—whether in setting a table for dinner or pinning up hair—and you realize that the world of Downton Abbey was created using a tried and true recipe, while adding a delicious mix of spice and juiciness to the mix.
It is a world that can seem far removed from ours. Today, the art of conversation has been replaced by the art of texting, dinner is often the result of takeout containers and frozen meals, and spending a huge amount of time fixing your hair is more likely to be thought of as vanity than a true pride in your appearance. It is this hint of the exotic that separates Downton from the world of Dawson’s Creek, which was created with an almost obsessive attention to popular teenage culture at the time, and it is perhaps part of the reason that I feel less ashamed talking about my love for it. Love affairs with inappropriate people, broken hearts, and family scandal seem far more elegant in the grand halls of Downton than in the small-town homes on the Creek.
Speaking of elegance, it may be my recent apartment search in the hideousness of the New York City real-estate market, but the production value of Downton Abbey is one of its greatest pulls. The sheer size of the grounds and the height of the ceilings are enough to inspire square-footage envy, and the opulence and grandeur of the estate are staggering on a purely aesthetic level. Add in the dedication of the household staff (who make my current management company and super seem even lazier than they actually are), and an escape to the world of Downton becomes even sweeter.
This may be a generalization, but the average professional female (the type that Sybil would probably most admire) does not often enjoy the creature comforts that Downton affords, and while the freedom and self-reliance of today’s women are not to be sneezed at, it is also not a crime to imagine, for one hour a week, the joys of living in a house so big that leaving the grounds is rendered unnecessary for weeks at a time, coming up to bed to find a fire lit and your bed turned down, and having a personal library to brood in whenever the need should arise.
There are prices to pay for living in such luxury, of course, and the societal structure that supported such wealth is not one we should long to resurrect, but an occasional trip down imaginary lane can be easily forgiven. In a way, Downton Abbey is a more feminine version of Mad Men — a snapshot of a romanticized society that is crumbling at the base. We may long for aspects of it to return (the fancy cigarette paraphernalia and office drinking of Mad Men without the fear of lung cancer and alcoholism, and the enjoyment of luxury at Downton Abbey without the social conscience), but we can see as an audience why it fell apart, and are fascinated watching the characters grapple with its demise.
But the show’s greatest achievement, and its best attraction, is its collection of strong, feisty, and independent women living in a time that does its best to stifle strong, feisty, and independent women. The story line may begin with the hard truth that the estate is at risk because it cannot be inherited by a woman (again, a familiar plot stolen from Austen), but the story continues because Mary, Edith, Sybil, Anna, and even the Countess refuse to rest easy in their allotted places.
Inheritance struggles and war may swarm around them, reminding them every episode that they live in a man’s world, but it is the women of Downton Abbey that make it the most memorable and relatable. And it is because of them that the show, amidst all its soapiness, manages to deliver a message of loyalty, forgiveness, respect, and hope.
There is something universally compelling about people who fight to change their circumstances. The world of Downton Abbey is very defined and inflexible. People know their place, and that place rarely, if ever, changes. Whether this is a world that is stable and soothing or static and stifling is a matter of opinion, but regardless, it is not a world full of choices. Your options are pre-determined by your station in life, and contentment rather than true happiness seems to be the end goal. Well-born women paid social calls and decorated the room with their presence until a suitable husband came along, and then the cycle began all over again in a different house. But it was a world that was teetering on the edge of collapse. Beginning as it does with the news of the sinking of the Titanic and the loss of Downton’s heir and continuing with the advent of World War I, the story shows first the family and then the world in upheaval. Soon the characters of Downton Abbey, especially the women, find themselves scrambling to make sense of themselves in their new surroundings.
The stubborn, willful, and flawed Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) quickly became one of my favorite characters on the show. She does not, however, give a good first impression. She is by turns shallow, self-involved, sarcastic, calculating, and cold. But as the show progresses, she begins to show glimmers of insecurity and an appealing self-deprecating sense of humor, revealing a carefully hidden need for love and acceptance outside her status as a marriage pawn.
By the beginning of Season 2, Mary was one of the most sympathetic characters in the show. Her wariness of happiness, her penchant for self-sabotage, and her reluctance to show any chinks in her carefully and beautifully arranged armor soften her edges and warm up the chilly tone that often creeps into her voice. You want to fight for her, because her pride and stubbornness end up being her strength and as well as her weakness.
Edith (Laura Carmichael) and Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) are less important in the family’s marriage game, but react in very different ways to their place at Downton. Edith, in many ways a classic middle child (a fact that earned her my instant loyalty even when she least deserved it), is resentful of the attention given to Mary and her potential matches, and feels her uselessness keenly. It is Edith who grows the most over the show’s two seasons, eventually finding her happiness by helping others and becoming part of something bigger than herself.
Sybil, the youngest, is the petted idealist, but grows up far faster than either Mary or Edith. Sybil is the least interested in the shallowness of parties and matchmaking, becoming passionate about politics and a nursing career instead. It is she who finds her way out of her cage the fastest, through a combination of tenacity and spunk that seems to elude Mary and Edith.
But the “upstairs” women are not the only characters who drive the show. Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), the housekeeper, is the type of woman who would make the world’s most perfect teacher—stern and unfailingly fair, with hints of the mother hen popping through every now and again. Gwen (Rose Leslie from Season 1) and Ethel (Amy Nuttall from Season 2) both want more than being just a housemaid but look for their independence in vastly different ways, with vastly different consequences. And Anna (Joanne Froggatt), the head housemaid and lady’s maid for the Crawley girls, is someone whom you instantly want to be your friend. Loyal and hardworking, she is a charming combination of practical and dreamy. She chases her potential happiness with pure motives and determination, never pausing to be concerned about the shallow judgments of others. The challenges these women face are very different from those that Mary, Edith, and Sybil encounter, but they all share a desire to find happiness and worth outside of their station.
I would be incredibly remiss if I didn’t include the Dowager Countess in my list of compelling female characters. Maggie Smith, always a gem, peppers Downton Abbey with laugh-out-loud one-liners and is reason enough to watch the show even if you don’t care a bit about anything else I have mentioned. Even when you don’t like the Countess, you can’t help loving Maggie Smith. Her stately presence and keen wit bring out the liveliness of the show’s writing (something I have yet to heap enough praise on), and I look forward to what will come out of her mouth every time she enters a scene. Even though the Countess is someone who thrives in the type of society that tries to trap the other girls, they could take a lesson in strength and feistiness from this particular grand dame.
Surely Downton Abbey is not without its flaws. Season 1 has better plot twists than Season 2, and not every story revolved around romantic entanglements. The episodes end in less predictable places and do a better job of making you wonder what happens next. Season 2 fleshes out the people more, using the war as an opportunity for character growth, but indulges in the melodrama of that growth a bit more than I felt was necessary.
But nevertheless, Downton is a show that makes you care for its characters—you want to root for them because, despite the fact that their world seems so far removed from ours, you recognize yourself in their struggles. The soapiness that infiltrates the show makes this connection fun and entertaining rather than depressing. It keeps you from wondering if we as a society have in fact come as far as we think we have.
In the end, I know that a DVD collection of Downton Abbey will be proudly displayed on my bookshelf, not tucked away with my other guilty pleasures. It is an unbeatable combination of conversation-inducing, sexy (but prim) fluff. I will embrace my hypocrisy and keep urging the show on unsuspecting passersby because, frankly, everyone deserves a little fluff now and again, and nobody needs to apologize for it. Especially when that fluff comes with a character as cute as Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), which is a perk far better to see than to read about. . . . Trust me.