Created by: Julian Fellowes. Nearly every time I write about a TV series that I’ve been sucked into, hooked onto, and emotionally and temporally depleted by, I go into a big song and dance explaining my weird love/hate relationship with the medium, but maybe I’ll just skip that part for once. Look at that photo above—there’s nothing I can hide behind, no distance I can create between myself and the show. I heard about the show, I kept it at a distance, rejected it on the grounds that it was a “safe old lady show”, and the minute it was normalised for me, the millisecond that I heard a bunch of my friends talking about how they were all hooked on it, I made up my mind that I would indulge. And oh, dear god, indulge I did. Any “review” of this TV show (are any of these things actually reviews?) would have to actually be a document of a period of time in my life, a diary entry of the two or three months where 90% of what I was watching was Downton Abbey. It felt like the bulk of my waking hours when I wasn’t doing some prior commitment, like working, was spent absorbed in this dumb show. And I don’t mean to backtrack and act like I’m actually too cool for school, that I was only watching ironically or something. I definitely liked it, I even loved it for awhile, I looked forward to immersing myself again and again in that safe, inane, made-up fantasy picture of the past. But all the while, I could see that it was an inane, safe, made-up fantasy, and I liked it exactly for that reason. But, as my old film prof said about Forrest Gump, this show was a really satisfying show, a show that felt really good, but that was probably the worst show for me (for us generally).
This show is quite possibly the purest example of unabashed escapism that I’ve ever come across, more than any action movie, more than any feel-good drama, because it’s set in the past, and through such a strong tint of rose-coloured glasses. “Nostalgia” doesn’t even begin to approach what this show does, it’s utter fantasy. In fact, as I seem to be going in circles here, a useful place to start with digesting this show is as a negative counterpart to Game of Thrones. As interesting as it is to ask why it’s so satisfying for us to watch that twisted fantasy version of medieval Europe that stews in awfulness, in atrocity after atrocity, especially when it’s all made up, it’s also interesting (although perhaps more straightforward) to ask why it’s so satisfying for us—not just nice old ladies who watch Corrie Street, but jaded millennials like me who count Downton Abbey as a show on par with Thrones or Breaking Bad or some Eli Roth gore-porn movie—to stew for hours and hours in this carefully arranged, warm down blanket of a TV show. Is this another Pulp Fiction/Forrest Gump thing? For those who don’t want to wade into a swamp of incoherent ramblings by reading my post that I just linked, I’m basically asking, is Downton Abbey, and the warm reception it got from younger people, just some hard evidence that we are creatures who seek stasis, and that in this era of “edgy” entertainment that deals with “real issues”, we needed some fluff to balance it out? If this show was in any way aimed at jaded millennials, then it’s downright amazing that any of us stuck with it as long as we (I) did. There were definitely times where I just couldn’t stomach it anymore—this show is just too blatant a piece of propaganda from rich aristocrats showing us how great these rich aristocrats are. And really, what great luck all of these butlers and maids have, to end up serving the nicest family of filthy rich aristocrats in the entire fucking world. No class tension, no contempt for the common folk, no homophobia, no racism (these last two are especially unbelievable—it was the 1920’s for fuck’s sake, that wouldn’t even be credible in the 70’s), and the only hint of sexual assault comes from a servant. All of the potentially explosive shit—having an Irish socialist revolutionary in the family, Mary having sex before marriage—all of it is placed here to provide some juicy shit for modern people to dig into, but it gives this show away as pure fantasy. And really, as I speak, I’m only making myself more absurd, holding this show up to any kind of standard of logic, when I was only attracted to it, like everyone, because it’s pure fantasy.
So perhaps the best thing for it is to just list of some things I noticed about the show, good or bad: was anyone else irritated that this show had a bit of that Mad Men syndrome, where every five minutes somebody says something prescient about the future or makes some implausibly clunky statement about how “the war really changed our society completely” or “this century is very different from the last!”; did anyone else find that whole subplot about Mr. Pamuk, that sex scene which was painfully close to being a rape scene, really weird and fucked up?—she said “no” like ten times; did anyone else think that the whole subplot with Edith and her baby was pretty fucked up, both implausible that nobody would connect the dots, and really awful and cruel and stupid and shortsighted of her to pull the kid all over Europe and mess with her head, and that the show is still placing her as someone we should root for and feel sympathy for?; did anyone else ever wonder what the fucking deal was with Thomas and O’Brien, why they’re so permanently up to no good and scheming and just rotten for the sake of conspicuously providing some antagonism into this idyllic world? (though, to be fair, Thomas and his arc was the most interesting and robust thing in the whole show); did anyone else get as irritated as I did about Cora, just the entire character, that awful grating Betty Boop 1920’s American accent that sticks out like a fucking sore thumb, and the completely far-fetched and unreasonable idiocy that her character had to necessarily exhibit in order to be so baldly manipulated by O’Brien like that?; did anyone else notice how these people spend more time eating and talking about what they’re going to eat, or what they’d like to eat, or explaining that, after I left dinner early, I just had some sandwiches at the train station, than a fucking Hobbit?; did anyone else notice that everyone who sits at that dinner table seems to be completely deaf, which enables the people sitting three feet directly in front of them to gossip about them at a plainly audible volume (purely because a TV show with 20 pages of dialogue conducted in whispers every episode would test people’s patience)?; did anyone else appreciate how, at any given time, Maggie Smith had some of the best lines in the show and that, really, she was probably 70-80% of why we kept watching?; and was anyone else genuinely pretty moved at the nice relationship between Mrs. Patmore and Daisy, or because Mr. Molesley finally turned out okay, or because Thomas finally got to be head butler? What a stupid, great show.