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Escape from austerity
December 23, 2011 6:39 AM   Subscribe

Downton Abbey has become one of the UK's most popular drama series of recent years and will take pride of place in ITV's schedule with a special episode(video) on Christmas Day that is said to be so good as to be potentially 'vomit inducing'.

It's garnered critical as well as popular praise (and some perhaps surprising fans), recently winning four Emmys - including one, obviously, for Maggie Smith. However the last series, set against WWI, was seem by some as below par with rushed nonsensical plots and spoilt by excessive advertising.

The series is filmed at Highclere Castle which was before the programme probably best known for hosting celebrity weddings though it has an interesting past.

Test your knowledge of the show, and find out whether you are the Earl of Grantham or a lowly scullery maid, with this entertaining quiz.
posted by fearfulsymmetry (92 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
I suppose a spoiler warning should be put on the links having to do with the most recent series, as it has yet to air in the U.S.?

Also, PBS earns my vitriol for editing the show for time and to increase the number of episodes. Meh.

Otherwise, I fell in love with the first series.
posted by Atreides at 6:42 AM on December 23, 2011


The second series was about as ham-handed as it could get.
posted by Threeway Handshake at 6:49 AM on December 23, 2011


My wife has watched this on Netflix and I've seen a few episodes. It's actually quite good.

It has also resulted in the hijacking of my Netflix account. Now, all of my recommendations are for British period pieces.
posted by glaucon at 6:50 AM on December 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


I was promised hot lord on valvet action and got nothing, foulest film flummery and balderdash u say.
posted by The Whelk at 6:52 AM on December 23, 2011 [7 favorites]


I loved series one and can't wait for the second to start in January. I clicked a couple of the links. I'm not one bothered by spoilers, but for those that are there are tons.
posted by cjorgensen at 6:52 AM on December 23, 2011


The second season felt like a Telemundo soap opera, but without the restraint.
posted by mecran01 at 6:54 AM on December 23, 2011 [9 favorites]


Maggie Smith is incredible ("What is a weekend?") but the rest of the show is pretty damn silly. As a dutiful American, however, I'm required to absolutely love anything England sends over so long as it's swaddled in period clothing and gives good stately home. And I do!
posted by villanelles at dawn at 6:59 AM on December 23, 2011 [14 favorites]


I can't remember which year-end list called it "Best Remake of Upstairs, Downstairs," but that seems very fitting. I enjoy the heck out of the show but it telegraphs its plot points from miles away.

The second season felt like a Telemundo soap opera, but without the restraint.

Yes, it's an upstairs/downstairs soap opera. I'm frankly surprised that anyone expected something different.
posted by muddgirl at 7:08 AM on December 23, 2011


The second season felt like a Telemundo soap opera, but without the restraint.

Yeah, this. I mean, the first series was pretty soapy, but the second made me a little embarassed to even watch it.

I wasn't going to watch the Christmas special, but maybe if the reviews are good enough, I'll be tempted back.
posted by dinty_moore at 7:08 AM on December 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


I watched the first season by spouse proxy and it was pretty good. A bit incredulous at times sure, but I watched all six seasons of Lost, so my incredulous threshold is warped.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:09 AM on December 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yeah, US fans, this upcoming series is more soapy than expected, but I got the feeling that it was a "holding period" of sorts for the sure-to-be-juicy third series. My understanding was that the show is only supposed to go for three series. We'll see what happens.
posted by droplet at 7:10 AM on December 23, 2011


Downton is created and largely written by Julian Fellowes^, who was the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Gosford Park. Although he shows particular sensitivity for the Edwardian class relationships, as a writer he may not have all that many plots in him.

He is quite enjoyable in the somewhat similar, though unabashedly modern, great-house soaper (is that Variety speak yet? it seems to be an incipient genre) Monarch of the Glen, in which he played an insufferable aristocrat before getting his own barony.

Fellowes is rather curious in that despite being an unabashed Tory, he has at least partial working-class roots, and writes rather sensitively of the point of view of the servant class (and even a sympathetic Socialist character in Downton).
posted by dhartung at 7:17 AM on December 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Also, PBS earns my vitriol for editing the show for time and to increase the number of episodes. Meh.

My memory is that the edits for time on PBS were much smaller than first reported and, as I recall, were done by the same people who made the show for the UK. The great majority of the difference in total running time relates to the fact that it had ads in the UK and not on PBS. There were early reports that, like, two hours had been cut, and that was not the case at all.

I'm not sure the amount of editing necessarily rises to the level of vitriol.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 7:17 AM on December 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


We are being primed for a return to lives of domestic servitude. Upstairs Downstairs was on at Christmas last year.

Also, Fellows is a Posh cunt, who said in the Times, "Things were better in those days, people knew what to do" (i.e. their place) Fuck you Fellows and your shitty bullshit lie of a show. Any maids been raped yet?
posted by marienbad at 7:17 AM on December 23, 2011 [6 favorites]


this has been my ringtone for a month, fellow Downtoners:

Dun Dun Dun Dun dee dun dun dun dee dun

(do do dee do do do do )


featherdusts chandelier


BBC Red Nose Day did an awesome spoof of DA.

If you want to escape to a simpler time, a proper British period drama in gorgeous costume and sparkling set, with relate-able heartfelt, sometimes sarcastic, flawed, will they/won't they family of characters... come to Downton. Servants may go to the side entrance.
posted by dracomarca at 7:17 AM on December 23, 2011 [5 favorites]


Is there something I can read to make the case for this being more than just a stuffy period drama about stale british class issues? Like is it DA:"Servant drama"::Wire: "Cop Shows" or is it more like DA:"Servant drama"::The Closer:"Cop Shows". ?
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:22 AM on December 23, 2011


I'm with marienbad. The show glorifies a golden age that never really was, unless you were a member of the upper class. The sooner we stop romanticising the class system and kowtowing to the monarcht and those who inherited their positions, the better. </rant>
posted by Nick Jordan at 7:24 AM on December 23, 2011 [4 favorites]


Politics aside ( and that is a big aside mind ) DA never gelled for me cause it seemed bad at being a soap, too many undistinguished characters, glacier pace, lurid intrigue not nearly lurid enough ( Turkish ambassador aside ) and heaping bowls oh look at the pretty dress boredom. Let soaps be soapy, the series feels as stiff as a detachable collar.
posted by The Whelk at 7:26 AM on December 23, 2011


And the golden rule of upstairs downstairs drama? Nothing of any interest is happening upstairs.
posted by The Whelk at 7:28 AM on December 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


Inspired by this show, my girlfriend made us put on the old Upstairs Downstairs from Netflix (I think ), and it was totally unwatchable. The filmed stage-show style of production, along with the excessively loud sound effects, such as at the dinner table all nonspeaking actors clang their silverware as loud as possible, made it agonizing.

We'd just watched all of Extras, and it felt just like a not-parody version of Andy Millman's horrible sitcom.
posted by Threeway Handshake at 7:32 AM on December 23, 2011


Shouldn't half of these people been wiped out by the Great War by now?
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 7:33 AM on December 23, 2011


Time for another one perhaps.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:35 AM on December 23, 2011


I'm not sure the amount of editing necessarily rises to the level of vitriol.

Vitriol doesn't come in half-orders.
posted by villanelles at dawn at 7:36 AM on December 23, 2011


Your favorite idyllic English costume miniseries sucks.
posted by dracomarca at 7:37 AM on December 23, 2011


Nick Jordan: Look, I'm only a casual watcher of the show. I enjoyed it, but didn't love it (my wife did), but I think you could "read" the show more charitably. The show seemed to me to be about the moment of transition from a time when social and class roles were very sure and predictable to a time when they were far less sure, far more fluid, far more just, and yet far more confusing. Lines like the aforementioned "What is a weekend?" highlight how radically different the old world of Maggie Smith is from the new world of the lawyer cousin. The maid who leaves to become a secretary (I think that's what the job was) is another example. The episode where the telephone arrives and changes the established hierarchy of social reception is exemplary on this theme as well.

I won't deny that there's a certain aesthetic fetishization of the time period, but the show's themes are more complicated than I think you're appreciating. And let's face it, as much as we can look back at that time, and do so especially from the growing income inequality of today, and see in the time period and setup of the show a class politics and social stagnation that seems abhorrent, it was a simpler time in many ways. Not a better time, but a simpler time. Things are much more fluid today, much more complex (Zygmunt Bauman uses the expression "liquid modernity," which I like tremendously), and while there are substantial opportunities that attend those differences, there are opportunity costs. I'm much happier with where we are now, but the differences between now and the time period articulated in the show are more complicated and more interesting that merely a question of which one is better or which one is more repressive.
posted by hank_14 at 7:40 AM on December 23, 2011 [9 favorites]


But how could she be surprised by the action of a swivel chair? She would have had to have swivelled to be facing him in the first place! From this single scene I can therefore deduce that the entire series is laughably unrealistic.
posted by steganographia at 7:44 AM on December 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Nick Jordan: "The show glorifies a golden age that never really was, unless you were a member of the upper class."

It takes a very special type of class resentment to see Downton Abbey as show that just glorifies a golden age. I think it shows the unraveling of that age and how it just wasn't sustainable anymore. It was great for the people upstairs, and the sad thing is that it was great for the people downstairs too - given the alternatives. Also, consider that a sizeable chunk of the Russian population misses the Soviet Union, it's weird how the past plays tricks on us. People just miss it, even if it was very unfair and they were at the bottom.

The Economist holiday edition has a great article about the change in domestic labor in that period of English history, comparing with a similar phenomenon happening in Brazil today. It's worth reading.
posted by falameufilho at 7:47 AM on December 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Recently re-watched Days of Hope; we'll not see period drama of that quality again on British telly I fear.
posted by Abiezer at 7:47 AM on December 23, 2011


I love it.
posted by contessa at 7:49 AM on December 23, 2011 [4 favorites]


I've heard that the second series was pretty ridiculous, and I suspect what happened was that it got written and made too quickly after the first series was such a huge (& unexpected) hit. Lots of daft plots, lots of 'TWNH' (That Would Never Happen) moments. Betcha the Christmas one, all two hours worth, is very, very bad.
posted by DanCall at 7:58 AM on December 23, 2011


I like DA, but I must admit I'm a bigger fan of the original and the reboot of The Forsyte Saga, even the B&W episodes. The decades-long battle of wills between Soames and Irene grabbed me (except for that clutch of episodes about Soames and some scam he was trying to uncover near the end of the original series), and I'm far, far from being English or upper middle class or anything like that. Upstairs/Downstairs just didn't hold my interest in the same way.

But you know what I'd rather? Something in the vein of I, Claudius. Sure, it was soapy, but you had Derek Jacobi, Sian Philips, Brian Blessed, Patrick Stewart and John Hurt as crazypants Caligula! If you're going to soap it up, put some first class actors in there who know what "raising the stakes" means! Even with the cheesiest sets known to Western television, damned if it wasn't utterly compelling - and I didn't see it until 2009 on DVD.

I wouldn't put any of the actors of DA on that plane except dear Maggie, though Michelle Dockery isn't bad.
posted by droplet at 8:05 AM on December 23, 2011


Ah, I found it beautiful fun nonsense and great knitting fodder. What you'd get if you put (the horrid) Upstairs, Downstairs and a few Jane Austen novels in shaker and covered it in money. I'm sad to hear that the second season got even more ridiculous, but then sweaters don't knit themselves.

Julian Fellows is Lord Killwillie? And wrote Gosford Park? I say, good show, what? :head explodes:
posted by smirkette at 8:12 AM on December 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


The show seemed to me to be about the moment of transition from a time when social and class roles were very sure and predictable to a time when they were far less sure, far more fluid, far more just, and yet far more confusing.

Yes -- in that sense, it struck me as being very much like Mad Men.
posted by mothershock at 8:31 AM on December 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


I really enjoyed the first series. It was fun -- yes, it was soapy, but not too much so, the only particularly bad plot point was Mary and the . . . whoever he was. I really enjoyed the start of the second series, but each episode got sillier than the next. An amnesiac! Another murder! A complete change in the character of O'Brien for absolutely no reason! I know the problems with the show and classism (see, the rich people all truly cared about their servants! it was so much better then!) but I can like it despite seeing those problems. I have trouble liking it when the plots are so terrible.

Of course, I'll give the Christmas special a chance and probably watch series 3 anyhow. I mean, I actually watched the entire current season of Dexter (tip: don't): it's clear I rarely give up on shows.
posted by jeather at 8:32 AM on December 23, 2011


It takes a very special type of class resentment to see Downton Abbey as show that just glorifies a golden age. I think it shows the unraveling of that age and how it just wasn't sustainable anymore. It was great for the people upstairs, and the sad thing is that it was great for the people downstairs too

Hmm, it really wasn't great for most of the people downstairs. Sure the butler and the housekeeper made a decent (sort of) living and got a modicum of respect (as long as they kept their place) but other servants were treated badly and paid poorly.

You're right up to a point that the series doesn't really glorify the age, but it's a little bit more complex than that (as is the programme). For example it has been leapt on by the (mostly) right wing rags that pass for newspapers over here as EXACTLY that, not from class resentment but because they think that it's A Good Thing. The Great British Public (gawd luv 'em) have a long term love affair with "the past" which this programme does nothing but feed.
posted by ntrifle at 8:55 AM on December 23, 2011


The Economist holiday edition has a great article about the change in domestic labor in that period of English history, comparing with a similar phenomenon happening in Brazil today. It's worth reading.
posted by falameufilho at 3:47 PM on December 23 [+] [!]


That is indeed a very interesting look at the changing aspect of domestic work as an economy grows richer.

This Askme fits very nicely into this topic. It is a question about what sort of servants you would have today if you belonged to the upper decile income wise.

The answer seems to be almost no one at all.
posted by Catfry at 8:58 AM on December 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yes -- in that sense, it struck me as being very much like Mad Men.

When Betty Draper sacked Carla without a reference over a single infraction of no real importance, that said more than the entire series of Downton; despite the fact that in the 1960s Carla wouldn't have ended up in the poorhouse.
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:20 AM on December 23, 2011


Maggie Smith is so amazing. "I take that as a compliment." "Oh? I must have said it wrong."
posted by prefpara at 9:22 AM on December 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


but other servants were treated badly and paid poorly.

The turnover rate for the minor servants (usually all women) was insane and a bad reference could bar you from employment forever, there was practically an entire industry devotted to "How to treat your servants" guides and they all stressed the importance of discipline and rigorous conformity, and you could still be fired without notice or reason at any time.
posted by The Whelk at 9:26 AM on December 23, 2011


But you know what I'd rather? Something in the vein of I, Claudius.

How about I, Claudius, remade by HBO?
posted by anagrama at 11:04 AM on December 23, 2011


But how does this show stack up to Cougarton Abbey?
posted by Strange Interlude at 11:05 AM on December 23, 2011 [4 favorites]


Penelope Wilton, Maggie Smith and Elizabeth McGovern are the reasons I watch this show. As a gay man, though, I would prefer more Turkish ambassadors and closeted Dukes.
posted by PapaLobo at 11:14 AM on December 23, 2011 [4 favorites]


I'm amazed anyone thinks this show glorifies the Edwardian/Victorian class system.

The first episode shows a footman being sexually exploited by a duke.

And the austere servant's quarters.

The lord of the house is desperate to get his daughters married because under primogeniture, they might lose access to the house when he dies.

The eldest daughter was negotiating a marriage of convenience as a result (only to lose the prospective husband on the Titanic).

All of the servants are living lives of quiet desperation for different reasons.

And people are irked that there isn't enough leftist agitprop in the show?
posted by ocschwar at 11:19 AM on December 23, 2011 [5 favorites]


I am actually disappointed to find that it wasn't a mini-series that simply ended with Lord Grantham's dramatic announcement at the garden party. Given the fact that the thematic development of the show is about impending change, to end it at that moment would have made a more succinct and complete work of art.
posted by machim at 12:05 PM on December 23, 2011


It definitely and deliberately glorifies the class system, and it's explicit right wing propaganda: but Julian F is clever enough to present his propaganda with some subtlety and complexity. In that respect he reminds me of Clint Eastwood - right wing, but not insane with it.
posted by communicator at 12:07 PM on December 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


it's explicit right wing propaganda

how so?
posted by prefpara at 12:20 PM on December 23, 2011


It's not a secret. Fellowes is a Conservative politician, who sits in the British Parliament as a Tory (in the House of Lords, and he describes himself as a long Right-Wing voice in a TV industry which is (in his opinion) dominated by left wingers.

The traditional Conservative world view in the UK is that the relationship between the classes is benign and organic, and that progress towards (for example) women's rights or sexual reform is a process of existing paternalism refining and reforming itself. You can see it above in people saying that the class system, or the servant-master relationship, was seen positively on both sides. These are sometimes called 'One Nation' Tories. Downton Abbey explicitly presents a paternalist 'One Nation' narrative.
posted by communicator at 12:39 PM on December 23, 2011 [5 favorites]


Fellowes is a right wing politican, who sits in the British Parliament, on the Tory benches. By 'explicit' I mean he has explicitly said that he wants to present a right wing voice in the TV world which is (in his opinion) dominated by the left. I think the British media are more liberal-centrist, and Fellowes is an old fashioned One-Nation paternalist Tory. I think it's pretty obvious that Downton Abbey aligns with its author's world view. To the extent that one could deduce the world view even if he hadn't explained it.

Here's an interview with Fellowes in the Telegraph.
posted by communicator at 12:40 PM on December 23, 2011


damn, I got a message saying the last comment had died, so I rewrote it - sorry folks, what a twit I am
posted by communicator at 12:41 PM on December 23, 2011


I understand he may have certain political views, but how are those views explicit in the show? Can you give a show-specific example?
posted by prefpara at 12:52 PM on December 23, 2011


Count me as another one who's not getting the right-wing paternalistic thing; apart from, perhaps, that the Granthams are good sorts who generally look out for the people in their charge.

I don't think it's argued at any point, though, that this is the best option for all concerned. It clearly is a last resort for Bates, a prison for the footman from Coronation St and the end of all hope for the girl who wants to be a secretary.

Any maids been raped yet?

One of them is impregnated by a toff, sacked and abandoned. I think that comes pretty close.

I stopped watching for different reasons - it turned into a two dimensional, tedious mess.
posted by Summer at 12:54 PM on December 23, 2011


how are those views explicit in the show?

By 'explicit' I meant he explicitly says that the show expresses his values. This explication happens outside the show. The values are expressed within the show, the authorial commentary saying 'I am glad to have a chance to express my values on TV' is outside the show.

It may be that you think by 'explicit' I meant something like 'crude' or 'crass', so I am saying 'the show crassly expresses right wing values'. I mean the expression is not covert, it is up front. I am not a Tory but Tories have every right to create works which express their values.

Or do you mean, how are the values of the writer expressed by his work? The show is not realistic, and the way it diverges from realism is by portraying progression towards modern values as a process of enlightenment and relaxation of the master class, and its benign encouragement and support for the ill-formed aspirations of the working class. In reality progress was created in the teeth of opposition from the ruling elite.
posted by communicator at 1:43 PM on December 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


Here's an interview with Fellowes in the Telegraph.

Ha! But look at him defending government film subsidies at the end.

Look, there's no question this isn't a cutting social critique, and the lens is lathered with a good deal of vaseline.

Fellowes has a good interview on the Gosford Park DVD wherein he explains how he came to write the screenplay. The upshot is that he had a foot in more than one class and a grandmother (on whom he based Maggie Smith's character) with attitudes that long outlasted the era in which they had any validity. The interplay of class and -- really, in this context -- station fascinated him, and he had his own background as well as a network of friends to draw on in getting the details right. It's very clear from that story, in which hardly anyone comes across looking particularly good, but least of all the aristocrats, that Fellowes has empathy for multiple points of view and even, to a schoolboy's extent at least, a smattering of Marx in him.

The central story in that film, not to give anything away, comes pretty close to the example requested above. If more of that came from Altman, it doesn't appear that Fellowes felt his own vision had been altered much.

I believe what Fellowes got out of this experience was that there was A Market for That Sort of Thing, i.e. fascination with the great house and the whole social mechanism which allowed it to exist and spin like a well-oiled engine. As a TV series approach, you need sympathetic characters, and I would agree it's nostalgia -- but I don't think it's propaganda for a lost age.

Sure, Lord Grantham is probably as idealized and modern a conception of an Earl as there has ever been, but then this allows you to see his own perspective as the system which has sustained him, which he has barely held onto, begins to threaten his family's future. Cora, being American, has the advantage both in and out of story of being American and thus able to chuck any convention almost at will. The Dowager Countess is the embodiment of all that came before, and in a perpetual huff at its decline, which while empathetic does not come across as sympathetic. Mary is the major sympathetic character, and her life is almost ruined by what amounts, it would appear, to have been a heavy petting session. Edith is the least sympathetic of the sisters, and she is the one happy to marry the appropriate man, a widower twice her age, not a flattering thing from our perspective. Sylvia is vivacious, modern, political, feminist for her era (suffragette), and more than gracious to the maid Gwen. She represents the future as much as any character save Matthew. Matthew is solidly middle-class, a lawyer making his own way, and able to walk away from it all. [I write at the end of Series 1, to be sure.] Mrs. Crawley is connected to this world, but distinctly not of it, and uncomfortable with the pomp, the circumstance, and the exercise of power, and again, she is firmly in the camp of the sympathetic.

Of the servants, Carson and Mrs. Hughes are sympathetic, but clearly represent the point of view of their ages: resigned to the system, loyal to the choices they have made, and resentful that the new generation seems to have more flexibility than they did. Thomas and Gwen, one sympathetic, one the out and out villain of the piece, see a world beyond service. Bates is quiet and tight-lipped, knowing this is a lucky break for him that is only his due to his loyalty as Grantham's Boer War batman. O'Brien commits the worst crime of the first series, shown to be because she fears dismissal and ruination (no reference). Daisy is picked on constantly and worked seemingly the hardest as the bottom maid of the hierarchy. Thomas is happy as a footman but doing the job because his mother wanted him to have a better career. Most notably, Branson the chauffeur is a professed Socialist, but protective and even heroic when Sylvia is endangered.

You have in this series the advent of the motorcar and the telephone, both bringing a measure of change to the household. I don't think these are examined in the detail that a critique would demand, but they are handled in interesting ways nonetheless.

If this were propaganda, I think Branson would have been the easiest choice to demonize. Instead we get someone who is able to navigate household politics shown as absolutely venal, and someone with a criminal past redeeming himself. Again, strict Tory propaganda would probably demand that the man with a prison record be there for a good and proper reason.

No, this isn't critique, let alone An Inspector Calls (which, interestingly, could have been an inspiration for part of the GP script), but we want characters we want to come back to, so the household can't really be full of upper class twits constantly stepping on the maids' and valets' toes and the staff can't be constantly being dismissed for failing to properly starch the cuffs or salt the soup. It may be counter-revolutionary to show Grantham not firing a servant with a medical problem, but getting her surgery instead (but I think that nobless oblige was also to an extent true). But then we have a social upheaval at hand in the war and characters under stress are almost always more interesting.

Finally, in a way, an important character is the house, Highclere Castle, and what a fine example of High Victorian Gothic it is (same architect as the rebuilt Houses of Parliament). The show has pumped a good amount of money into its maintenance and renovation.

Nostalgia, I believe it has been said, is naturally reactionary. That may be true. Perhaps as an American I get to watch this without the electricity of recognizing my grandparents. I don't think it's great TV, and I don't think it's necessary, but I do think it's fine enough and fun enough, at least in the way that a diagrammatic animation of a car engine is. So I'm not seeing the propaganda here. It's soapy fluff and the sets and costumes are aesthetically appealing and every character in every class has a legitimate point of view without being trivialized.

As I watched Gosford and this, I in fact constantly wondered how someone could write these characters and be a Tory. communicator's point about "One Nation" Tories goes a way to explaining that. I rather wish he would take his ability of empathy to its logical conclusion more often, but it's far from being simplistic propaganda.
posted by dhartung at 1:50 PM on December 23, 2011 [10 favorites]


The first series has a pretty explicit "benevolent masters and happy servants" theme - it's been awhile since I watched it so I have a hard time thinking of specifics, but I remember being surprised at the time that most of the conflict was between members of the same class, or between specifically evil members of one class and specifically good members of another class. For all the faults of the second series, there's a little more open critique, although we still have [SPOILER] the loving and loyal butler who is literally enraged at the idea of a mere driver marrying a daughter of the house. If that isn't an unrealistically idealized view of the proper English butler I don't know what is.
posted by muddgirl at 2:01 PM on December 23, 2011


strict Tory propaganda would probably demand that the man with a prison record be there for a good and proper reason

I think this is a misunderstanding of how political views are expressed in art. Only the crudest and most insensitive political art works in that way. Again, I refer back to Clint Eastwood who in my opinion is a brilliant right wing artist. His works are nuanced, he is open to values which originated on the left, he anticipates criticisms and concedes significant points.

Downton Abbey is weak and shallow compared to that, but Fellowes has the basic competence to deliver something a bit beyond what you describe.

I think if we imagine political propaganda has to be crude and lacking in all nuance, we will miss 90% of all political expression. Also if imagine there is a 'Tory line' which all conservative artists will adhere to. There are many shades of Tory, very widely different, and they detest each other.
posted by communicator at 2:16 PM on December 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


When Matthew returned to the hall (in the middle of Lady Mary singing) after being declared missing in the war, I had to LOL it was so bad. The first season was watchable, the second season was ridiculous.
posted by pashdown at 4:01 PM on December 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Muddgirl, perhaps you watched a different show. Nobody was miserable, but describing anyone on DA as happy by definition is a stretch.
posted by falameufilho at 4:06 PM on December 23, 2011


I think this is a misunderstanding of how political views are expressed in art.

I disagree with you, but there's no need to be patronizing. FFS.

This may be middlebrow, this may be reactionary, this may even be bad TV, but I don't see how it can be propaganda without being explicit in the way that you are specifically saying it needn't be.
posted by dhartung at 4:07 PM on December 23, 2011


Communicator, by your standards, if DA is right wing propaganda, then EVERYTHING ELSE is left wing propaganda.
posted by falameufilho at 4:09 PM on December 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


In the first season it did seem that a character was good or evil to precisely the same extent that he or she respected the social order. Though on closer examination that doesn't quite bear up: O'Brien is evil and she is perhaps more insistent about everyone knowing his or her place than anyone save the Dowager Countess. Also, the cod-revolutionary chauffeur -- he of the dastardly plot to spill soup on the oppressor -- for all that he's kind of a saddo in the uprising department portrayed pretty sympathetically in the end.

It also seemed like no upper class characters were evil, barring only the arriviste publisher perhaps, and he doesn't count anyway. New money, you see. No breeding at all. But there's also that Duke, the one with the background trysts with Thomas , and as for him, well...

It is interesting that there are two gay characters and they're both complete bastards. I wonder if there's anything in Fellowes' attitudes to be read into that.
posted by George_Spiggott at 4:24 PM on December 23, 2011


Nostalgia, I believe it has been said, is naturally reactionary. That may be true. Perhaps as an American I get to watch this without the electricity of recognizing my grandparents.

Perhaps. Only once a thing is dead can we safely play dressup with its corpse. A good number of the people who had money and titles a hundred years ago still have them now. It's not a harmless esthetic or nostalgia until these people no longer have any more power and control than the average citizen. Anything that fails to stress the oppressiveness of their regime gives them succor, and you better believe them bastards are waiting in the wings for their chance.
posted by Jehan at 4:39 PM on December 23, 2011


SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS


When Matthew returned to the hall (in the middle of Lady Mary singing) after being declared missing in the war, I had to LOL it was so bad. The first season was watchable, the second season was ridiculous.

The thing that pissed me off about the second season was how he started with a number of great, interesting characters that we cared about and then in the second season made them into cartoons that we lost interest in. Lord Grantham went from being the sensitive, thoughtful Master to being a petulant dick who whined and complained about everything. Lady G. who was marginal in the first series became a vapid, unwatchable character with nothing to offer-- every time the camera was on her and she smiled I thought she looked drunk-- I was expecting a sub-plot about her being a laudanum abuser. Sybil went from a headstrong young woman with spunk to a dull, dreary Nurse without any spark-- certainly not enough to fend off the chauffeur. Did anyone really see them as passionately in love?

Mrs. Crawly fell the farthest in my estimation. Not only did she become tediously officious trying to run everything she even became stupid. Season 1 she never would have fallen for the Dowager's ruse to get her away from Downton. She was likeable in Season 1 as she battled the Dowager, but Season 2 I just wanted her to go away.

My greatest disappointment was the love story between Bates and Anna. I was so ready for it to be over when Bates left to join his wife without any explanation. The will they/won't they went on far too long and I just wanted Anna to find someone else, someone better.

For all its faults, the original Upstairs, Downstairs had a cast of strong characters that grew and evolved and remained interesting through all their tribulations.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 5:05 PM on December 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


The first series has a pretty explicit "benevolent masters and happy servants" theme

I'm sorry, but that is so not the case. Most of the servants are decidedly not happy. They're just braving out their predicaments as best they can.
posted by ocschwar at 5:13 PM on December 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Downton Abbey morse code decoded
posted by Ad hominem at 5:24 PM on December 23, 2011


I've watched the first and second series but I have huge holes in my recollection of what actually happened in them so a rewatch may be in order.

I don't know if it is an accurate portrayal but I wouldn't expect scullery maids to be class warriors, I would expect most people to be concerned with their own lives and getting by trying to achieve some happiness. If you work in an office, does the person who empties the garbage and sweeps up rail against you? Does the person who bags your groceries shake their fist as you take your bags?
posted by Ad hominem at 5:32 PM on December 23, 2011


That being said I can easily see the show being a treatise on "things were better when everyone knew their place"
posted by Ad hominem at 5:37 PM on December 23, 2011


I'll agree that the first series was better than the second, and it does get rather overwrought at times. But I think the point was that the characters in the first season were the way they were because they existed in their places. Once the places began to crumble and all these people are forced into roles they didn't expect or ask for, their personalities become sort of mismatched and weird, and the result is ... potentially good, but in reality a bit of a mess. I'm hoping that the third series wraps things up by showing that people have actualized a bit and not just followed a script.

Mainly, as an American (as someone upstream has said), I'm obligated to gawk at the overpowering glamour of the setting and feel cowed by lordliness. It's partially just for the look and feel of the show (which is extremely tastefully shot and technically well done as well, except for some added blur) that I watch. And why can't I love a soap now and then?
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 6:13 PM on December 23, 2011


if DA is right wing propaganda, then EVERYTHING ELSE is left wing propaganda

So, your argument is that either Downton Abbey is more right wing than everything else on telly, or it's not political?
posted by communicator at 6:15 PM on December 23, 2011


I wouldn't expect scullery maids to be class warriors

And if the servants were portrayed in that way that would indeed be a story infused by left wing values. But DA is equally biased in the other direction. Left wing values are seen as 'political', right wing values are seen as neutral.

Imagine a story set in an office where Bankers were portrayed in the way Aristocrats are shown in Downton Abbey, with the lower grades knowing their place. Or imagine a story about race relations which showed black people in that way. It would be so offensive that I think anyone would shudder.

Someone above compared it to Mad Men, but the contrast could not be more stark. Mad Men opens out as the characters become more complex as they struggle with freedom and self-expression, Downton Abbey closes down, becoming more trite and flimsy.
posted by communicator at 6:32 PM on December 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Ok I think I understand the disconnect, as an American I don't really understand the class aspects of it. When I see the relationship we see some rich people and some people who happen to have jobs as maids and butlers. In my worldview, they could go take night clases and become lawyers or send their kids to college and have them achieve success. But in reality, these people had been born into servitude and likely their children will be as well. There is no way for them to become duchesses and dukes.
posted by Ad hominem at 6:46 PM on December 23, 2011


Most of the servants are decidedly not happy. They're just braving out their predicaments as best they can.

Their unhappiness has nothing to do with their class, and indeed Downton Abbey almost makes the argument that Upstairs is as unhappy, if not more unhappy, than Downstairs. IIRC, the only person in S1 truly unhappy with his status in life was the villain. In S2, the only downstairs character who is unhappy with her status is cursed with an unwanted pregnancy and cast down to an even lower station.
posted by muddgirl at 7:53 PM on December 23, 2011


Perhaps too many onlies there - the S1 villain is still unhappy with his status in S2 and is likewise punished for it.
posted by muddgirl at 7:53 PM on December 23, 2011


communicator: "Imagine a story set in an office where Bankers were portrayed in the way Aristocrats are shown in Downton Abbey, with the lower grades knowing their place. Or imagine a story about race relations which showed black people in that way. It would be so offensive that I think anyone would shudder. "

Dude, did you notice the action is set in 1913? Just checking.
posted by falameufilho at 8:50 PM on December 23, 2011


The years 1910-1914 were a period of intense labour militancy in Britain and Ireland - Liverpool General Strike, Tonypandy with Churchill sending the troops in, Dublin Lock-out, Durham coalfields, Singer strike in Glasgow and much more. And not just in the heavy industries and manufacturing - farm labourers were agitating too, which was part of the background to the Burston School strike in Norfolk that began in 1914 and became Britain's longest. Even during the war you got the Glasgow rent strikes and so on. So you can't use the period setting to excuse the narrative.
posted by Abiezer at 9:51 PM on December 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


We can't forget that from the very beginning, Downton Abbey has been billed as a comprehensive history of the era. These omissions are quite troubling indeed given that promise to the audience.
posted by dhartung at 11:06 PM on December 23, 2011


Oh, I know, dhartung - not saying he had to do one thing or the other, just that it's no refutation of communicator's critique to suggest that to do otherwise would be anachronistic.
posted by Abiezer at 11:40 PM on December 23, 2011


A bit of an aside, but sprang to mind as regards class conciousness in the scullery, from a generation later there's Winifred Foley's excellent memoir A Child In the Forest - grew up in the Forest of Dean daughter of a black-listed miner, went to London to work in service and met her husband at an anti-fascist rally! It's not a 'political' book, but politics were certainly part of Winfred's life. Anyway, highly recommended.
posted by Abiezer at 11:56 PM on December 23, 2011


I suspect the series that communicator wants to see is Manor House -- or for a modern take on the still existing practice of having a large house which you maintain by the shocking means of paid staff, Country House. (Allegedly, the latter directly inspired parts of Monarch of the Glen.)

an office where Bankers were portrayed in the way Aristocrats are shown in Downton Abbey, with the lower grades knowing their place

I'm not quite clear. Are you talking about a "business" where there are "employees" who are supervised by "bosses" who tell them to do things? That would be offensive.

Or imagine a story about race relations which showed black people in that way

It might be historically accurate?

Anyway, the site already had a contentious thread about The Help. There still seem to be a lot of people who like it, and it may collect a number of awards.

I do wish you luck in your apparent quest to stamp out historical fiction and place sociological warning labels on Shakespeare and Austen, something like OBJECTS IN REAR VIEW MIRROR MAY APPEAR ROSIER THAN THEY WERE might work.
posted by dhartung at 12:09 AM on December 24, 2011 [3 favorites]


The most hilarious part of its obvious 'Hey the past was all right really, not at all horrible like you might have heard from your great-grandparents - now bow down before your born-with-a-silver-spoon-in-their-mouths new Tory masters, austerity Britain' agenda* is that the gay footman is essentially out and yet no one seems to have a problem with it... because of course homophobia is a modern phenomena.

*The main villains are all rabid social climbers (except that those that just seem to be EVIL for the sake of it). Even the non-nasty maid who wants to make the minor step up and become a secretary only makes it through the help of Lady Suffragette and The Earl Of Goodman.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 2:11 AM on December 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


But in reality, these people had been born into servitude and likely their children will be as well.

My grandmother was sent into service at the age of 14, from the Welsh valleys to the Isle of Wight. She wasn't 'born into it' - her mother ran her own shop - it was something the family felt they had to do at the time to make ends meet. It also wasn't something she was expected to do forever. There was more fluidity in what you could do at the time than you might imagine - my gran went on to serve in the WRENS and got a job in the civil service.

And her children certainly weren't born into servitude either, nor would she have expected that to be the case. My grandmother got married, got her own place through social housing and had a child that was able to take advantage of 1950s high quality, free, accessible education, something that took my mother from the working to the middle class.

I wouldn't expect scullery maids to be class warriors

My grandmother was. She was an old-style Welsh socialist through and through who not only knew exactly what her 'betters' were, she knew what empire had done to people like her across the world. My mother, who took advantage of everything my gran's generation fought for, turned into a raving Thatcherite and cheered as much it was torn down. The arguments between them during the 1980s was a thing to behold.

While I don't think Downton is out and out rose-tinted right wing propaganda, it would be a far more fascinating programme if it portrayed any of the enormous social upheaval that happened just after the first world war, over and above a suffragette aristocrat and left-wing chauffeur, who feel like token additions. That it hasn't gone down that road - in favour of flabby, soapy storylines - is part of the reason I've had enough of it. Attitudes were changing much more quickly than the programme admits and all the interesting stuff was happening to the working and middle classes, not the ossified upper classes.
posted by Summer at 3:46 AM on December 24, 2011 [9 favorites]



Most of the servants are decidedly not happy. They're just braving out their predicaments as best they can.

Their unhappiness has nothing to do with their class, and indeed Downton Abbey almost makes the argument that Upstairs is as unhappy, if not more unhappy, than Downstairs. IIRC, the only person in S1 truly unhappy with his status in life was the villain.


Not so. Thomas is the only person in Downton Abbey willing to lash out because of his frustrations. That does not make him the only person "truly unhappy." And he's not even that much of a villain.

As for Upstairs being unhappy, do you have any idea what life was like before antibiotics? This was the era when the son of a president of the United States was killed by an abscess because he played tennis with an ill fitting pair of shoes. The unhappiness Upstairs is distinctly realistic.
posted by ocschwar at 4:02 AM on December 24, 2011


Even the non-nasty maid who wants to make the minor step up and become a secretary only makes it through the help of Lady Suffragette and The Earl Of Goodman.

She had a 12 hour, 6 dday job. YOU try to switch careers in that kind of situation.
posted by ocschwar at 4:03 AM on December 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Thanks for that perspective Summer.
posted by Ad hominem at 7:39 AM on December 24, 2011


The unhappiness Upstairs is distinctly realistic.

...and I never claimed it wasn't? So I guess I don't get your point.

Here's a clarifying question for me: What is, say, O'Brien's background? Where does she come from? Who are her parents? What about Anna Smith?

A show that cared about the downstairs characters as people (not just as servants) would be interested in these questions.
posted by muddgirl at 10:04 AM on December 25, 2011


A show that cared about the downstairs characters as people (not just as servants) would be interested in these questions.

Actually a number of the servants have 'back story'. Bates and his wife, for example, William and his dad, Mrs Hughes and her former lover. However, I agree with you, we need more context over and above past events that can create a soapy crisis in the present.

Where did the three upstairs sisters go to school for example? Where are their friends? Who are their 'clique'? Were they debutantes? How well did they do on the 'scene'? What are their expectations (outside of marriage)? Are they well educated or not? What do they like?

Having said that, the xmas special was quite entertaining.
posted by Summer at 5:12 AM on December 26, 2011


Watching the Christmas special, realised Paul Copley who plays William's dad was the lead in Days of Hope that I recommended up thread.
posted by Abiezer at 1:47 PM on December 26, 2011


Summer, I think you illustrate rather than refute my point. I could answer most of those questions about the three daughters.

SPOILERS:

I concede that two of the servants are rather well fleshed out (Bates and William), but I note that William was dispached-with in service of a plot point for an upstairs character, and that Bates preferred above all else to work as the servant of a very dear friend, that he was only ripped away by an evil woman and returned at the earliest opportunity. Now it's likely that being a valet pays more than being a bartender, but since the economic realities facing the servants is never discussed (and I think very rarely hinted at), I find it hard to believe that the writers took this into consideration.
posted by muddgirl at 3:22 AM on December 27, 2011


No Downers in ‘Downton’: Why have Americans fallen for a show that serves up snobbery by the bucketful?

Simon Schama brands Downton 'cultural necrophilia': Historian Simon Schama has launched a scathing attack on Downton Abbey, accusing it of improbable storylines and historical inaccuracies.
posted by homunculus at 8:27 PM on January 18, 2012


FYI, the first link leads to a synopsis of the second link.
posted by Atreides at 8:43 AM on January 20, 2012


The first link is the piece Schama wrote, the second link is an article about Schama's piece. I included the second link because it has responses from some of the show's creators.
posted by homunculus at 9:28 AM on January 20, 2012


Weird. Somehow I managed to click on just the right combination of links to get things completely fuzzed in my head. Carry on!
posted by Atreides at 12:40 PM on January 20, 2012


That's some rigorous prose, Schama.

Although I agree in some respects, I think it's fine to enjoy Downton Abbey - I enjoy it immensly. If Schama wants to wait for an ideologically pure television show, he's gonna be waiting a long time (or perhaps his standards are just lower than mine).
posted by muddgirl at 12:47 PM on January 20, 2012


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