The first thing to do is to admit that I’m a Downton Abbey fan. In fact, I’ve watched every episode twice. But in my defense, I counterbalance my Downton viewings with at least one hour spent with my chainsaw for every hour tuned into Masterpiece Classic.
One of the first things one notices, if one is a regular viewer of BBC productions, is that Downton is unusually ideologically and religiously balanced. One of the other effects one notices when one watches a lot of BBC is that one starts referring to oneself in the third rather than the first person. But one digresses…
If the viewer is expecting vintage BBC, Downton is full of surprises. This is not PG Woodhouse, with Jeeves the butler easily thinking rings around his Lord. This is not Brideshead Revisted's take on the upper classes, packed with alcoholic elders and simmering, repressed homosexuality amongst their offspring. It is not Noel Coward’s Easy Virtue with easy satiric shots at the hypocrisy which arises amongst the upper classes and their dysfunctional patter of religious and sexual…yes there it is again, repression.
The upper classes at Downton aren’t repressed, they’re restrained. They are not inbred, intellectually backward fools; they are intelligent and thoughtful. As a general rule they treat their servants well, care about their welfare and are generally respected by them in turn. They are, in a word, admirable. And for a period drama, that treatment is, in a word, surprising. And surprise is an essential element of compelling drama.
Films and series about Edwardian upper caste manners which portray the genteels uncharitably are boring, like the steady, unending (until one turns the switch off) hum of a fluorescent lamp. Downton Abbey is what George Gilder would call the entropic disruption to the background noise of revolt against the old world. To portray Lord and Lady Grantham as anything other than drunks, fools, hypocrites or either sexpots or sexual glaciers (or best of all, alternately both) is itself an act of cultural rebellion.
That’s arguably why the left is bashing Downton Abbey. The New York Times Art Beat column has reported that British critics are ‘torching’ Downton Abbey. Apparently Downton Abbey is snobbish, culturally necrophiliac (and if you don’t yet know what that word means, I suggest you leave it that way) and its popularity in the United States is due to the rise of the Tea Party movement and conservative opposition to the death tax. Even worse, creator Julian Fellowes is the holder of a Tory Peerage. Definitely not the right sort of people.
Now at first glance one might think that all of this goes a bit too far, dragging politics in where it has no proper place. But on second look, the left’s reaction is understandable. Julian Fellowes and they are on the opposite side of something. But it’s not that Fellowes is on the right, and they on the left. It is that Fellowes is in the middle and they on the far left. Downton Abbey is not an apologetic for the old order. It just gives them a fair shake.
Lord Grantham is admirable, yes, but wrong on many things. He makes a pass at one of the house maids. He flies off the handle at Bates unfairly. He foolishly squanders the family fortune on a bad investment. He expresses bigoted views towards Catholics (of which Fellowes, a practicing Catholic, must surely disapprove). Most tragically, he lets his upper class solidarity lead to a medical decision which may have led to the death of his daughter.
But, in general, Lord Grantham is faithful, intelligent, decent and benevolent. The world has to change; he knows it, but he wants the world to change more slowly than it wants itself to change. His wife and children are not in general wiser than he (which marks the show as distinct from almost all TV advertisements set in families), but they are sometimes wiser than he…just like in life.
Fellowes seems to be saying that the old order had its day; it was good, though not perfect, during its time. It deserves a decent burial and a fond memory. And he also seems to be saying that change for change’s own sake is just as destructive as preservation for preservation’s own sake. Liberation of women, good. Growth of an all-encompassing set of regulations, bad. My friend John Tamny has given a good account of Fellowes’ political philosophy as expressed in his novels .
But Downton Abbey is also a rejoinder to the current rage (in both senses) of class warfare. In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal:
“I think the—well, not even the subtext, the supertext—of ‘Downton,’ is that it is possible for us all to get on, that we don’t have to be ranged in class warfare permanently—that for the general public, the fact that people are leading different lives with different economic realities and different expectations is perfectly cope-able with.”
“If you can’t deal with that,” he continues, “then your life would be unlivable. And I think politicians try to encourage us to think in a hostile sense [of] people who have a different circumstance to our own. Which I find very unproductive and uncreative.”
So Downton Abbey‘s message is an anti-class warfare one. The fact is that the spirit of the critics is hard left, and maybe that’s why Downton Abbey makes them so angry, because the success of the series shows that this group does not speak for America.
It also shows something equally important to the future of our culture: that there is no inherent need for good TV to be left of center. Stories sympathetic to virtue, preservation of property and admiration of nobility and of wealth can be told beautifully and to wide audiences, and I suspect they will be more and more in the future.