Early in the third season of this extraordinary show – now airing on PBS – Lord Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham’s American mother-in -law arrives at the venerable estate for her grand-daughter Mary’s wedding. A small culture war erupts between the Edwardian nobility and the Newport nouveau riche. Shirley MacLaine, as Martha Levinson, embodies the transatlantic virtues of modernism and change against the hidebound Brits. Watching the episode I was all on her side, but the way America has chosen to present the series itself makes me wonder.
First of all, I admit that I came to Downton Abbey late. I found author Julian Fellowes’ film Gosford Park unwatchable (I couldn’t tell the drawling characters apart) and I never paid any attention to the similarly themed Upstairs Downstairs when it aired on Masterpiece Theater in the 1970s. So the prospect of more of the same – more servants gossiping as they laid out the morning jackets and aristocrats scandalizing each other over the port, seemed hugely dismal and I was happy to pass it by. This despite the fact that everyone I knew, people I liked and disliked, people whose opinions I respected and people whose opinions made me snicker, old people and young people, English people and Americans, TV fans and snobs who didn’t even own one (They streamed it on their computers) all loved the show, Everyone loved it. It had become the most popular program ever broadcast on the BBC, and the most successful PBS offering in the history of Public Television.
So finally I watched the first episode. That was all it took: Annie and I finished off the whole first season last weekend, and scarfed down the second season over the next few days. We’re almost caught up now, happily addicted and a little bit crazed. Downton even supplanted the Weather Channel with our morning coffee. Who cares about the snowfall in Wisconsin? I want to know if Mrs. Hughes is really sick, and whether Matthew and Mary will get together and if Thomas will get his comeuppance. Yes – comeuppance! That’s the perfect word for it.
The characters – upstairs and down – are wonderful: Carson the butler, with his gravel voice , rigid protocols, and soft heart, treating Mary Crawley like the child he never had, heartbreakingly loyal to a family and an almost medieval style of living rapidly going extinct around him; Lord Robert, kind and stiff-backed and stubborn, a fortune hunter who wound up unexpectedly falling in love with his wife.
This is a man who will hire his African war batman Mr.Bates, and stand by him when he’s accused of murder, who’ll rage against his youngest daughter marrying the family chauffeur (and Irish Republican firebrand to boot)and then, however reluctantly, give his blessing.
When a virtual a stranger becomes the heir to the estate after the first two in line go down with the Titanic, he’s prepared to detest the interloper. As if anyone could hate Matthew Crawley, played by the compelling Dan Stevens. Matthew wins the family over and finally saves it, in one more exhilarating resolution provided by a story that always gives its audience just what they want -- and sometimes, more than they dared to hope for.
Matthew and Mary
It’s a saga that carries the audience through World War I and into the roaring twenties, sardonically presided over by Maggie Smith as Violet Crawly, the dowager Countess of Grantham. When the exquisitely awful newspaper tycoon Carlisle complains about his grueling (and ultimately futile) courtship of Mary,” Do you enjoy these games in which the player must appear ridiculous?” she responds, “Sir Richard, life is a game in which the player must appear ridiculous.” And later, when his plans are foiled and he remarks bitterly that the family will never see him again, She smiles sweetly and says “Do you pomise?”
Truly an extraordinatry woman and I will not hear ill said of her by a footman. Excuse me if I begin to sound a little bit like Carson, myself. I know it is not my place to make such reckless declarations, but the moment got the better of me. Will Dr. Clarkson be staying for tea? Yes I’m Channelling Carson! I want to be Carson, and Matthew, and even poor Bates … or just live with them permanently, in that impossible castle,(Played with stately grace by Highclere Castle, though it looks as dreamlike as a hologram) wearing those gorgeous clothes. I rarely pay attention to costumes but you would have to be blind (or at least color blind) not to get a little drunk watching those beautiful women in those matchlessly elegant Edwardian outfits. Are they all insane to think a dinner jacket is too informal for dinner? Fine, just give me a valet like Bates and I’ll wing it. Even the Irish revolutionary, Branson, winds up in white tie and tails, shooting pool with his future brother in law. As Matthew puts it, just before asking the upstart servant to be his Best Man, “If we’re taking on the Crawley girls we’d best stick together.”
I could go on on – the impetuous Daisy, scheming Mary O’Brien the tough old cook Mrs. Patmore, Mary’s sisters Sybil and Edith, Mrs. Hughes of course and Anna, Bates’s shrewd and tireless beloved, and even Isis the dog – I love them all. And so does everyone else.
So why do the masterminds at BBC America feel they have to hype the show with such craven tasteless zeal? Now we get the “previously on Downton” -- as if WE HADN’T JUST WATCHED IT! -- and the “next time on Downton – as if we needed to be coaxed. And Laura Linney telling us how great it is, as if we didn’t already know. Fortunately the program itself has not been tainted by this gloating mercenary sefl-congratulation. BBC America hyped Shirley MacLaine’s brief stint as if it were the world’s greatest coup of stunt casting. The show just let her arrive and shake things up and depart again.
I guess Americans have to hype everything. We even hype the weather. Every rainstorm gets its own apocalyptic name now. I know it shouldn’t bother me, but I hoped my beloved Downton would be exempt.
It’s all very sad. And the worst part is I know that Lady Violet would disapprove.