Editor’s Pick
FEBRUARY 2, 2013 9:27PM

The Hyping of Downton Abbey

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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.


Mary Crawley 

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.


Mr. Carson

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.  


Mr Bates

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.

m &m

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.

the gang 

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Steve, nice to have your take on this! My wife has kept up with the series far better than I have and that also includes watching the series on the "Secrets of Highclere Castle." In addition, I was amused by your mention of the hyping of the weather that is now a regular part of the news...so true!
Nice recap. i just picked up on this show this season. Didn't sound like something I would like....but a friend turned me on to it and I find I am enthralled.
[r] nice analysis, though don't you think a little too wonderful this particular upper class family is for reality with the high degree of communication between upstairs and downstairs. I know they went through a war together?

It does tweak the heart strings well. The actors are great. First season 6th show iirc Fellows jumped the shark in terms of melodrama and too much action. But he regained his pacing thank God. First show of this current season I thought he was dangerously close to doing it again but he just made it.

I am annoyed about the buzz of Shirley M. and how LITTLE she was given to do. Did she really have to not enunciate that much to contrast with the articulate brits???

Pairing her with Maggie Smith almost exclusively is not fair. Maggie gets all the best lines. Puts a comic cap on everything when she is in the vicinity. Brilliant. Always have been a great fan. Prime of Miss Jean Brodie she was stunning.

Mother Crowley said to Lady V., "I'll take that as a compliment" when Lady V. tries to insult her. Lady V. shoots back, 'Then I must have said it wrong!"

We live in an age when we are recognizing our serfdom to the "lords" and "ladies" of the rat bastard financial elite above us. Part of me does not want the class divide sentimentalized and romanticized even from history because its reality and injustice is disgusting. I think of that line from a song from Camelot, "It's not the earth the meek inherit, it's the dirt!"

best, libby
Everyone in the family's watching it but me, but I did enjoy this piece.
Well, I am hooked big time.…and sorta like you, Steven, only earlier in the series. I was given the first year by a co-worker and watched damn near every episode in just one sitting.

I am an unabashed Anglophile…have been ever since I spent 2 years there in the 50’s in the Air Force...so it was easy for me to fall in love with it.

After my single session with the first year, I found myself “talking bloke” as we service guys referred to it back in those days.

“Bloke” was the American word for “English”…as opposed to the disgusting “limey.” It was used respectfully and ubiquitously…as in “He’s going out with this bloke girl from Grimsby.”

Falling into the British cadence is an easy thing to do…and sometimes it comes to you without you even knowing it.

I remember an instance when three buddies and I were on temp duty in Germany…traveling by train from somewhere or other to Munich. We bumped into some GI’s stationed in Germany on the train and were shooting the breeze, when one of them said, “You guys aren’t stationed in Germany, right? You’re stationed in England.”

They could hear the sound in our voices with ease…and we all got a huge kick out of it.

I thoroughly enjoyed your review…and I loved hearing the sound of Downton in it. You did it beautifully...although after immersing in Downton, you almost hear yourself thinking in Bloke.

You might be interested to know (if you do not already) that several incidents in the series were inspired by actual events in the life of Lord Carnarvon (Fifth Earl of Carnarvon; financier of Howard Carter and co-discoverer of Tut’s tomb) who lived at Highclere Castle, the residence used for Downton Abbey.
i was in love from the first instant of the credits, with that sweeping lawn. and the tune, even. all of it. and i am madly in love with violet. personally, though, i was sorely disappointed with shirley maclaine. i dont feel they gave her any real bite, more like sound bites. but i excuse it this way - truly, NO ONE could play maggie smith's foil. she is unto herself.
I’m glad to see there are more than a few Downton devotees here. Like you Steven, I never watched Upstairs, Downstairs and I came to Dowton only after Season 2. Then I rented Season 1, consumed it over a long weekend and a few weeks later did the same with 2. I’m now 7 episodes through 3 and it’s even better than I remembered.

Stylistically it reminded me of one of those Latin American telenovelas where misunderstanding are rife and always lead to betrayal and drama, where unexpected events crop up just as everyone’s life looks to be on an even keel and where there’s always a snake in the grass like Thomas making trouble for someone. But everytime Downton threatens to drift into implausibility, the scene ends and we’re on to the next plot point.

There’s too much to say about the wonderful characterizations but I’d like to single out the fabulous chemistry between Mary and Matthew. There have been few on-screen couples who seemed so right for one another.
Absolutely -- plus, the two best profiles in TV history.
Agree, agree, agree. Can't add much, other than to question whether Shirley Maclaine was miscast. She just pushed into it uncomfortably and never really reached the quality performance of those in the cast, imo.

I wasn't sure about your ref to Waddesdon Manor , so I looked it up and learned it appeared in Season 2 as the magnificent castle exterior of the fictional Haxby Park (the interior was filmed at Halton House), where Mary and Sir Richard intended to live after they married. What a place!

Downton is filmed at Highclere Castle, home of the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon. They recently gave a tour to the crew of CBS Sunday Morning - so fascinating! It's because of the income filming generates that many, if not most, of these grand old piles are able to be maintained.

I'm so happy it's Sunday! Superbowl, what?
This is so well done! I just started watching and was fortunately able to catch up from the first episode. But I must go now. My ladies maid was shot in the vestibule and the surgeons are operating as we speak.
My comment to my sister just this past Saturday ... "Downton Abbey ... now I know what all the hooplah is about!"

It really is quite remarkable how in a single viewing (Part 1, Season 3) I was rapt. I hadn't had any interest whatsoever in seeing the show (in particular BECAUSE of all the hype), and I can't exactly say why I chose to watch it now ... well, other than it's "On Demand", and I could fast forward through commercials, boring scenes and what not. Little did I know that I would become so completely invested in these characters and the story lines.

Sensationalism is such a prevelant variable in television that I'd rather be blissfully ignorant than paralyzed by a potential frost forecast from "The STORM ALERT Center" on the local news.

Instead, I'm headed downstairs now to watch the latest episode of the delicious Downton Abbey. :-)

~R~ Excellent synopsis of the show.
I was hoping that you would cop to watching episode six last nite instead of the super bowl, like I did. Next week, my prediction: Thomas and James thing finally blows up very big, after some man on man smooching.
It was episode 5, and we did watch it ... thus missing the most exciting part of the Superbowl, as SF scored two touchdowns and a field goal during Sybil's funeral! She died because the actress wanted to leave the show. Why would an actor want to leave that show? It's baffling.
That is why she had to die? Geez. That scene was the first time I had watched this show and it was riveting. Thanks for these comments. After the death scene I realized how well they do every scene in this series. I am hooked now. Quality does that.
i've been a fan since whenever. huge, lush, tragi-romantic historically accurate soap opera complete with fabulous characters, A+ acting and british accents - what's not to love? : ) and i love it so much, i don't care about the hype or anything else.

oh, and matthew wants to leave the show too. i'm fascinated to find out how fellowes makes it happen. big hug, steven. good to see you again!
I love Downton too. But I'm curious why you were hooked on this, and not UPSTAIRS DOWNSTAIRS. The original UPSTAIRS DOWNSTAIRS (not the one now) was terrific. I don't consider it hyping to tell us what happened last week. It's a godsend if for any reason one forg0t to set the show or had a black-out. I think the show is so good because of subtle details. For example, the two younger sisters now have 1920's haircuts, but the more conservative older sister, Mary, does not. I hope this isn't a spoiler, but it broke my heart when my favorite sister died. And while Lord Robert has his good moments, his handling of that, was deplorable. Obviously, the Dowager Countess, Maggie Smith, is a treasure, unique on both sides of the Atlantic, long may she live!!!
A close friend of mine wrote a scathing e-mail to tell me that "Upstairs Downstairs" was infinitely better than "Downton Abbey", which rips it off shamelessly. I'm definitely going to check out the earlier show.
As to Matthew ... Dan Stevens, the actor who plays him, chose not to renew his contract. I suppose he thinks he got a better offer, but I doubt he reckoned with the the animosity toward him that his casual repudiation of the show that made him a star would cause. Everyone in the civilized world is now fervently hoping for his failure and disgrace. Nice work, Dan. And don't even think about crawling back. Matthew is dead and you're finished.
Despite being British I never watched the original "Upstairs, Downstairs", but my wife and I did watch the recent revival, set in the same house a few years later. It was pretty good though not up to the standard of "Downton". However after two seasons it is apparently not coming back, which is a disappointment. Of course the main thing it lacked was Maggie Smith.
I had the same reluctance to watch it, and now I'm hooked. One thing I like about the show is that the era did see huge changes, including WWI, and we're seeing attitudes and ambitions begin to shift. It's fun to watch it dawn on a kitchen maid that she might actually not have to spend her life "in service," that she could inherit a tenancy and become a farmer. Women were beginning to feel a different kind of power, both upstairs and more markedly downstairs. I like that difference, too--the pace and depth of change depending on whether you're a lord or a footman. Nice piece.
Shirley MacLaine was fun, but she wasn't given quite enough material. I'd love to see a rematch between her and Maggie smith where she's given a bit more to work with.
I thought the Shirley Maclaine character was a stereotype, and she wasn't right for the part. I don't think we have Maggie Smith's equal on this side of the pond. Maybe Bea Arthur could have pulled it off, if she were alive to take on the challenge. Any other ideas? As for Dan Stevens, I wish him well and would be open to seeing him in another part. Often, no other part comes along that fits an actor like a glove. John Boy for example, can't think of his real name. Never made it in any other part.
Annie says the show makes her feel poor and and crude and under-dressed. She says she show about us could be called "Downtown Shabby." Makes me want to brush the dog hair off my one blazer ...
Cancel Shirley Maclaine, send in Jane Fonda.
Great piece. I started watching this show too. To my own amazement I usually don't go for serial anything....however, this is good, historical and interesting on several levels.
I presumed the purpose of the “previously on Downton” is simply to refresh the viewers recollection. I especially appreciate it since I tape the show and sometimes watch weeks later so I, personally, find these little squibs great to connect the episodes. And likewise the “next on Downton” serves the same purpose and I appreciate the baiting of my expectations. But why do you single out Downton for such criticism since, for many years, these have always been the standard episode connectors for all programs in PBS Masterpiece Classic series. I guess I miss your point (if there is any) for I find it neither “gloating” nor “mercenary” (what a peculiar choice of words) not at all sefl (sic) 'congratulatory'. And why this should be called “craven tasteless zeal” escapes me. “Hype[erbole] anyone?
I thought Shirley MacLaine's a wonderful cameo! And I am not at all sure what you find so "sad" here. I guess I miss your point. I also came to it late and much admire the quality of everything: a wonderful period piece, superbly crafted and beautifully presented. Sometimes to an absurdity: the last death after childbirth scene was remarkable for it's cleanliness. Surely there would have been a gaping-mouthed corpse and some pretty messy sheets. Instead we are left with an immaculate Sleeping Beauty. That's one of my few objections to the entire propaganda series– the cleansing and scrubbing of reality and the silence as to the actual reality of how the aristocracy secured its imperial and industrial wealth.
How peculiar that Americans should be so fascinated with what we should rightly despise: inherited title, a virtual cast system, and the scrubbing clean of power and pelf extorted from the blood, sweat, and tears of the vast colonial and domestic underclass. Why do we revere such decorous brutality? Why do we glorify and romanticize the very tainted and undemocratic system we fought a bloody revolution to write out of our Constitution?  If anyone wants a touch of actual non-Disneyfied reality they should read up on the famous Mitford sisters! Who needs fiction? Of course if the truth were told the aristocracy would not come off so tweet for, in fact, the reality that supported it was, to paraphrase T. S. Eliot, a 'pigsty beneath a dull facade' and the aristocratic family intermarriages (hemophiliacs and all) that sent millions into the bowels of hell thanks to one “old bitch gone in the teeth“ – meaning Victoria.So 'hype' is not a word that comes to my mind. But revisionist history and bald propaganda surely are. Worst is the parasitic plagiarist nature of both Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs which cleanse the history of the brutal, blood-soaked, aristocratic class system. E.g., when the dowager Countess of Grantham is informed of financial trouble her reaction was the vulgar snark, “Well don't we have a coal mine somewhere?” Both series are a plagiarism of Margaret Powell who's first book Servant's Hall is represented as "A Real Life Upstairs, Downstairs Romance," and also represented as "A Real-Life ‘Downton Abbey Affair."
The ugly truth is that Margaret Powell wrote from first hand experience about parasites and a class system she absolutely despised and the BBC came along and savagely plagiarized her ideas to glorify and romanticize what she actually meant to mock and ridicule. All of which just goes to show how much power the 0.01% English upper class still has over their propaganda machine called BBC.I said it before and will say it again, “If public television in the UK dared to tell the truth about how the upper classes, under a state established religion, raped and pillaged the world in the name of God as they granted a select few the privilege of living in inherited luxury while the rest suffer 24/7 in perpetual servitude, then its funding would be gutted in a New York Minute. These programs are not history but lovely propaganda and easy enough to pull off in nations that are, as David McCullough says, breeding generations of historical illiterates.”Nevertheless I remain captivated by all the lovely convenient and pious lies. In those regards I actually I do find it 'tainted by a gloating mercenary self -congratulation.' Then again that's the purpose of propaganda calculated to revise history and cleanse the legacy of industrial grit, colonial guilt, and savage imperial blood, from the hands of those who bequeathed us their ever-so-pretty receipt for deceit. Downton Abbey is state-sponsored propaganda plain and simple. Its most pertinent relevance is the real revised historical pig-sty that lies beneath the pretty facade of nice people. If only it did more than merely resemble history. Vanity Fair it surely is not.