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Downton Abbey, I Am Too American to Love You

There's plenty to enjoy in PBS' story of beautifully sad rich people. But ultimately it leaves me like the crabby Irish-nationalist former servant, sulking and ruining the party for everyone.

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Carnival Film & Television Limited

The first episode of Downton Abbey‘s season 3 is riddled with Americans. There is, of course, Cora, representing for us Yanks as usual from within the Crawley family. But there’s also Cora’s mother, Martha (Shirley MacLaine), who turns up as a foil for the Dowager Countess, with a bracing wit to prick all that richly upholstered English stuffing. We even have a saucy American flapper, who has the brass to walk right up to men and kiss them—just like that!—because “I’m an American, and this is 1920.”

As that line may have clued you in, all this Americanism on Downton represents the unsettling forces of egalitarianism and change. (Because pretty much everything on Downton does. Drinking game: when anyone says, “The world has changed,” down a glass of claret.) When plans for a formal dinner are ruined, it’s the flexible, resourceful Martha who organizes an “indoor picnic,” to the horror of butler Mr. Carson. (“It’s really not how we do it.” “How you used to do it.” The world has changed.) And when Lord Grantham guiltily admits losing her money, Cora stoically answers, “I’m an American. Have gun, will travel.” (There’s also a supporting role for Canada, a bad investment in which precipitates the financial crisis that may cost the Crawleys their fortune and, worse, their fabulous house.)

Maybe it took the arrival of so many of my countrymen to make me aware of it, but season 3 of Downton Abbey has convinced me why I’m not as gaga over the upstairs-downstairs soap as some of my fellow TV-lovers. I am missing the Anglophilia gene.

This limitation of mine does not apply to Downton alone. I have never been stirred by a bowler hat, Union Jack or finely arrayed tea service. As a reader, I was always partial to outsider Irishmen like James Joyce over English drawing-room fiction. In The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, I’m always anxious for the characters to get the hell out of the bucolic English microcosm of The Shire. I liked American punk over British New Wave. I do not get the appeal of royal weddings, the royal succession or royal anything else. If I’m to appreciate romantic English nostalgia, I need it with a healthy dose of ironic distance, Village Green Preservation Society-style.

There are, of course, plenty of things to appreciate about Downton. The fantastic cast. The hand-crafted barbs that fly from Maggie Smith’s mouth. The way the characters, from the lowest servant on up, try to maintain a sense of honor and principle in a world that is growing pointedly less genteel. As a reviewer, who’s seen every season, I can see that the show is a fine, transporting entertainment.

But as a person, a TV watcher? I can’t invest in it. I can’t make myself care about what drives so much of the series’ conflicts: the struggle to maintain an estate no one has done anything to truly deserve in centuries, the upkeep of an obscenely gigantic mansion and a staff to run it, the perpetuation of a society in which one’s greatest accomplishment is being born.

When I read appreciations of Downton by people who really, really love the show, there’s always that note of home-magazine voyeurism. It’s so gorgeous! The costumes! The silverware! The manners! Like flipping through a catalog or picking at a box of chocolates, it’s a little temporary indulgence that makes you feel, if only for a little while, like nobility.

And I am not above that: it is exactly what I feel on seeing the swankily art-directed mid-century modern sets of Mad Men. On that show, though, the design-porn is tempered by a complicated attitude toward the social change of the time, by a story or reinvention and mobility and by a sense that the messy shifting of society away from social injustices is not a sad, poignant thing.

I sound like I’m saying something simplistic here: that to love a TV show, you must share its protagonists’ attitudes. Clearly that’s not true. I love The Wire, but do not love gangs or police corruption. I love Mad Men but do not endorse marital infidelity. I love Breaking Bad, but kids, say no to drugs!

But as Downton is constructed–well, no, you don’t have to love an archaic English class system to love the show. But you do need to at least get a charge out of its romance, out of of its trappings and accoutrements. Because Downton is a much simpler, old-fashioned kind of TV show than the modern American cable drama. It does not have antiheroes. Its characters may be complicated–a little–but it never leaves doubt whom you’re supposed to sympathize with. (The deep-feeling lord with the pained sense of duty, yes; the scheming, depraved servant who drags on cigarettes like a Death Eater inhaling the souls of the innocent, no.)

In other words, Downton does not require, or allow, you to distance yourself from the desires of its characters the way The Sopranos or Sons of Anarchy does. (Like Tony Soprano, Lord Grantham is a man who finds himself having come along at the end of a thing; but if anyone ever cut off anyone’s thumbs to establish this dynasty, it was probably in the Middle Ages and you never have to see it.) You may not long for a rigid class structure of haves and have-nots, but you do need to find something to sympathize with in the family and its employees’ clinging to an Old England that made sense. You can believe that the Crawleys have real human problems, because they do, but you also need to enjoy the setting enough to overlook that they are dealing with those problems with the aid of an army of retainers and generations of inherited privilege.

And if you do, good for you! You are probably capable of a more sophisticated attitude toward Downton than I can manage. I, on the other hand, hear Lady Grantham say, “What are you afraid of? If we have to sell, we move to a smaller house and a more modest estate. We don’t have to go down the mine,” and all I can think is, Jesus, yes! Thank you! But while Downton deserves credit for including her point of view, it doesn’t leave much room to fully embrace that point of view while really caring about many of the series’ central conflicts.

It can be argued, and has been, that this is taking Downton too seriously: it’s just a high-gloss soap and should be appreciated as such. But writer Julian Fellowes clearly wants to connect the show to the serious ideas and social movements of its time. You can’t have this both ways; if he’s going to use political change, war and revolution as set decoration, the show should be taken as seriously as its subject matter.

Maybe, really, the problem is that I need to watch Downton more like an American: that is, I should see its sumptuous setting and caste trappings as a delightful historical escape that I have no personal investment in, no more real or relevant to me than Narnia. When I can manage that, there’s plenty to enjoy in its dinner-table intrigue and beautifully sad but resilient rich people. But ultimately it leaves me an outsider—I’m like the crabby, touchy Irish-nationalist former servant, constantly sulking and taking offense, insulting the guests over champagne and ruining the party for everyone.

I blame my blue-collar, public-school, American upbringing. At one point in season three, the Dowager Countess remarks that meeting Martha reminds her of “the virtues of the English.” But Martha’s American, she’s told. She replies: “Exactly.”

I do love you, Countess. But the feeling is mutual.

22 comments
RichardHumbles
RichardHumbles

your view and opinion of what britain is, in the year 2013, together with your deluded belief that modern Irish serves you relief from your thinly veiled contempt for the  British, unfortunately would prove the authenticity of ignorant american sterotype. This I know is unfair given that tothe large number of american educated types who would ridicule in equal measure your above idiotic article. Your education and aquaintance with the world, like Dowtion Abbey ,is still stuck in the 1920s 

sh3lly
sh3lly

There is, of course, Cora, representing for (WE) Yanks as usual from within the Crawley family. "

LindaChidesterWorthington
LindaChidesterWorthington

I think the author would like Honey Boo, Boo show better because it depicts lower class lifestyles.  I love Downton Abbey and think must of American televisions shows are stupid and boring.

ShawnArscott
ShawnArscott

Flunearyou.org shows very few flu cases - so what's up Doc?

Selkie
Selkie

Thank you.  I watched the season opener out of curiosity and then, against my better judgement watched last night.  All this fuss over a house, and when i saw the one they might have to move into I couldn't believe it.  I have always loved the Irish and prefer to identify with them, so I was relieved that at least one person - Tom - pointed out that most people he knew would consider Downton Place to be a castle.  Mary may be quite fashionable, but she can't love her husband very much if she doesn't respect his conscience.  Clearly the only thing she really loves is her station in life which the house represents.  I was horrified watching Edith's wedding collapse at the alter and completely understood when she sent happily married sisters away - the only Crawley family plot line that moved me.  Ironically, following Downton, I watched "The Abolitionists".  Those of you so enamored with the British aristocracy might ask whether the American South's "peculiar institution" has it roots in the British class system.  Yes the servants were paid and not whipped or beaten, but the idea that some people are better than others simply due to birth and therefore can expect to be indulged and waited upon their entire lives, sounds familiar.  One family in South Carolina had personal slaves who stood behind each person at dinner simply to pass around the table things (like the salt) the other family members requested. 

formerlyjames
formerlyjames

I think JP is one of the more brilliant analysts and writers at Time, and came here looking for his remarks on the Alex Jones meltdown which had been referenced on CNN.

But on this I can see the point entirely and I don't think some people get what he is saying, which I see mostly as an inability to relate to an antiquated unjust social structure.  Personally, I am fascinated with Downton, but in a love/hate way.  And I also know that the beautiful/ugly structure still exists, in Buckingham Palace and throughout the country amongst the existing aristocracy.  All of the Dukes and Earls did not fade away after the wars, all of the excessive estates did not close, and their offspring are still educated at Eton and the rest of the exclusive English "public schools" as opposed to JP's American "public schools".  

KamshaMaharaj
KamshaMaharaj

^ This is what's wrong with the world. I.e., people who can't appreciate other cultures other than their own. Despite the monologue-ish rantings of why, it simply boils down to the fact that the author is simply uninterested in other ways of life. Next time, say, "Downton Abbey, I don't love you, because I don't want to."

leesbbrown
leesbbrown

As a Brit, I'm always amazed anything written primarily for a home audience works well abroad,but it does,so I guess the more our societies differ,the more we are all the same. I don't take Downton too seriously,but I kind of enjoy it as homely and cosy escapism and it's fairly upbeat and quite well done. At least so you go to bed feeling vaguely that all is right with the world,even if things are a bit sad sometimes - and if you get fed up with the plot there's plenty of nice sets and rural scenes to look at. 

As Muriel Spark's Miss Jean Brodie says "For those that like that kind of thing,then that is the kind of thing that they like". And for an awful lot of people Downton seems to be the kind of thing that they like.

Lucelucy
Lucelucy

I'm an unabashed Anglophile, but I'm in it for the landscape.  And the lit.  From Chaucer to Christie.  Rowling and Rushdie.  Nobility, schmobility.  They are interesting only as historical characters.  What interests me about pieces like Downton Abbey and Upstairs, Downstairs isn't the clothing or the furniture or the china patterns.  It's people dealing with change.  And it's not just the nobs who have to change.  The servants too, especially the older ones.  The ones who don't necessarily want to have to get out and go it alone.  Change is difficult for everybody.  It's times like the 20's and the 60's, when previously settled ways of life begin to experience revolts, that are particularly interesting.  These aren't revolts, necessarily, from hard times.  These are, sometimes, revolts against good times.  Good times that made envisioning something better possible.  I'm still wondering if one of the Draper kids will be going to Woodstock.  Lady Sybil has it good.  *Why* does she envision something more?  What makes her generation different from that of her mother?  Did her mother ever envision something more?  Why is it possible for Sybil but not for her mother?  What made the chauffeur think there was any chance, any chance at all, of getting Sybil to give it up for him?  Was it the war?  The automobile?  What peculiar things are in the air, in the culture, that makes for these seemingly inexplicable changes, and why do some embrace them and others resist?  And it's not always about upstairs downstairs. 

Downton Abbey - and the new U/D - are flawed vehicles for examining these changes, but since the drama itself lies largely in those very changes, they can't be avoided.  So I'm in it to see how someone else views them.  What does their point of view tell me that mine doesn't.  

And if all that fails, there's that wonderful landscape.  A landscape so crowded with characters it's a wonder there's room for any more.

Guthrie.M
Guthrie.M

I am from England and I hate Downton Abbey. American TV is by and large far better than anything on our TV channels at the moment, but that's no excuse for facetious Anglo-bashing which could be funny if it was slightly more nuanced. OK you think the royal family is gaudy nonsense, I can accept that. But American punk vs British New Wave? You know there was English punk too like The Sex Pistols, The Clash and Wire right? Let me add that Julian Fellowes obviously has talent but is also a complete pillock. With your blue collar background it might interest you to know that he once pretentiously said in a high profile feature interview that 'poshism' is the last form of discrimination still acceptable in the UK, and actually compared it to racism. Obviously there is something attractive and seductive about nostalgic quaint old posh chatty stately home English drama but then watch Brideshead Revisited or Pride and Prej because they at least have a BEGINNING MIDDLE and END. I absolutely love all kinds of American culture, the films, the television, the literature, the music, the fashion, BUT EVEN IF I DIDN'T I wouldn't write an article about how America is all full of fat stupid morons that eat McDonalds and shoot each other all the time because it would be a cheap shot. 

Despite my rant, you are the best TV journalist I know so keep it coming. I just want to check for my own peace of mind that you are aware that there is more to English culture than bowler hats and tea and hell of a lot more English Literature than the Lord of the Rings. I don't need to say the 'S' word do I? Great that you like Kinks though. Maybe you like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones too?

DaniaAbreu
DaniaAbreu

I suggest James to read what Carlos Monsivais thought and wrote about Mexican telenovelas, because DA is just that: an English telenovela. After reading Monsivais you wont be feeling too bad on liking DA with or without an intellectual view. Is not about politics or how hard history is or is not to the family or its servants, bit how love conquers it all. Really, look for Monsivais.

westwingpotus
westwingpotus

Funny, I too had a "blue-collar, public-school, American upbringing" but then again, my parents did an amazing job in letting me know that my little corner of the world wasn't the ONLY corner of the world and that it was a good thing to be very, very curious about ways of life, other cultures, and hisory that weren't necessarily part of my little world or ways of life that I experienced. 

Sorry you got stuck with crappy parents who never taught you that you didn't need to actually live a particular life in order to find commonality if one would just look for it.

TheHoobie
TheHoobie

Right on, James!

For a once-upon-a-time English major, I've never been much of an Anglophile, either. A dear friend of mine in college told me that I HAD to see "A Room with a View" when it came out because it was right up my alley and perfect for me and just so wonderful and I would Love It So Much! (I missed actually reading Forster in college and still haven't remedied that.) I'm afraid, Dear Reader, that I did not Love It. Watching stuffy Edwardian English types become gradually... unstuffed... just held no charm for me. Especially when one of the catalysts was gangly horse-faced Julian Sands. Um, no thanks. I'm still kind of insulted that my pal thought watching idiot stuffy people discover that life is wonderful! and nature is awesome! and the sensual pleasures of life should be enjoyed with gusto! (things I already knew or sensed at 19) would be right up my alley. I spent most of the movie just irritated with all the characters. 

Daniel Day-Lewis was good, though.

I should confess, however, that I'm one of the perpetuators of the "Keep Calm and Carry On" sign trend that's become kind of tiresome. We have one of those signs in our kitchen. What can I say? I first became aware of that sign right after we had twins. I NEEDED that sign! I make no apologies; it helped! 

Come to think of it, I think I'd like Downton Abbey much better if it were set during the Blitz.

I will say, though, that one thing Brit TV does really well (better than U.S. TV!) that I love is making warm comedies about middle-aged grown-ups that treat "women-of-a-certain-age" like real, worthy, interesting people. Comedies like http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0081838/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1 and http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0105943/. (Maybe the comedies just have to co-star Geoffrey Palmer, hmm....)

matilda
matilda

To this writer-You don't need to apologize or blame your public school education.

It''s one thing to enjoy Period Drama and fine acting.It's another to actually feel sympathy for residents of this ridiculously large(and probably mostly unused) castle when they whine over needing to sell it unless something or someone recues them.Yes,Cora is stating the obvious truth-that they could leave this opressively fussy,Narcissistic existence and move to a smaller place and still be fine.

Shirley Mc Clain has been called to the task of emergency preparedness and expressing relief in her entrance, that "Downton still stands."Her fine acting talents are wasted with her being a caricature of an American.

Maybe Sybil had to go since the script could not embrace postive developments in her life with Branson.

Fellowes is appealing to our love of a sense of place in life,our fear of being overtaken by elements we can't control but we don't need to  or want to live in the horrible Edwardian world to deal with that.

daisyandus
daisyandus

Poo. I'll be glad to review Downton and save you the effort. I love it.

jponiewozik
jponiewozik moderator

@Guthrie.M "You know there was English punk too like The Sex Pistols, The Clash and Wire right?"

Big fan of The Clash, who of course had their own analysis of our television and its reductive stereotypes: "Yankee detectives are always on the TV / Cause killers in America work seven days a week."

But yes: it's hardly that I hate Britain or British culture or literature--or, certainly, television. Monty Python and The Office are each distinctively British in their own way, but I love them. What I've never been able to share--I just lack the capability--is the thing that I see in so much Downton fandom here: Anglophilia, that particular phenomenon of fetishizing the trappings and nostalgia of certain surface aspects of British culture. (Which are a sort of equivalent to depicting Americans as McDonald's-eating cowboys.)

RichardHumbles
RichardHumbles

@anon76someone like sacha baron cohen should interview a harmless old american person, also overly proud of his american culture. Like colbert, he should perpetually mock and insult that proud american over the ridiculous quirks and banal trivialities that the british think of americans whom usually would not voice them for fear of gross insult to americans. If this sketch involved Irony and satire, which Colbert does not employ here, it would actually be funny to most english, who appreciate self-deprecating humour. This kind of comedy works both ways - ignorant mockery of a foreign cultures - and a person like sacha baron cohen would tear america apart given the chance. 


anon76
anon76

@TheHoobie "As Time Goes By" was one of my favorites, once upon a time!

Guthrie.M
Guthrie.M

@jponiewozik Nice insight from the Clash there. And I see better that the article is less English-bashing than it is about the cutesy phenomenon of Anglophilia, which is as much of a problem here too. If, James, you can't love Downton, and ever you long to escape the Shire, then I'd keep well away from 'Lark Rise to Candleford'... which is basically a soap set in (for all intents and purposes) a "Shire"-like environment where no one EVER LEAVES. It was basically the Anglophilia opiate of the masses over here before Downton came along. Richard Curtis also probably has a lot to answer for propagating a lot of Anglophilia in America. I don't hate Anglophilia actually. I love fantasy and sentimentality done well. It's its domination of our channels here and the holding up of J.Fellowes as though he were at the vanguard of British TV writing when in fact British TV Producers would never go out on a limb to do a Wire or a BreakBad. If you haven't read it already then as a TV journalist you really must read Armando Ianucci's Bafta lecture 2012 which spells it all out perfectly whilst managing to mention-in-passing that Breaking Bad is the best TV show ever:

 http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2012/sep/11/armando-iannucci-bafta-lecture-transcript

Finally there's so much great TV that can hold its own against Anglophilia: (Dennis Potter / Alan Bennett / I Claudius / Naked Civil Servant / Jewel in the Crown / Tinker Tailor / Edge of Darkness / Very British Coup / Our Friends in the North / Fawlty Towers / Brideshead / Yes Minister / Python / Attenborough / Civilisation / Play for Today / Blackadder / Paul Abbott / Boys Blackstuff)