Tuned In

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.