ITV/PBS's Downtown Abbey — and related books — arrived like a scene-stealing debutante on a grand staircase. Why do we care about the ups and downs of British passions, fortunes and hemlines from 100 years ago? Why do we return each week to watch armies of servants polish silverware while countless others tarnish reputations? Is the hunt for a suitable mate still interesting in the backdrop of the hunt for a shootable pheasant? Are we all hopeless aspirational snobs? Come follow me in your most inappropriate boots, as I take you on a tour of the grounds of the castle.
QUICK FIXES FOR ECONOMIC DOLDRUMS
Bailouts, recessions, foreclosures, Occupy movements and fiscal cliffs are enough to drive any modern woman into the clutches of inconsolable melancholy. Downton Abbey offers the escapist satisfaction of seeing those high and low in society navigating labyrinthine homes and paperwork to swiftly restore what once was.
TOPPLING THE STATUS QUO WITH PANACHE
Modern pundits grapple with socialism, “The 1%,” marriage equality and the historically excluded. As do Downton Abbey characters, all while sporting the most outlandish hats! We sort through our emotional response to many of these same issues when we watch the antics of feminist Lady Sybil, revolutionary Tom, anti-aristocratic Matthew, haughtily aristocratic Dowager Countess Violet, philanthropic Lady Isobel, and quasi-rebellious/semi-philanthropic/semi-aristocratic Lady Mary.
LESS FAMILIAR NOSTALGIA
We've all seen a million clips and heard a million family stories set during the past half-century. But the turn of the Twentieth Century is much more difficult for us to visualize since it is not communicated to us as frequently, by our mass media or our living relatives. Downtown Abbey allows us to peek into a pristinely polished window and discover this less familiar world just beyond our grasp of personal experience and understanding.
THE UNSTOPPABLE DOWAGER COUNTESS
Few fictional characters can so effectively distill an intoxicating tincture of truth, manipulation, old guard disapproval, poignant warmth, terrible crankiness, and barbed comments like Downton Abbey's Dowager Countess. Who better than the Dowager to bumble, stumble, divine, and opine about the world around her, like a fashionably dressed one-woman Greek chorus? We bristle at her attitude yet we hang on to her every word and expression. She also provides great fodder for Monday morning office laughs and enduring web memes.
THE AESTHETIC ITCH THAT SEX AND THE CITY OR MAD MEN CAN'T SCRATCH
Sometimes your inner Carrie Bradshaw can't help but wonder, can it get any grander than this? And the answer is yes, it can. Downton Abbey treats us to the delicious eye candy of the earliest origins of modern haute couture, real castles and carriages, sexy nobility, gilded ballrooms, social events wrought with romantic complexities, and funny, punny, campy hanky clutching among the wounded and the reckless.
Likewise, sometimes your inner Don Draper gets so lost in his angsty boozy reverie that he forgets to breathe in the beautifully art directed world around him ... but upon closer inspection, we often laugh at that world since much of it is the stuff of hopelessly obsolete mid-century schlock. Downton suffers from no shortage of sharply tailored breathlessness, soaring interior design, and epic Steadicam porn, placing the viewer directly into the lush countryside grounds. And we gasp more often than we laugh at the clothing and décor.
A DIFFERENT FLAVOR OF ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE
Many of us cannot get enough of zombies, vampires, apocalyptic and paranormal scenarios. Many others have had quite enough, thank you. Downtown Abbey is just a more genteel flavor. The decimation of WWI left so few young male survivors that the world felt utterly post-apocalyptic. The new powers of industry that gobbled up the formerly vibrant smaller ways of life were vampiric. The stunned and shrinking world of servants and masters are apparition like. It's paranormal fiction ... for those who dislike paranormal fiction! Splendidly done.
SOCIAL MEDIA FEARS
We are deeply anxious about our online privacy, our damning Facebook photos, and our celebrities mangling their Twitter reputations. Downtown Abbey invites us to consider a fascinating alternate universe of social anxieties, including newspaper moguls misusing their power, secretive reputation ruining letters, and indiscreet servants. It is a quaint version of the bizarrely familiar.
SOCIAL MEDIA HUNGER
Finally, Downton Abbey's high camp, historical drama, and unabashed romance is ripe for homage in this day and age of overnight buzz.
- Reina Black
Do you love Downton Abbey? Or maybe you just don't get the hype? Share your feelings (and favorite memes) in the comments! And don't miss our April issue for more Downton Abbey goodness!