So my wife and I were very late to the whole Downton Abbey thing. Friends were either prompting us to watch or they were asking whether or not we had seen it because they kept hearing about how it good it was. We have finished season one and are three episodes in to season two. How is it? It’s very, very good. It’s wholly addicting. However, it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. Certainly Upstairs, Downstairs comes to mind. So why is this show so huge? Well, I think it’s always good to start with the current state of our culture. In the massive television landscape what is the void that Downton seems to fill?
I think it all boils down to this: dignity and integrity.
For so many years now, American television has been awash with plenty of shows (fiction and so-called reality) that are made up of characters who are severely lacking in the dignity and integrity department. Shows like The Housewives of (wherever), the brow-beating Master Chef, or anything on MTV thrive on humanity at it’s worst. Even well-healed dramas like Mad Men or Breaking Bad offer up a morally convoluted universe that seem more suited to our current tastes.
Downton Abbey offers the viewer an alternative universe where the overwhelming sense of dignity and integrity catch us off guard and resonate deeply as we are drawn in.
Right from the start, it is clear that the characters we are encouraged to root for have a strong sense of doing the right thing. Time and again, these characters are put in situations where they must choose between their own personal fulfillment and a greater good. We viewers often shake our heads in near-disbelief as they always go for the greater good. The servants are particularly endearing because of their total commitment to their work and, more importantly, the profound dignity in which they go about it. They operate downstairs like a grand military troupe; rising from the table as head Butler Carson enters the room. Immaculately dressed and rigidly formal in all personal exchanges. They may be servants but they possess a nobility that is compelling. The wealthy and privileged Grantham family offer up a more complex view of dignity and integrity. It becomes apparent that these people are not bad because of their wealth and power. It’s all they have ever known. Amid their aristocratic lifestyle, they struggle to remain honorable. It has been so rewarding to watch the Grantham’s struggle and adapt to a changing England. This is especially true of the three daughters. We are sure that Mary is a rich brat at the start but as her life becomes complicated we see the pull of her conscience and (at least as far as episode 3 of season 2) putting aside her strong feelings for love to spare the feelings of others and avoid scandal. As annoying as Edith is early on, she too finds her calling to a higher ground and our feelings for her shift as well.
Downton has all the cards: rich writing,uniformly terrific performances, splendid use of locations, droll humor throughout; it’s top shelf entertainment. But if I had to speculate as to why this show seems to be resonating so strongly with people it’s that we are not accustomed to seeing people cling so strongly to their moral compass. For us the viewer, it is a reversal of what we would normally consider wish-fulfillment entertainment. In the case of Downton Abbey, we wish we could act with such nobility and grace.