"There's been a lot of whiskey drunk to that song"
Groundhog Day

The Cult of Downton Abbey

Update: spoilers in the comments on this post.

A BBC writer tries to figure out why Americans like it so much.

I didn't realize when I watched my first episode a few weeks ago that it's such a cult hit. I think the "yearning for a simpler time" bit is silly. What's simple about it? A very different time and culture, yes, but yet not so different as to be incomprehensible. But its main appeal is just that of good old soap-opera and costume drama, and the standby of all popular drama, interesting characters in interesting situations.

I meant to mention, when I wrote about it earlier, the way Maggie Smith, as the Dowager Countess, steals every scene she's in. The character is so over-the-top in her commanding bitchy snobbishness, and yet you like her anyway, especially as she occasionally reveals a kind heart. My favorite remark of hers occurs when she's told that two estranged sweethearts are coming to the Abbey for a visit, "but don't worry, they aren't on the same train." The Countess reacts with a somewhat over-enthusiastic expression of relief, then, slightly embarrassed, replies to the quizzical looks with: "I do dislike Greek drama, where everything happens off-stage."

Here's a selection of clips that will give you the general idea (if you haven't been watching):



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I find this season more soap-operatic than the first: there seem to be more plots, events are more crowded together, and hence some threads come and go too quickly. Matthew being MIA and the Isabelle-Cora feud were far too rushed.

But you're right that the dramatic appeal is easy to understand. The interiors help, of course, and perhaps there is also an enjoyable little twinge of smugness as we say to ourselves, "In *America* it would be fine for Sybil to marry Branson."

Isn't it interesting how neither Ethel nor Mrs. Hughes seems to think the major owes anything in justice to his son or to the son's mother whom he has ruined? They would like him to do something, but they're asking him to do it as a favor rather than as the fulfillment of a responsibility.

I haven't seen anything of the second season. Since I don't have TV reception, I will have to pay to watch it, so I guess I need to get started.


This is really from Pentimento -- I couldn't figure out how to sign on as myself, so I used my Twitter account. And there is a spoiler alert if you haven't seen the first season.

I don't have TV either. But I watched the whole first season on Netflix -- sometimes, like the women referred to in the article, four episodes one after another -- and pay to download each new episode of the second season on Amazon. And yet I take my addiction with a grain of salt. The show jumped the shark in the third episode or so of season 1. I mean, come on, it's not just the dowager countess who is over the top. It's the entire plot, especially the absurd premise of Lady Mary's dishonor and the subsequent actions both upstairs and downstairs, and all the resulting blackmail in season 2. And Lady Cora's pregnancy too, and the subplot in which everything is really being machinated by the downstairs staff.

But, as I said, I'm an addict. I am mostly in love with the ladies' clothes and the smoldering Irish revolutionary chauffeur, though he is nothing but a caricature. And Lady Mary is a good sort.

When I saw Heavenlygrass, I though you were here to sell up illegal substances.


Very interesting observations. I'm tied up in meetings most of today so can't add anything at the moment, but will do so later.

Not that kind of Heavenly Grass, Janet. It's the title of a Tennessee Williams poem, set to music by Paul Bowles. So there!

Nice to hear from you, Pentimento.

I missed the first season, though I know the big events from it. So I can't compare the new one to it. I probably won't go back and watch season 1, as I'm not all that caught up in it, though I'm definitely enjoying it. I wouldn't say I'm an addict.

Re Ethel and the major: it's basically an old story, of course, but the extremely class-based aspect of his callousness makes it a little different and maybe more shocking to our sensibilities. He's genuinely offended that they keep bothering him and doesn't seem to feel at all guilty. But he probably wouldn't be behaving that way if it were someone of his own class.

I don't care too much about the clothes and interiors.:-) But most of them ladies is very easy on the eyes.

Yes, the thing as a whole is over the top, but I don't think of any single character other than the Countess as being especially that way. Well, maybe evil ex-wife...

Re Lady Sybil and smoldering chauffeur: interesting that two of you mention that, apparently hoping true love will win out, as I'm hoping in this case that class does, for Sybil's sake, because I like her and dislike him. I suspect he's a jerk at heart, and can imagine him beating her one day. I'm vastly more sympathetic to Mary and Matthew.

Janet and Pentimento, I don't have tv either, but I watch each episode as they come up free on the pbs website.

I don't like the clothes, but I do love the house and grounds. Also the accents, especially the servants', especially Branson's. I'm not really rooting for the Branson-Sybil match (I suspect he's pleased at the idea of pulling a fast one on an earl more than he is actually in love with Sybil), but I do think we Americans flatter ourselves that class wouldn't be a factor here.

I started liking Mary when she went to pour her heart out to Matthew and refrained after seeing how much Lavinia loves him--her first generous action.

Yes, Mary has become a much more sympathetic character in just the three episodes I've seen--someone who's actually learned through mistakes and suffering.

I don't think class is a non-issue here, just not so huge and rigid a barrier as it seems to have been then/there.

"I suspect he's pleased at the idea of pulling a fast one on an earl more than he is actually in love with Sybil"

Yes. Moreover, that if he had her some of his contempt for her class might be transferred to her.

Maggie sounds like she's playing the same character as in Gosford Park.

Surely the cult appeal is the clothing and that class thing.

I haven't seen Gosford Park so I can't say about that. But the character does approach caricature. It's interesting that the new Upstairs Downstairs has a somewhat similar character, the dominating and acid-tongued mother of the man of the house.

It's definitely not the clothing and class that make it interesting to me. I suspect, though, that the real enthusiasts are predominantly women.

I guess I didn't finish that thought: I meant that the sort of high-society thing, not to mention clothes, is probably more interesting to women than to men. And of course there's a whole lot of romance going on, and not that much Action. For me it really comes down to the page-turner narrative.

Speaking of the clothes, btw, I haven't really paid much attention to them. But I noticed in watching the original Upstairs Downstairs in color that they caught my eye. I had seen it in b&w years ago. And I think the reason I noticed them was that we get this idea, from old photographs, that the clothing of the time was very drab. But if UD was historically accurate in that respect, which I think it was said to be, then the women's clothing was anything but drab. I guess the reason I haven't noticed it as much in DA is that I've gotten used to it.

"The truth is neither here nor there. It's the look of the thing that matters." :-)


Is that the countess? Sounds like her.

You know, I was thinking about what Pentimento said about the whole show being over the top, and it really is, in exactly the same way that soap operas are--the One Calamity After Another quality, and the sometimes farfetched incidents.

Yes, it was.

Having watched slightly more than an hour of the second season, I was thinking earlier that to me it seems much more like a soap opera than the first season did. There are some things in the first season that were pretty much unbelievable, like Mary's fling with the ambassador, or whatever he was, but for the most part it was more like a miniseries, with a beginning, an end and a progression in the middle--except it didn't end.


I read today that Highclere House where Downtown Abbey is filmed was the estate of Lord. Carnavorn who, along with Howard Carter, discovered King Tut's tomb.


That would be a good plot twist to throw into the mix--King Tut's curse etc.

You know, I think one reason why I think of Victorian and Edwardian clothes as drab is that in the old photographs everything is black and white. Medieval and Renaissance clothes are colorful, like oil paintings.

Definitely. We just can't help thinking that the world of the time actually looked like those photos. That's why filmmakers signal "1950s" with the look of fading Kodacolor, and why they go for that sepia tone for the early 20th c, and b&w for the '30s and '40s. etc. It's extremely powerful.

Well, I've caught up now, and read all the comments. I don't think there was much in them that I didn't already know. If the Super Bowl lasts long enough, I might be able to watch the next episode while I'm babysitting tonight.


Ok, let fly the comments on the most recent episode (Feb 5, return of Patrick). Let's put them in this thread since I already have the spoiler warning on it.

Overall opinion: I won't go quite as far as saying it's jumped the shark but it's definitely gone way into soap opera territory. And it was certainly obvious what was going to happen to Bates's wife. And what will happen to him next week.

Yes, that's what I was thinking--ve4y like a soap opera, and while I liked Bates at first, I'm really getting tired of him.

And there's this thing with the master and the maid lurking in the background and I hate it.


Yeah, I thought "oh come on, let's not do that." And similarly about Possible Patrick--a blow on the head, amnesia, another blow on the head and recovery from amnesia.... And especially about "let's kill Vera and set up plenty of circumstantial evidence against Bates."

Do you think this is actually Patrick? I sort of think it is and figure we haven't heard the last of him. Was he present in season 1? I guess he must have been, since I gather Matthew's becoming the heir happened then.

No, it started out with the news about the sinking of the Titanic and Patrick's death. We never saw him. I don't think it is he. I was thinking that when he said something about them finding that he had joined Princess Pat's infantry. Rachel used to sing a song that had a line about "the Princess Pat." I never knew it was something real. I'll have to tell her about it.


I was thinking "Rachel...Rachel...which character is that?"

Whether it's Patrick or not, I can't believe they're going to pick up and drop that story line so quickly, so I expect to hear more of him. I suppose one argument that it's not is that they wouldn't want to have a major character with that amount of disfigurement. Sad to say, it is difficult to look at him. One thing that I thought indicated either that it's not him or that the writers made a mistake is his Canadian accent having completely replaced his original voice. That doesn't happen that fast or completely.

The voice is a big problem, accent or not. I have friends that I talk to every five or ten years and as soon as I hear their voices, I know who it is. And that guy has the most annoying voice--no one would ever forget it who had been around him very long.


True. I guess you could wave your hands and say "injury" to explain that, but still--there would be *something* recognizable in the voice, unless the injury was extreme, in which case it wouldn't be perfectly clear as his is.

I was suspicious of that accent business, too. First of all, he doesn't really sound Canadian to me. Besides, does any adult change accents so completely in just a few years, unless deliberately?

I loved Mary's put-down of his supposedly private knowledge of the family.

Why does O'Brien have it in for everyone except Thomas? My daughter's theory is that he is her illegitimate son.

I'm pretty certain you can't change accents that completely without working pretty hard at it, or else living somewhere else for many more than five years.

Re Thomas and O'Brien: that's an interesting possibility. I thought it was just because they're both evil, and they smoke. Though I'm not sure if they're evil because they smoke, or smoke because they're evil.

I'm in total agreement with this snarky New York Mag reviewer:

"It is time, finally, to speak some truths about Downton Abbey. Let's all put away the Austen and the Remains of the Day references, shelve the class politics, forget the word entail, and be honest with ourselves: This is a crazy soap opera. It secretly always has been; Jane Austen would probably kill us for ever comparing her work to a television show that included a Turkish gentleman dying mid-coitus. But Downton took a sharp turn towards Aaron Spelling Land last night, and at this point it's impossible to hide behind the Masterpiece imprimatur and talk down to people who still watch Desperate Housewives. Downton Abbey just pulled out the stranger-from-the-past double-reverse-amnesia plot line on us. There is no high ground anymore."

Oh. Love the NYMag quote.

The double-amnesia thing is straight out of opera. I mean opera before Verdi and Wagner, when no one cared about the plot. It just gives the chance to renew the rivalry between Mary and Edith.

Yes. Jumped the shark.

Y'all really have to find another phrase.


I'm sorry, I like that phrase. Although some people think it's jumped the shark now.

It's getting to be like fingernails on a blackboard.


On reflection, I guess I would withdraw the word "total" above. Surely it's still better than Desperate Housewives. But then I've never seen Desperate Housewives. I do basically agree, though.

True as all this is, I'm still going to watch it.


Naturally. One must know how it turns out (although true soap operas never really "turn out," this can't go on as long as Days of Our Lives or something...I hope).

Love that quote, and yet... I've never seen Desperate Housewives either, but I bet Downton still holds the high ground on clothing and home furnishings. And you bet I'll keep watching.

I've been wondering if a show like this can ever hope not to descend to the soap opera level if it goes on and on to an uncertain end. I've been trying to think how you could do it.

One of the horrible things about soap operas is that you can be sure if a man and woman finally consummate their relationship (which has been going on in dribs and drabs for months), they will certainly break up in short order. The whole soap opera thing revolves around the viewer getting that thrill when "true love" finally wins out, and after that passes, well, they have to go on to the next thrill.


Janet, it's obligatory to say "jump the shark." See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jumping_the_shark.

And as lame as ep. 5 was, I will keep watching. In fact, I wish ep. 6 was airing right now.

Not for me. The fact that I live on a street that has Fonzie as part of its name absolves me from any obligation to allude to him in any other way.

I think I should star in a reality show called Desperate for Sleep Housewives.


I hope you went to sleep shortly after writing that.

"o'erleap the orca," maybe?

"I wish ep. 6 was airing..." I'm not that hooked. I wouldn't be terribly put out if I never saw any more of it.

I think maybe I would just say, "It's just goin' all to hell."


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