While many critics argue that Americans are fascinated by Downton Abbey because of its fundamental Britishness, in other words because of how fundamentally different its sensibilities are from our own, I feel quite the opposite.
I am one of those people who have seen all of Downton Abbey’s third season, including the much-ballyhooed Christmas special. Can I even use the phrase “Downton Abbey Christmas special” without putting in a spoiler alert? Now, before you throw yourself out of your chair or throw your phone out the window, you can relax. You’re safe here. You don’t need a spoiler alert for this, or for future columns from me throughout this season; in fact, you won’t even need to read them with your hand half-covering the lower part of your screen. Let me just assure you that you will enjoy the season. If you find out, or think you found out, what happens during it or in its final episode, you probably don’t know as much as you think you do. This is a clever, well-written season with plenty of surprises for you. I mean, also, #firstworldproblems, you know?
I greatly enjoyed the opening pair of episodes comprising Downton Abbey’s third season. While they were awkwardly mashed together in a “super-sized” two-plus-hour version for American audiences -- was the 66-minute extended runtime of the first episode not enough? -- they laid out many of the recurring themes for the season and, as the show most successfully does, entertained the hell out of us. Thomas and O’Brien were up to no good, Matthew and Mary bickered like crazy, Carson and Mrs. Hughes were wildly good in every scene they were in, creator Julian Fellowes continued to create new characters (Albert) that we care about within minutes, and, of course, the Dowager Countess was quipping, quipping, quipping. God, this character would have been great on Twitter. And before you check (I just did), the twitter/tumblr accounts exist and are run by someone not very imaginative.
So, the point here is that everything is running pretty much as it should be. We have all forgotten how and why last season left many of us with a bad taste in our mouths. We are ready for Lord Grantham rolling his eyes like Liz Lemon at the thought of progress, the Dowager withering everything in her path with a mere glance, and enough upstairs/downstairs intrigue to make us forget this show’s flaws. Right?
Sure. For now.
Of course, the nagging complaints most certainly exist: the storyline with Bates and Anna seems to have been written by someone who knows nothing about 1920s England, the law, how to tell a coherent story, or how people speak or behave in real life... Furthermore, beyond the continuation of that misguided storyline, Fellowes missed a great opportunity with the creation of Cora’s American mother, Martha Levinson, played gamely by Shirley Maclaine. So much has been made in the press about her addition to the cast, and her scenes were just so dull. Fellowes’ attempts to create an American counterpart to the Dowager Countess fall utterly flat, in part due to lazy writing of the American perspective and, perhaps more so, due to poor plotting. Maclaine shows up, seemingly because it’s the premiere and Fellowes needs something distinct to happen, before being pretty easily swatted back across the pond by the Dowager Countess, and it’s hard to imagine (unless cast members leave the show or something) her having much reason to return in the future.
But at its pulpy heart beats the hallmarks of British entertainment for centuries: complicated battles over land and money, the competing desires to progress and hold on to the familiar, and characters whose fates we care about deeply and whose desires reflect our own. No matter how silly things get with Mr. Bates, we can feel confident that Lord Grantham will always be there, fretting over the fate of his legacy while trying to make sense of the ever-changing world around him. Aren’t we all just doing some version of this?
While many critics argue that Americans are fascinated by Downton Abbey because of its fundamental Britishness, in other words because of how fundamentally different its sensibilities are from our own, I feel quite the opposite. I feel exactly the same as Lord Grantham, trying to make sense of the world around me as it changes in ways I could never expect and don’t even want to think about. As I try to understand programming, or the job market, or retirement accounts, or how to be funny on Twitter, I can’t help feeling like Lord Grantham, wheeling around as I look for someone who agrees with me, throwing my hands up because suddenly everyone is watching shows about crocodiles.