This television series, first broadcast in England in 2010, has won awards and most especially gained a record number of world viewers. Some British reviewers have bemoaned its success as reflecting the public’s (especially American) endless fascination with the British gentry. One New York Times reviewer castigates the show’s appeal as being “soft core pornography” and mindless escapism. But is it really? And are all these viewers (myself included) guilty of overlooking improbable plots and events unfolding that hint at reality but always end happily, skirting the very real historical changes that affected England at that time?
The series, starting around the year 1912 and now in the 1920s, concerns the family of Lord Robert Grantham, who has three daughters and a country estate called Downton Abbey. According to British inheritance laws, since Grantham has no son the estate must go to the closest male heir, who could be a distant cousin. The series deals with this complication, exploring its threat posed to the immediate family, although this problem and others are resolved. One of the daughters is plainer and eclipsed by the oldest daughter, which has made her unhappy and possibly contributed to her slightly querulous disposition, always wondering why she is the unhappy victim. Mary, the oldest, is like a queen in her reserve and lion-like in her determination – (we can’t always like her, but she gets our full attention.)
Yes, there are lines that are unfortunate and hint at bathos, such as Mary’s husband Matthew’s repeated professions of undying love for her, no matter how mean she can be. And Bates, the manservant who was in prison on a trumped up charge, is also tiresome in his looks of devotion and wonderment, which he keeps bestowing on his new love, Anna, the lady’s maid.
However, it’s not just the beautiful house or the exemplary acting that has garnered such a large audience for the series. When the show’s opening theme begins its stately march, our senses rise in anticipation. As the music soars, we see the exquisite objects that civilization has created to complement and to grace our existence. Just as one’s spirit expands in a well-appointed room, so does this glimpse of the delicate dusting of the chandelier show us the care, the effort expended into this way of life. And seeing the petals fall, oh so unobtrusively, from the flowers in the vase also show us how such beauty can be captured, but not retained. This sort of upkeep documents a never ending investment, a commitment to quality which can apply to the value of our own lives - our family, our interests and our responsibilities. And (almost) everyone can relate to that. And I believe that’s why so many find the series so satisfying and so absorbing.
The DVD is listed here in our catalog.