February 26, 2013
Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t seen Downton Abbey, this post contains spoilers. Of course, even if you haven’t seen Downton Abbey, you probably know the entire plot anyway because your friends won’t stop talking about it.
I love TV. I love science fiction shows, like Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, and Firefly. I love political thrillers, like the new House of Cards, and police procedurals, like The Wire. I love a good sitcom like The Big Bang Theory or 30 Rock. I even love The Good Wife, The Mentalist, and Bones. It’s pretty clear that I have a low threshold for suspension of disbelief and a high tolerance for silliness.
But even I can only take so much nonsense, and, for me, one show has finally crossed the line. It may be showing on PBS, it may carry the Masterpiece label, and it may be introduced by Laura Linney, but Downton Abbey is too silly even for me.
At the core of the show is the idea, rooted in noblesse oblige, that Downton’s Earl of Grantham cares deeply about the servants who look after his wardrobe and the impoverished peasants who live on his estate. This notion is ridiculous, because, in every other way, the Earl is a pretty realistic example of his class. Concerned primarily with protecting the position that he has secured by marrying a vapid American woman for her fortune, he exhibits the criminal stupidity about money, the casual racism, and the gullibility that enabled people like him to bring the world Gallipoli.
The younger generation of Granthams are no better. The Earl and his wife have managed to pass on their value system and their stupidity to Lady Mary, their eldest daughter. Her very being is tied up in the Downton Estate, which, considering that she has no apparent interests or education outside of Downton, is not surprising. She pressures her husband to invest his windfall fortune in the estate while objecting to any change in its management, an argument she fortunately loses. Never mind modern management methods or capital investment, it’s not until she gives birth to a son and heir that she exclaims “at last, Downton is safe!”
The unpleasant fact is that the British nobility of the early 20th century are probably the worst people one can still cast as the good guys in a television show. After all, you really can’t put slaveholders or Nazis as sympathetic characters on TV these days.
Read more posts by Jeremy Teitelbaum, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, on his blog.