Only it doesn’t appear to be so. Yes, this is about Downton Abbey. The title should have given that away. I have many problems with Downton Abbey. Too many for one post. This may be long, so hang in there.
I was predisposed from the beginning to like DA. I have an insatiable lust for miniseries, be they BBC or ITV (BBC is always the best,though). No matter how grim, dull, or ugly, I will suffer through it, and I will love it. I often mention my love of Cranford to my nearest and dearest, and reveal my not-so-secret desire to grow up and become Miss Pole. Also, how can you not love a story that begins with the line “The women of Cranford were Amazons.” I should have loved DA, but it departed from the miniseries so quickly and veered not only into soap opera territory, but into let-us-foist-our-twenty-first-century-ideals-upon-a-different-time-period-and-thus-show-how-enlightened-we-are-now territory that I could never truly love but only love to hate it. Here are the biggest glaring problems in DA.
1)Weird sister relationships. Yes, sisters fight. I fight with mine. Not all that often or all that cruelly, but fights happen. But we also love each other quite a lot. And that affection shines forth. As the Lady Mary of my family, I find her lack of care for her younger sisters inexcusable. At first I thought I was quite clever in my comparison to King Lear (Mary and Edith as Reagan and Goneril with sweet Sybil playing Cordelia), but now I’ve tired of all the indifference/spite the sisters seem to have for one another. I find it odd that they would have grown up living in a large country house presumably without too many outside friends, having the same nurses, governesses, etc. and not formed some kind of bond. Fellowes should have read his Jessica Mitford. She does an excellent job of describing the familial relations of this period.
2) Time. A lot of time has passed since the beginning of the show. Mary and Matthew are old. They have to be at least twenty-eight. And no one has given Mary much grief (at least not since season 1) about being a spinster. A thoroughly modern woman, I feel Mary is getting a little long in the tooth, or at least she should be. The war passed in one season. Really in passed in just a few episodes. Sir Richard was engaged to Mary for years. That strikes me as weirdly patient for someone that the writer tried to make unlikeable and pushy.
3) Downton Abbey. Again, I am not actually an expert, but I am pretty well-versed in novels of this period. Lord Grantham’s (I try to use always titles) devotion to DA is odd. He claims that DA is his life’s work and that he loves it too much to give it up. In most books I’ve read set in that same period the aristocracy has a much more blasé attitude towards their familial homes. There’s a sense of entitlement and a sense of invincibility: England could never cease to be a world power. Surely the world has grown too reasonable for war. We’ve always lived here and we always will. And yet as early as Series 1 Lord Grantham predicts DA’s downfall. Only it doesn’t appear that Julian Fellowes will allow that to happen. I would have much more respect for this show if they actually allowed something truly bad or sad to happen to the “good characters.” At least for more than one episode. It would have shaken the show up if they had had to leave their home, even if the exile lasted only for a few episodes. What started as a good way to introduce a variety of characters and intertwine their lives has become manacles. Even Bates who is literally in prison is much more imprisoned to Downton Abbey. He’s shocked and grieved at the idea that the Crawleys might leave. I can imagine having a pang, but if I was in prison for life after being wrongfully accused of murder I can’t imagine that I would care too much if someone had to move to a smaller mansion.
For all that, there are good moments. Any conflict between Isobel Crawley and the Dowager Countess is golden. I particularly liked the interaction between Matthew Crawley and Molesley at the beginning of the first season. And the costumes are lovely. And as much as I love to love things, I also really love critiquing and disliking something vehemently. So I will always be grateful for Downton Abbey for giving me something to berate for a few years.
And if you really want to watch a good miniseries, watch Cranford. Or watch Parade’s End this February. It’s been touted as the thinking person’s Downton Abbey and while that seems a little harsh, I found the story and characters much more compelling. If you like the upstairs-downstairs drama, I would suggest watching the PBS reality show Manor House or the original Upstairs-Downstairs from the 1970s.