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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Column: Downton Abbey

Deeply repressed Edwardian gentry and their servants suffer through romance and intrigue in a British costume drama on a channel where the median viewing age is 62. It doesn’t sound like a recipe for success, but Masterpiece Theater’s “Downton Abbey” has become a runaway hit for PBS.

Celebrities obsessively tweet about the show while memes like “Sh*t the Dowager-Countess Says” flurry around the internet. With such devoted followers, “Downton Abbey” rose to become the number-two-watched show in its slot on Super Bowl Sunday.

But how did such a staid program like “Downton Abbey” suddenly become hip and current?

The show has everything you would want in a 1910s-period soap opera: gripping performances, sly historical references, lavish costumes and beautiful sets. The story follows the aristocratic Grantham family, owners of Downton Abbey, in their quest for an heir. While the Grantham daughters court and lose suitors upstairs, the servants search for happiness or vie for positions downstairs.

Yet it’s remarkable that, in the 21st century, American audiences are drawn to an often idyllic picture of rigidly class-bound life. Lord Grantham gives heartfelt speeches about his duty to the manor while demonstrating paternalistic care to his social inferiors. We are asked to sympathize with a man who lumps Karl Marx with classical liberal J.S. Mill as newfangled radicals.

It’s true that the show welcomes the advent of women’s suffrage and hints at class conflict in the form of the socialist chauffeur, Tom Branson, but these tensions are muted compared to the warmth and glamour of the British nobility. There’s nothing like the scathing criticism of “Mad Men” here: The old elites appear as fundamentally decent people.

Part of this is just conservative nostalgia. As RuPaul (of all people) explained to the Daily Beast, the show has arrived at a moment when our “cultural protocol and etiquette” are in peril: “That’s why it’s so interesting to watch ‘Downton Abbey,’ because these people know their place and they thrive in their place.”

I would argue, though, that beneath this longing for lost deference and decorum is a deeper anxiety about the present moment.

“Downton Abbey” premiered in the UK just as Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron began a series of government budget cuts that, as he claimed, would change Britain’s “whole way of life.” In the depths of a recession, Cameron slashed welfare programs and child benefits in what the Labour party called a “massive assault on families.” Not long after, the UK saw student uprisings against Parliament’s vote to triple university tuition.

In America, we’ve long become accustomed to austerity measures and attacks on the poor, but class warfare reached a greater pitch with the long recession.

With “Downton Abbey,” however, we see a very different picture of the ruling class. As the series progresses, we see the Granthams provide healthcare to sick employees and make accommodations for workers with disabilities. The house gives charity to wounded veterans and even offers child support to a disgraced former servant.

Above all, though, the estate gives permanent employment to workers without many other prospects, even if it is carrying out pointless and unprofitable tasks like dressing the lords and ladies.

In a time of temp work, ruthless efficiency and the fraying of the social safety net, a television program that depicts the top one percent treating its underlings with loyalty and abiding respect helps fulfill our frustrated utopian wishes. It provides imaginary compensation, or what Fredric Jameson would call a “fantasy bribe,” for the misery and uncertainty of late capitalism.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the camera dwells upon the sumptuous architecture and comforts of the Grantham manor. When families are being thrown out of their houses for unpaid mortgages, the notion that the home might be a lasting legacy to be passed down to one’s children becomes a pleasant dream of the past.

Thus, as the series continues, we watch with sadness as the Great War deals another blow to the declining aristocracy — an allegory of our failing hopes for the welfare state.

Of course, we cannot and should not return to the bad old days. But the strict hierarchy involved in “knowing one’s place” is a picture of relief when capitalism destroys all fixed social bonds. Somehow, when offered the stability and human concern of this old world, we forget for a moment the authoritarianism and obscene wealth that the upper class represents.

JORDAN S. CARROLL, who finds e-mail like something out of an H.G. Wells novel, can be reached at jscarroll@ucdavis.edu.

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