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Why do some critics despise 'Downton Abbey?'

The Season 2 finale of Downton Abbey aired on PBS Masterpiece Classics this Sunday, Feb. 19.
The Season 2 finale of Downton Abbey aired on PBS Masterpiece Classics this Sunday, Feb. 19.
Photograph Nick Briggs. +44(0)20.

At my house, we just wrapped up Season 2 of the breakout British T.V. hit, "Downton Abbey." Matthew Crawley, heir to the estate and future Earl of Grantham, finally proposed (again) to the luminous Lady Crawley, as 1919 turned into 1920 and gigantic glowing snowflakes blanketed the English countryside. "Downton," which mashes up "Upstairs, Downstairs" with "Atonement" and "Brideshead Revisited," is a finest piece of televise soap you can currently consume in the West. It's addictive, in the way that that these heavy breathing, highly acted British costume dramas are. Americans can't get enough of it.

Not so the English intelligentsia. First Simon Schama, an influential Columbia University historian who once hosted an entire series about the British, laid into "Downton" at the Daily Beast. For Schama, it's personal:

[T]his unassuageable American craving for the British country house is bound to get on my nerves, having grown up in the 1950s and ’60s with a Jacobinical rage against the moth-eaten haughtiness of the toffs. They still knew how to put One in One’s Place. I’d barely crossed the threshold of one such establishment before its Carson had delicately knocked at the door of my room wondering when he could collect my trousers. He had not asked of course but assumed I’d want them Properly Pressed. I still remember the look on his face as he carried them off between thumb and forefinger as if removing a mysterious object in an advanced form of contaminated decay. Before “retiring,” I was asked by another servant whether I would prefer to be woken with tea or coffee. “Ah,” I said, “how nice. Tea if that’s all right.” “Milk or lemon?” he pressed on. “Oh, gosh, thanks, milk.” “The Jersey or the Guernsey herd, sir?”

Now he's joined by James Fenton, a noted poet and litterateur of vintage similar to Schama, at the New York Review of Books:

We (the English) look to programs of this sort for a kind of verisimilitude we would not ask of, say, a Shakespeare drama, or even of Jane Austen. We want the food to look like period food, and the kitchen and servants’ quarters (mostly filmed in Pinewood Studios) to be accurate portrayals of servants’ quarters. We are delighted to note that, say, the butler strains the vintage port through a napkin, or that the most fantastic points of servants’ etiquette (no maids, only footmen, serving at dinner) have been resurrected for our amusement. This is the documentary aspect to the drama—something it shares with an older classic series, Upstairs, Downstairs.

But then, brooding on a particularly outrageous contrivance of plot:

The Abbey has jumped the shark, and we are still left waiting to see how it all turns out. It’s not the end, but it is the beginning of the end, a reminder of how easy we are to fool. Great television? Good fun, without a doubt. It’s a large sentimental contraption, coming at us, as the first trains came at us in the early Age of Steam, with a man in front, waving a red flag as if to say: you have been warned.

The big disconnect between Americans and the English in "Downton" comes from our wildly differing initial impressions of what the series actually is. Some Brits undoubtedly see it as great fun, but pace Fenton, they may relate to it as depicting an older version of themselves. They want it to be right, and apart from the period details, this also means setting up the servant-master/aristocrat-working class dichotomy. The central fantasy of the whole thing is actually an ornate piece of financial engineering, whereby cousin Matthew — a middle-class lawyer — can by an accident of the inheritance laws become a Lord. 

Of course, he has the right last name. And then there was that superior male heir who unfortunately went down with the Titanic. Until he (maybe) came back as a Canadian with a head wrapped in bandages. Actually, you have to see it to believe it (this is the plot twist that Fenton is fuming over).

This drives smart British folks who came of age in the 1960s and '70, when as the Economist memorably put it recently, the citizenry was considering sacking the royal family, absolutely crazy. There's no enthusiasm for joining the middle class in England — "middle class" is a bad word — unlike the U.S., where becoming a card-carrying middle-classer is (or was) the next best thing to nobility. And because there is no American nobility...well, there you have it.

So for Americans, "Downton Abbey" is basically science fiction. The great house itself might as well be a spaceship drifting toward Jupiter, with Lord Grantham in the captain's chair, Carson the butler in the engine room, and Lady Mary and Matthew courting on the holodeck. It's all gorgeous clothes and unlikely set-ups, with a little trench warfare and the Spanish Flu thrown in to enhance the gravitas and emotional oomph, not to mention thin the cast out a bit.

We don't even think about the economics: the way that the aristocrats connive to stay on top, and how the servants are stuck with it, unable to dream of much beyond ascending from the rank of first footman to his Lordship's valet.

This is one of the best things about being American: We can lap up the most blatantly manipulative English entertainments and not even slightly stew. At worst, we examine the stuff formally, as if we were doing a book report. Here's Maureen Ryan from the Huffington Post:

[T]hat's where "Downton" went wrong this season. It frequently sacrificed the characters on the altar of plot, and that's incredibly frustrating, given that the unexceptional plots are not what we tune in for. We watch quality programs to see the characters react to frustrations, to rise challenges and and to explore possibilities. We watch to know what these people are going through and to identify with them on some level, even if, on the surface, our lives seem different from theirs. A good show will allow us to see ourselves in the characters, whether that program set in space, a cop shop, a chemistry lab or a grand estate.

Not exactly Schama's "cultural necrophilia," eh? Of course not. The aging British intellectual hates every single member of the "Downton" cast, just because. And the average American? Well, he or she might, like Ryan, be disappointed. But now that Matthew and Lady Mary will at last tie the knot, that disappointment fades. And "Downton" can go on. Forever.

Follow Matthew DeBord and the DeBord Report on Twitter.