KANSAS CITY, January 17, 2013 – Downtown Abbey is into its third season on PBS. The first season began with the sinking of the Titanic and its effect on the fortunes of the Abbey’s Lord Grantham, his American wife, three marriage-age daughters, and myriad household help.
The second season took this family, Crawley by name, through the travails of World War I and the Spanish flu.
For liberals, Downton Abbey is a guilty pleasure. For conservatives, it is simply a pleasure.
Irin Carmon explores the liberal affection for the show in an aptly titled Salon article, “Why liberals love ‘Downton Abbey.’” Carmon cites the lush aesthetics, the well-drawn female characters, the dresses, the music, and the vaguely “progressive” focus on downstairs as well as upstairs.
Yet, even after assessing the possibilities, Carmon herself remains more than a little mystified as to why her fellow liberals are “utterly obsessed” with the show.
The explanation, I think, is not all that complex. The PBS brand attracted viewers on the left, and the show’s fair-minded portrayal of this wonderfully ordered world captured them. Carmon’s liberal friends may have watched initially to gawk and to scoff, but they soon saw there was little to scoff at.
In watching week after week, Carmon’s liberal friends have, one suspects, opened themselves up to their own inner Tory.
As they soon see, this world works for the people downstairs as well as those upstairs. In fact, as is made explicit on more than one occasion, the butler and the more seasoned among the staff guard the existing order more zealously than do their employers. Their work matters. They take pride in it. Well-meaning efforts by outsiders to spare them their labors rob them of their pride. The viewer, even the American viewer, quickly gets it.
As drawn by creator and writer Julian Fellowes, a life peer married to a royal lady-in-waiting, the Crawleys honor a tradition worth honoring. They have human failings in abundance, but their debt to that tradition reins them in. On one occasion, for instance, the earl falls for a maid, a war widow with a child, and she falls for him. When he weighs his responsibilities, however, he sees that to pursue his passion would wreck the life of the many who depend on him, and so he ends the affair unconsummated and does so honorably. In confronting his own weakness, Lord Grantham grows in his understanding of the weaknesses of others, his occasionally intemperate daughters chief among them.
The archetypal conservative that one meets on American television resists all change. The Crawleys meet change half way. That includes the stuffiest among them, Lord Grantham’s mother, Lady Grantham, played with dazzling acerbic charm by Maggie Smith. Although she questions electricity and still struggles with the concept of a “weekend,” Lady Grantham adapts to the future strategically. “The aristocracy has not survived by its intransigence,” says she archly to a doubter. The Crawleys move through time as wise conservatives always have – cautiously, thoughtfully, and incrementally.
In the end, Carmon’s liberal friends may have sensed that their own ill-formed ideologies lack the integrity and the grace of the one they are exposed to in some detail on successive Sunday nights each winter.
Outwardly, they may continue to reject the world the Crawleys have inherited, but inwardly, they envy it, and once a week at least, through the magic of television, they get to be part of it.
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