Sentimental Remains: Down on Downton

Friday, April 6, 2012

There's something that's been eating away at me about Downton Abbey, even before Salon thought to ask why liberals (particularly in America) love it so or I found out that Alan Cumming agrees with me (which is naturally a great bolstering of my ego).  What's making me mad is essentially this: Downton spends a great deal of money and effort to make us believe that an aristocracy (a system that pays people to behave as if they are better than their fellow citizens based on the arbitrary fact of their birth) is an inherently benevolent social institution, beneath the cheerful cattiness of its various members.  There might as well be a motto emblazoned over the opening credits: Downton Abbey: Noblesse Oblige. It's well-clad hegemony: it persuades those who are being screwed by the system that their screwing is not just a necessary process, but a beautiful and noble one.

I'm liable to get a bit ranty on the subject, particularly since I harbor a substantial fondness for historical fictions and costume dramas, and their ability to mine the complexities of historical difference to philosophically complex and often subversive ends. But today, in discussion with a friend, I reflected on what made this different from a more effective, less ideologically disturbing costume drama.  Here's what I said, with some moments of expansion:

I would like Downton Abbey so much better if it were more like Remains of the Day - a vividly and humanely drawn portrait of people so steeped in the ideology of a class system that they are 100% committed to their own oppression or privilege (or both), but a portrait that nonetheless managed to throw that oppression and privilege into stark relief rather than dipping it in treacly, unquestioning nostalgia. (Remains of the Day is about nostalgia, as the title indicates, and it persuades us of the power of that nostalgia, but that nostalgia is problematic.  The protagonist looks back longingly, and with varying degrees of self-knowledge, to a period that was glorious but morally complex; it is damningly tied up in, among other things, fascism.) There are times when Downton tended in that direction, mostly in the first series, where characters were allowed to be much more plausibly selfish. This compelling self-absorption not only made it a more plausible critique of aristocratic privilege, but also a more well-wrought drama. In series two, the characters were muddled by strange, implausible, and anachronistic acts of generosity that seem designed rather to win our modern sympathies than to make sense with their psychology or their social context. In their spontaneous desire to concern themselves with the benefit of those they in no way considered to be their social (or often intellectual) equals, the characters came to operate on the principle of patriotic parable (Pull together, all! That's what the class system is about!) rather than human psychology.  By series two, I felt that I was watching a propaganda film with extra kissing.

My wrath at the series finally peaked during the episode in which the Irish socialist attempts an act of dinner-table terrorism. It just made my skin crawl. What a demeaning, infantilizing representation of revolutionary ideology that was: all of his ideals fizzling into a melodrama-turned-farce.  I could only hope that this series would never, ever air in Ireland. And, unbelievably, because narrative necessity and an unrealistic sense of the chummy inter-class loyalty of these houses rules the plotting, the humiliated political miscreant continued to work at Downton after this bizarre incident.

I do love a good costume drama (love them like nobody's business), and I don't think this sort of ideology is inherent to them. I had high hopes for Downton Abbey, which is why it fills me with sadness that it appears to be part of an upswing of nostalgic art that goes hand in hand with conservative politics in Britain.

One Response so far.

  1. Anonymous says:

    (This is @rt_arden at Twitter, by the way.)

    I agree with you almost completely about the problems with Downton (though 1. I would add the problems in straight-up storytelling, like failing to show several characters falling in love in s2; and 2. I sometimes think that Fellowes was going for a "well, they're servants, but they're *our* servants" thing with the acts of generosity - sort of proprietary and a bit condescending, but couldn't pull it off. I am not 100% convinced of that, however.)

    What I really wonder about, though, is whether the popularity of the show can be read as an acceptance or an endorsement of its flaws or its politics. I wonder how many people are watching it as an enjoyable soap with better costumes, fully cognizant of the show's failures of nuance. (I ask this as a disappointed watcher myself, but also as someone who is frustrated by the swiftness with which people - though not you in this post! - assume that the enjoyment of costume drama is automatically a sign of unthinking nostalgia, or dismiss the genre entirely in what are basically gendered terms [because only silly girls could like these kinds of stories, right, with their fancy gowns and love stories. Which reminds me: why don't we classify, say, WWI films as costume drama?].)

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