Why Downton Abbey isn’t as Good as People Think

by Alon Levy

DowntonAbbey1There's a genre of shows, above the level of House or Friends and below that of The Wire, that exude high quality even if the actual level of characterization and plot isn't deep. Julian Fellowes' Downton Abbey is one of the prime examples of this genre. It's beautifully done and acted, has enough characters and plots to keep anyone's interest, and is full of references that seem smart.

It just so happens that none of these references is particularly intellectual or obscure. Instead, they're the sort of history that everyone knows. The first episode discusses the Titanic; we do not live in an alt history in which James Cameron chose to make more Terminator sequels in the 90s. Every time Lord Grantham's American wife's mother comes, we're treated to the usual tropes of differences between British and American culture. In the season that just concluded with its Christmas special, two additional common references are added: a rich English expat goes to Munich in 1922 and is killed by the early Nazi party because he vocally disagreed with them; and there's a subplot regarding Edward VIII's playboy philandering. This is about as smart as an American mid-18th century period drama inserting a reference to Washington not being able to tell a lie.

The problem is that even the stronger points of symbolism on the show are like this. The biggest is the analogy between the upstairs and the downstairs. The servants form a tight group (except Thomas and O'Brien) in which Carson is the father, Hughes is the mother, and the rest of the servants have a hierarchy in which valets and lady's maids are above the rest. Bates/Anna is of course parallel to Matthew/Mary, and the stronger parts of the show are the ones that showcase the differences between their relationships, with Matthew/Mary having more resources and more clout than Bates/Anna so that they face more rich-people problems rather than a possible execution.

The only problem is, the show didn't really invent this view of the butler as the father, the housekeeper as the mother, and the other servants as lesser members of the house. It was common in that era. I don't think it's as well-known a reference, but that symbolism is still a trope, and the servants' order of precedence within the great houses reflected it. It works well enough as a reference, but as symbolism, it's trite.

Everywhere else, Fellowes' Tory baron biases show. The show can't write women well, and descends to a virgin/whore/mother trichotomy. The only man who is as conniving as the median woman is gay. The treatment of race is facile. Lord Grantham is self-consciously written as an upper-class twit, but he doesn't suffer any consequences for it and is always saved by more competent family members, nor does he have interesting moral dilemmas. The characters are never shown to engage in any effort – they do some work and succeed, without any of the failures that are associated with actual effort. The show wants to be about the aristocracy's struggles with its decline after WW1, but it's instead about an aristocratic family that weathered all the troubles, which is about as interesting as any riches-to-riches story could be.

Early on, there are three pairs of women presented as bitches who connive against each other at every opportunity: O'Brien and Anna, Mary and Edith, Isobel and the Dowager Countess. In the first season, they were half the female main cast of the show, and the other half consisted of people who are mother figures (Lady Grantham, Hughes), had little plot at the time (Daisy, Mrs. Patmore, Sybil), or had plot but it was being put on a bus never to be seen again (Gwen). Anna improves, to the point of being presented as impossibly pure and saintly. The others don't. That's the virgin/whore/mother trichotomy. As far as we can tell, Anna is a virgin until she marries Bates, and she's so good and incorruptible and naive that when she's raped she blames herself, and of course will never tell a man, and of course will never try to stand up for herself the way a whore would. Sybil is a virgin who becomes a mother who the show couldn't figure out a plot for so she was killed. Edith is a whore – a more subdued one, but still someone who undercuts the family and then has to work to redeem herself (the only one who does) and who gets pregnant out of wedlock. Mary, the most complicated character, shifts more: she starts as a whore and redeems herself through marriage to Matthew, and after his death acts as a virgin. Even at the end of the latest Christmas special, Mary's playing two suitors against each other is chaste.

Anna's rape plot especially underscores this. We have never seen Anna have trouble standing up for herself. On the contrary, when O'Brien and Thomas wanted to frame them for something early on, she was the one who suggested framing them back, and Bates the incorruptible was the one who shot down the idea. Subsequently, as Anna became closer to Mary, she was the loyal servant-cum-spy, doing minor conniving. And now she's raped and like every saintly woman decides to blame herself, and needs other people, like her more blemished upper-class counterpart (Mary) or her mother figure (Hughes) to sort out her problems and out her to Bates. To remain unblemished, Anna can't reveal this to Bates, so he instead extracts this from Hughes; she can't say who the rapist was, so instead he figures this out himself, and it is clear that he will want to kill him. We even see the rapist set his sights on a kitchen maid just to underscore that Bates is morally right in killing him. There is no moral complexity here – Bates could just as well have killed the rapist without our seeing the rapist try to assault another character on the show.

The men who are not presented as unrealistically saintly are at least allowed to contain multitudes, except Thomas, who after O'Brien's departure is the sole token evil character, and also happens to be the only openly gay character. Bates is as saintly as Anna but can at least do dark things, though the show takes his side in the most blatant way possible. These are the rules of the society the show is set in, but these are also the rules of the show itself. What Bates is allowed to do while staying in the presumed viewers' good graces, Anna and Mary are not. Mad Men does this better – the society in the early seasons has strict gender rules, but Peggy manages to break many of them and remain a well-rounded character rather than the Bad Girl.

The Dowager Countess is a practical, witty person, saying things that sound clever when said on the fly and trite when a screenwriter has time to think them up. The West Wing has a similar problem with substituting witter banter for moral complexity and character development; Downton Abbey wisely limits itself to 1.5 such characters, the half being Isobel. But I digress. As a woman, the Dowager Countess is dishonest and manipulative; it's all for good causes, but somehow Matthew doesn't need to be so manipulative to get what he wants. But as a noble, her horribleness to the working class is an informed trait, and is expressed more in her clothing choice and her microexpressions than in how she acts in any individual case. She doesn't treat Tom well, but she doesn't do bad things to him the way Thomas does; even Mary and Edith made more of an effort to stop his relationship with Sybil. Isobel says of her that she'd be against teaching the working class to read, and yet she helps laid off servants find jobs elsewhere. I don't think it's meant as a critique of the mainstream view of racism/classism/sexism as a string of individual acts rather than as systemic inequality; the show isn't that self-aware. It's just that the show can't bring itself to show the nobles as callous to the commoners without extremely good reason. The show seems to treat the Dowager Countess as a woman who looks down on the working class but helps working people when it matters, rather than as a woman who helps servants who she knows but looks down on them. The order of such but clauses is important.

Lord Grantham is an upper-class twit. He has much more rigid views than his supposedly more classist mother the Dowagerr Countess, and at several points in the plot would spell doom on his lifestyle if he weren't bailed out by smarter characters. He faces bankruptcy for having invested all his money in one railroad that ended up failing, but Matthew bails him out with money he inherited from Lavinia's father (with the required guilt about marrying someone other than Lavinia). The estate is mismanaged and he needs Matthew and Tom to run it competently, but he doesn't need to compromise any of his lifestyle for that. In season 4 there's a crisis of ownership since he wants the estate back after Matthew dies, and Mary has to wrestle the estate from him, but she has a convenient will by Matthew giving her control. No servants or tenant farmers are laid off, except for the son of a dead, rent-delinquent tenant, who Lord Grantham loans money to and who becomes competent and steps forward as a potential manager. In other words, nobody is hurt by Lord Grantham's stupidity.

Mary then steps up, and has the formal papers to back it up. She is visited by a pair of government officials, one of whom she knew once, who survey postwar agriculture. The one she didn't know before, Blake, lets her know he doesn't care for the survival of the aristocracy and that he's only there to make sure food supplies won't be disrupted while capitalism displaces aristocracy. But not to worry: as baby pigs arrive on the farm their trough is knocked over, so Mary and Blake have to join together to haul water from a barn to give the pigs lest they die of thirst and the Downton farm probably collapse. Mary is covered in mud, and Blake comments that she's good at farm work.

Note how nobody on the show needs to make any serious effort: one try is all that's required, and you'll be good at it no matter what. If you're never seen a farm animal up close in your life you'll still make a good farmer. Alfred, too, when he leaves to work as a cook for the Ritz, is rejected, but almost instantly thereafter hired anyway as one of the people ranked above him on the cooking test leaves. There's no need for the long process of learning, or for a mentor as in the hero's journey trope. I've done wrong and/or uninteresting math; so have my peers and mentors with multiple papers in top journals and tenure or tenure-track positions at top universities. I've also done a lot of bad writing, and so have professional writers. There's a trope that first drafts of books always suck. I'm sure that Fellowes has written his share of crap, but either he forgot about it, or he thought the British viewers are morons who can't stomach the processes of slow learning and of learning by failing. The most popular newspapers in Britain are the Sun and the Daily Mail, so if it's the latter then Fellowes may well be right.

Even after the pig story, the show pulls its punches. The tenant farmer who they were about to evict who Lord Grantham loaned money to steps up, and says he's experienced with pigs and could take over the day-to-day running. Mary dirties herself once to prove her bona fides to Blake, but then puts lowborn people in charge of dirtying themselves subsequently. Blake and Mary still take an instant liking to each other, but there's a problem: Blake is a commoner who is against aristocracy, and Mary is pursued by another man, a lord, who she liked at the beginning of the season but spurned out of mourning for Matthew. Mary is still class-obsessed and has trouble marrying a commoner, but in the Christmas special, the other love interest tells her that Blake is in fact the heir to a rich barony, and just doesn't like to mention his title to people. No need to reexamine her assumptions, then – she's set. The ideal woman in a romance story is a naturally pretty woman who doesn't act like it and doesn't care much for looks, but still looks like a model and will get a makeover by a side character; the ideal man is the aristocrat who doesn't care much for his heritage, but is going to inherit it anyway.

And they're so good to everyone. The strong always take care of the weak, and always know how to do so in a way that optimally matches workers to their skills. Lord Grantham never abuses others' trust in him, or physically assaults his servants. The House of the Spirits has no trouble writing hacienda owner Esteban Trueba as a sympathetic aristocrat, who nonetheless is authoritarian, looks down on others, and rapes his tenant farmers. This isn't treated as a harmless vice, but as a horrific aspect of the hacienda system that ends up biting his family many decades later. Downton Abbey doesn't have the ability to look critically at breakdowns or abuses of authority, and just wills them away. There, there are no abuses. Nor are there mistakes with long-term consequences, with the partial exception of Sybil's death, in which two doctors disagreed and Lord Grantham picked the wrong one. In the show's world, there's no need for uniform wage scales or formal training, or for worker agitation or unions, or for governments and regulators except as advisors to the aristocrats. The aristocrats know best, and if they don't, they'll learn everything effortlessly through their superior breeding.

At a time when England is beset by rural flight, we never see any acrimony involving tenant farmers leaving, or demanding higher wages to the point that the family replaces them by machines. We see little of that in the house, too: technology isn't causing layoffs, and although Carson and Mrs. Patmore grumble about technology, the servants quickly accept it, and nobody is made redundant. The only layoff is of Molesley and that's because Matthew dies, and he is rehired as a footman after a few episodes. All departures are voluntary. Nobody demands raises. The servants accept their place in society, and the ones who don't try to marry up (which is treated as decent romance when Tom does it and as awful deceit when Edna does); Gwen and Alfred leave, but the house accepts that, and the jobs they leave for are ones that the modern viewer will view as unskilled and lowly. Nobody moves to York to start a small business.

Nor do we get much indication of the state of the British economy, with the exception of postwar inflation, in reality followed by a sharp recession, which doesn't seem to affect anyone on the show. Nobody moves to work at a factory at the start of the war and is then laid off when the war ends and drifts, unable to find work at Lancashire's declining textile mills but made redundant at the house by technology. This is not a self-aware show, painting problems of society while showing that the aristocrats barely even know of them, let alone care. The commoner characters do not discuss those problems, either.

After the war ends, all the characters say the world is changing. This is seen in small details: more cars, telephones, refrigerators, no more ironing newspapers, more women going out alone. But the servants are still not demanding anything the nobles wouldn't want to give them anyway, and from the perspective of the tenant farmer, all that's changing is that the methods by which his mostly idle landowner extracts income from him are becoming more modern and efficient.

Instead of going for this kind of conflict rooted in real English history, we only get to see palace intrigue, which could have been set anywhere. For the most part, we're told and shown that England is facing difficult times, but if everyone pulls ahead and respects tradition and authority nobody will suffer. The lord knows people and can choose, based on his personality, who to reward, and it is never shown to be wrong. There are a few freeloaders and people pulling in the wrong direction, but they are deviant and clearly wrong, and there's no conflict among good people. Watching the show you'd never understand why any state moved from administration by personal loyalty and family ties to administration by a merit-based bureaucracy.

Tom is a socialist and says his ideals are brought into conflict with his role as an estate manager, but this is informed or lampshaded conflict – we never actually see him face political dilemmas. He only has to deal with personal dilemmas, concerning relationships with other lowborn women. This isn't conflict; it's again palace intrigue in the form of gossip. He is changed after the Russian Revolution turns totalitarian, but this is a cheap punch, predictable to the viewers (the socialist believes the Bolsheviks won't execute the Romanovs), reinforcing an unreconstructed aristocratic message. If I want to see all the pieces fall together in support of an ideology, I can watch Socialist Realist art, or read Ayn Rand.

The show's view of race is in the same spirit. Rose surreptitiously dates a black man, an American jazz player. As in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, she is naive and doesn't care what the world, and he is world-weary and knows how awful the world is for interracial relationships. He even has his own mother opposing the engagement, since black people have to be shown to be symmetrically prejudiced against whites (in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, the white woman's parents are eventually convinced, but the black man's father remains opposed). Mary discovers the plans and goes to him and asks him to call it off since it's improper for Rose and she's only doing this to piss her mother off – she doesn't really love him even if she thinks she does. He responds by saying that because of all the problems facing interracial relationships he's already decided against marrying her. There's no conflict, again: Mary's racism hasn't caused any problems, and it was the black man rather than the white woman who decided against it. Good people – and the show unambiguously depicts the jazz player as good, while also being self-aware enough to avoid the Sidney Poitier stereotype – all pull in the same direction.

The problem is not that the show is conservative. Yes, Minister/Yes, Prime Minister advocated public choice theory and lampooned the British civil service as hopeless, and as a result it was Margaret Thatcher's favorite show. But it was capable of laughing at financiers and conservatives (Sir Humphrey is clearly Conservative) and portraying them as part of the system that makes government dysfunctional. Downton Abbey isn't that. It's a wish fulfillment exercise, and is incapable of showing any negative consequences stemming from sympathetic characters' actions. Jimmy McNulty and Don Draper screw up and cause real lasting damage to people or organizations that the viewers care about. Lord Grantham does not.

And McNulty and Don have interesting life stories. McNulty is a college dropout who joined the police when his wife got pregnant, and got tapped by homicide because as a beat cop he was better at it than one of the homicide detectives. He is shown to engage in concerted effort even when it's a relatively simple task, like calculating currents to figure out in which jurisdiction a victim was killed. It sometimes takes multiple episodes for the detail or for Major Crimes to follow clues. Don Draper is as close to literal rags-as-riches as possible; he takes multiple episodes to deal with personal crises, and needs to come up with good advertising pitches often on short notice, sometimes impressing his clients but sometimes failing. In contrast, the nobles are idle, not just in life, but also in terms of doing things that move the plot. Lord Grantham isn't changed by events, and Mary says she's changed but is only superficially different from her old self.

What makes a character a Mary Sue isn't that she's unrealistically perfect. Sidney Poitier's characters in To Sir With Love and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner are unrealistically perfect but are not Mary Sues. Rather, Mary Sues are defined around exercises in authorial wish fulfillment. The entire show works like this: if only all of England pulled in the same direction, jut as Downton does, then we wouldn't have all these problems of political conflict. The aristocracy would still be intact and that would clearly be a good thing, and lords wouldn't be humiliated after WW2 by having to turn their houses into museums and work as tour guides. Lord Grantham is an exercise in wish fulfillment of a lord who succeeds despite never working at it, Mary is an exercise in wish fulfillment of a lady who gets whatever she wants despite only working toward it perhaps once per season, the house is an exercise in what-could-have-been wish fulfillment.

There's a stereotype that British shows are better than American ones, and that British culture is more intelligent than American culture. None of the people who subscribe to it outside the UK seems to have heard of the Daily Mail; the people within the UK who subscribe to it often read the Daily Mail and think it's good journalism. In Israel at least, there's the stereotype that Americans care more about ratings and Brits care more about quality. It doesn't pass a simple sanity check: the US has 5 times Britain's population, and more TV channels, so that its shows have much lower ratings on average, and need lower ratings to be commercially successful. Downton has 12 million UK viewers, the equivalent of 60 million American viewers; this is taken not as evidence that it appeals to a lowest common denominator as would be the case for any American show with the same ratings, but as evidence that it is so amazing that even the supposedly smart British all love it.

The real difference between American and British shows is how they flatter their audience's prejudices. In US mass-market shows, the writers flatter the viewers by making the characters so obviously stupid and unsubtle that the viewers feel superior; think, for example, how few times in mainstream US television a lie lasts longer than a single episode, and compare this with how long lies last on upmarket shows (typically at least a season arc) or in real life (sometimes forever). In British mass-market shows, and in some American period dramas on cable, the pandering is cleverer. The writers insert references that everybody knows and that everybody thinks they're clever for knowing, like the Titanic or the difference between British stiff upper lip and American straightforwardness. Viewers get to congratulate themselves for watching such a smart show with so many references that they get and with so much witty banter by the Dowager Countess. In period dramas like this, every issue is replaced by universal themes of palace intrigue with nice costumes. What takes courage is creating a sympathetic main character who is still flawed to the point of causing real damage to others, and either not changing or changing in a very hard manner. David Simon and Matthew Weiner, for all of their faults as writers, have this courage. Fellowes doesn't have that courage. He just wants us to bask in the glory of Merry Old England, when everyone knew their place.