I am not a big fan of costume dramas. It took me ages to watch all the parts of the Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice. This is why I was hesitating when everyone in England was talking about the latest episodes of a show called Downton Abbey.
Yet, with a long weekend to come I decided to take the DVD home with me from university and to have a look at what all this fuzz is about… Well, what can I say except for: Can I please rent a room at Downton Abbey!?
I. Am. Addicted!
This weekend I watched each episode of the first two seasons: I was laughing, I was nervously biting my nails, and I was crying… crying a lot.
Downton Abbey is the country estate of the Earl of Grantham (played by Hugh Bonneville whom some of you might remember as Bernie from Notting Hill), his wife and his three daughters. The first episode is set in 1912 and begins with the sinking of the Titanic and thus the death of the heir of Downton Abbey, the Earl of Grantham’s nephew. This changes the whole family and it is soon revealed that a lawyer from Manchester will be the next heir of Downton. A middle-class lawyer, who is received by the aristocratic and slightly snobbish family with a good portion of skepticism. However, they soon learn that the new heir is not a nasty upstart, but a very lovable, good-natured young man and wait for the eldest daughter, Mary, to fall in love with him. This is the beginning of an epic love story between Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley, future heir of Downton Abbey.
What gives the show its twist is that – unlike in all the Austen movies and typical heritage films – you also get a closer look at the servants who inhabit the attics and cellars of Downton Abbey. Some of them are loyal, some of them recognize that aristocracy is an outdated model and rebel against their status in society. By means of eavesdropping, open doors, and gossip, the problems of the aristocracy and the servants are caught up with each other and the perfect surrounding for intrigues and love stories is created.
In the beginning, I told you that I do not like costume drama. What I find upsetting and also problematic about it is that all the Austen adaptations etc. advertise an image of the English past that has never actually existed. There is no war, no working class, and in the end all the couples are neatly brought together according to their social status. Yet, while Austen’s novel do criticize this with a certain amount of irony and thus create awareness for the injustices in society, the film adaptations often gloss over Austen’s irony by foregrounding the (commercially attractive) love story and thus exploit the audience’s nostalgia.
Downton Abbey does not do this! The plots in Downton Abbey are so absurd that you do not conceive of it as an honest image of the past. While the writers include historical events like the sinking of the Titanic or WW-I, the stories are exaggerated and you can hardly belief what the characters are forced to endure in only one lifetime. Downton Abbey entails a huge cast and what is so exciting is that the characters all have their good and bad traits. Of course, you can tell apart the good guys from the villains but you are invited to feel for each of them. They all get their ups and downs in this Regency roller coaster.
The series is very fast paced and there are huge time jumps which allows the audience to experience a time of groundbreaking changes and alterations in society. While the aristocracy is not amused about all the footmen being sent to war (I mean… You cannot have maids in the dining rooms, so who is serving you food??), the servants are slowly realizing that there might be other paths in life for them and that war – if only for a short time – dissolves social boundaries. And while some members of the Earl of Grantham’s family also feel the change and the need to change, you will always get a snappy comment from his mother (gloriously played by Maggie Smith), who considers the telephone an invention of the devil and thinks that electric light will be a trend that won’t survive for long.
This mixture of (melo)drama and an ironic and simultaneously nostalgic glance at the “glorious” past makes Downton Abbey my new favourite TV show.