Downton Abbey: why did America fall so hard for the show?


Its the most milquetoast cultural phenomenon since Kenny G, Mad Men if even less happened and the characters were more repressed. Our man in LA watches the final episode and tries to make sense of a phenomenon

On Sunday night, PBS aired the final episode of Downton Abbey for the first time in the US. It was a highly anticipated occasion all over the nation, except at my house. Ive never seen a single second of Downton Abbey and was not planning to for the remainder of my time on this planet. So you can imagine how thrilled I was when my editor kindly requested I watch the finale and give my thoughts. At last, I could consider myself a part of the most milquetoast cultural phenomenon since Kenny G.

What I know about this show couldnt fill up a shot glass. I understand that it takes place in an English estate in between the world wars, that it follows the trials and tribulations of high-born occupants of said estate and their working-class servants. What I dont know is why Downton Abbey has amassed a fiercely loyal cult audience here in America. I hope that as the episode unspools, the veil will be lifted and I will have an epiphany of sorts, motivating me to go back and watch the whole series from the beginning. At the very least, I just want to understand what all the fuss is about. I am giving myself only one restriction: I cannot do any secondary research during the show. I have to figure out whats happening in the story on my own.

We open, as is customary, on the credits. Immediately, Im put off. Theres a quick shot of a table setting with two knives. Two knives? How many knives does one person really need? For some meals, I dont even use one knife, let alone two. With two knives, I feel like Leonardo from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which is not ideal, since Ive always been more of a Raphael kinda guy. Per my arbitrary rule, I cant Google anything during the show, so I havent the faintest idea why one would need two knives. Is one for butter and the other for cutting food? Is it a salad knife? Is it to stab a particularly officious party guest? Talk about a cliffhanger.

My first impression is that everyone speaks in exposition, declaring their intentions loudly and unsolicited. In particular, Matthew Goodes character routinely dredges up his decision to stop racing cars because of some accident that killed a character Ive never heard of in every social situation imaginable. I suppose this is not unlike the curious habit that citizens of Los Angeles have for prattling on about themselves in conversation. Ive retired from racing cars because I killed someone is the English equivalent of Im working on my screenplay, which instantly ingratiates Matthew Goode to me.

Maggie Smith as Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham. Photograph: Nick Briggs/AP

Twenty minutes in and Im having a hell of a time keeping track of all the elderly white women. Helpfully, some of them wear hats and some of them dont. I know who Dame Maggie Smith is, so that gives me my bearings. As I come to learn more about these characters, I develop fun nicknames for each of them: Maggie Smith, Not Maggie Smith, Not Maggie Smith with a Hat, Maggie Smith with a Hat, Young Maggie Smith. I really feel I know these people.

A character who is not Maggie Smith and is also common says: The future is no ladies maids at all, but we havent quite got there. Yes, as a citizen of the future, I can say that there are no ladies maids any more, unless your name is Donald Trump, in which case you own an island/tax shelter populated exclusively with ladies maids. Ladies Maid Island doesnt exist on any map, but if Trump is elected president, it will quickly become the 51st state. Its only exports will be polished brass and gossip.

I do see some of the appeal of this program in that, everyones constantly drinking and changing clothes. Its a bit like Mad Men, if even less happened and all the characters were much more repressed. One scene ends in a parlor over sherry and another scene begins in a slightly different parlor, but with champagne instead of sherry. Considering how much alcohol these people drink, youd think theyd have far more to say to each other.

Robert James-Collier as Thomas Barrow. Photograph: Nick Briggs/AP

A young fellow named Mr Barrow, who I bet is considered a form of sex symbol by Downton enthusiasts, finds a new job. I dont know if hes getting paid more to leave or if hes getting a promotion. Ive been trying to find something to do on my phone that doesnt involve the risk of accidental spoilers, so Ive taken to refreshing Instagram every 15 minutes, which caused me to miss why Mr Barrow is leaving. My mind wanders. I ponder the question of why there are more maids and butlers than actual people living in this house. They must unmake beds and spill various fluids just to give their servants something to do besides speculate on the internal motivations of rich people.

Some butlers have decided to go on an errand to get silver polish. We dont see it, but its probably more exciting than whatever is going on here. One chubby butler has a column in a magazine, some kind of advice column on how to dress. I suppose this suggests a future for the lower classes wit can be your ticket out of the humdrum life of the servant. The rest of the butlers are quitting, so this rich family is going to have to find someone else to floss for them.

An old man who sounds like hes recently taken a sedative appears to tell not Maggie Smith without a hat that he has pernicious anemia and will probably die. On an American television show, thered be a bit of crying and wailing the sort of histrionic acting that ends up in an awards show highlight reel. This being an English costume drama, the most we get is a few seconds of lip quivering and culturally specific brave-face chattering. Ive had a good innings, he says. Jolly good, rah rah and all that. Sorry about the dying thing, old girl. Cheerio. Is this a parody?

Lady Edith: who is she? Photograph: Nick Briggs/ITV PLC

Ive now watched enough of this program to know that the blonde girl with the pointy nose is named Edith. She sees someone she recognizes at dinner. I guess his name is Bertie. They have a secret. I dont know what the secret is (sorry, texting) so I am going off of the assumption that this is an X-Files crossover and Edith has alien DNA. Or shes a time-traveller come to warn everyone about the rise of fascism. Or she has, like, a secret daughter. I honestly dont know.

I realize that some of these people are meant to be poor, but they all sound terribly rich and smart to me. Oh my God, maybe thats the point of the whole show? That were all equal, no matter what class were born into? I feel like Neo from The Matrix after he learns his entire life has been a computer simulation.

In case you were wondering, Matthew Goode still doesnt want to race, but he needs to find some activity to keep him from pestering his wife all day. If I was writing this show, hed be forced to race by some big hulking brute, preferably Jason Statham. Theyd race, but it would end in controversy, so to settle their differences, theyd have to fight each other with sticks and wrenches and whatever else they can find lying around. Also, this fight would have to take place on the roof of a building in downtown Los Angeles. In short, I would like Downton Abbey to be more like Furious 7 in every way possible, up to and including a Wiz Khalifa song over the end credits.

Ailing Jim Carter as Mr Carson and Phyllis Logan as Mrs Hughes. Photograph: Nick Briggs/ITV/PA

The head butler, who I learn is named Carson, is sick. He keeps spilling drinks on everything, which is not at all advantageous for his profession. Mr Barrow is really leaving at the worst possible time, isnt he? Speaking of, half this episode is taken up with Barrow saying goodbye to the rest of the people in the house. I half-expected hed start saying goodbye to each and every piece of silverware too. Farewell, spoon. See you later, knife. Take care, extra knife that no one actually needs.

Edith and Bertie are going to get married, but Berties mom doesnt approve because Edith may or may not be a lizard underneath all of that makeup. Fortunately, Berties mom reconsiders and consents to the nuptials when she discovers that Edith is not a lizard at all. The forked tongue and the scales are just a coincidence. This makes Edith so happy, because I guess her life has been quite terrible, what with all the sitting, drinking, eating and sleeping she does.

Over an hour and a half has gone by and weve reached the wedding. Its New Years Eve and the whole gang is assembled. I am so close to these characters now. Its like Im a part of the Crawley family. I even know that theyre called the Crawley family. The one that looks like Keira Knightley is named Mary!

Its Michelle Dockery as Not Maggie Smith or rather, Lady Mary. Photograph: Nick Briggs/AP

Maggie Smith asks Not Maggie Smith why the English are so dour. I blame the weather, she says. And with that, a cliche is born. Not Maggie Smiths boyfriend is sick, but hes not that sick, so they get to be old together. Someone pregnant gives birth to a child in Marys bedroom, which means a servant is going to have to burn all the sheets. Edith gets married. Matthew Goode decides to become a used car salesman, the sorry fate of all ex-athletes. In a shocking swerve, Barrow agrees to come back to Downton to be head butler after Carson regrettably resigns. Im so glad we spent all that time watching him say goodbye. It made his inevitable return all the more inevitable.

The Earl and Countess of Grantham settle in, wistful about the passage of time, but optimistic about the future. Lets just hope that the geopolitical stability of the continent continues and Europe isnt overrun by blustery thugs and jackbooted stormtroopers anytime soon. Im sure that wont happen and the Crawleys will live happily ever after, or at least until the reunion special. The show concludes with an exterior of the titular home, covered in snow.

Do I understand why this show is so popular? Yes, I do. Its like the British version of Empire silly clothes and soap opera-style human exaggeration. It makes the viewer feel slightly superior, because the actors have accents and are quite posh. Watching this show is not dissimilar to crashing a fancy dinner party where you dont know any of the other guests, but they all know each other and are prone to in-jokes and obscure references. Its a historical program that skips all the exciting parts of history.

Instead of the very American tendency to paint our costume dramas with monumental import (is the era memorialized by HBOs Vinyl really that critical or is it just old men waxing nostalgic about their glory days?) Downton appears content to languidly report on just how dull the past actually was. I can see that being refreshing for Americans growing tired of yet another loud, pompous hour-long starring some gruff, perpetually moist antihero. Plus, it put me straight to bed when it was over. Now, if youll excuse me, Im off to Google second knife.

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