And I’m hooked.
This British period drama created and written by Julian Fellowes (Academy-award winning writer of Gosford Park) centers on the aristocratic Crawley family and their cadre of servants. The story begins the day after the sinking of the RMS Titanic in April 1912. Upon learning that the male heirs of the estate died on the “unsinkable” ship, the Crawley family must appoint (quite reluctantly) an unknown distant cousin as the new heir of Downton. The show then follows the interrelated lives of the upstairs aristocrats and downstairs servants as they face various conflicts (both profound and petty) amidst the radically changing world of the early twentieth century: World War I, women’s suffrage, Fenianism, and the looming Great Depression.
Sure, the show has its melodramatic moments (some critics go as far as labeling it a “soap opera”), but what makes Downton so appealing to me is its unique blend of romanticism and realism. The idyllic, English countryside and the extravagant décor of the Crawley estate (the Highclere Castle in Hampshire); the fashions and manners of high society; the aesthetically sophisticated musical score; and the poetic quality of the dialogue certainly appeal to my romantic sensibilities. At the same time, the show’s historicity; the grimy conditions of the downstairs world of the workers; the brutalities of war; financial uncertainty; miscarriage; heartbreak; family tragedy; and the cruel disappointments of life provide a healthy dose of reality. Indeed, life at Downton, like real life, is both beautiful and ugly.
Fellowes’s writing is beautiful, smart, and humorous, and he brilliantly creates both endearing and despicable characters. Beyond its archetypal ingredients (Byronic heroes, scheming shape shifters, underdogs, and damsels in distress) and compelling conflicts (sibling rivalry, teenage rebellion, love triangles, deceit, and betrayal) that make for any great story, Downton beautifully portrays and celebrates Christian virtues, something quite rare for prime time TV. I’m moved and inspired by the kindness of Lord Grantham; the forbearance of Lady Grantham; the wisdom (and wit) of the Dowager Countess; the sincerity of Matthew Crawley; the integrity of Mr. Bates; the loyalty of Anna; the devotion of Mr. Carson; the humility of Mr. Molesley; the selfless sacrifices of Lady Sybil; the generosity of Cousin Isobel; and the astonishing human solidarity between the privileged aristocrats and their lowly servants. These characters certainly have their flaws, but their acts of compassion are truly inspiring.
While the apparent differences between the upstairs and downstairs worlds make for interesting dynamics, what I find more fascinating is their striking similarities. Despite socioeconomic class or status, both the Crawley family and their servants face the same demands and challenges of everyday life, the pressures and anxieties brought by the societal expectations of their time. In other words, they each confront the realities of what we call the “human condition.”
When a kitchen maid unexpectedly finds herself sympathizing with the sorrowful Lady Edith (spoiler alert: Edith’s just been jilted at the altar), another maid reminds her, “All God’s creatures have their troubles.” Regardless of status, wealth, or power, no person is immune to suffering. The comforts and pleasures of the Crawleys’ privileged life at Downton do not protect them from trial or tragedy.
The show’s theme of human solidarity reminds me of an important motif in Ecclesiastes, that whether men are rich or poor, foolish or wise, the “same event happens to all of them.” That death and difficulties are inevitable in this earthly life particularly rings true for Christians as Jesus and the New Testament writers repeatedly reminded the church of the persecution and hardships it would face. For Christians, suffering is not an exception to the rule. It is the rule. We’re not invincible. Life is fragile. And as the honorable and beautifully flawed inhabitants of Downton remind us, regardless of class or creed we’re all in need of grace.
If you’re looking for a beautifully written, filmed, and acted TV series, I highly recommend Downton Abbey.
Here’s a link to a preview.