to an unknown audience
On Downton/  /August 16, 2011

Expertly plotted from beginning to end, superbly designed and acted with nuance, delivering punchy cliffhangers at regular intervals, the recent TV series Downton Abbey portrays the relations within and between the social classes of Britain just before it all went haywire in WWI.

It's essentially a remake of the moldy old program Upstairs, Downstairs, which Americans will know either through its presentation on PBS under the auspices of Masterpiece Theatre, or else through its presentation on Sesame Street under the auspices of Monsterpiece Theatre. But the new show takes a strong injection of life from the modern arts of television: strong acting, hotly-paced writing and good production values, all of which lead to a tighter contest of values. It ran in 7 episodes on ITV in Britain last Fall and is available now in the States (get the "uncut UK version"!) from your favorite purveyor of digital moving images.

The first five minutes are a tour de force of cinematic exposition and the rest of the series, although it lives in a handful of interiors, still makes careful use of the medium to tell its story; those interiors are lush and pleasant to stare at, but the distinction between the noble family of the house (that'd be the Crawleys of Downton) and the servants (a fine ensemble that bustles around below decks, all engaged in and proud of their work) is palpable & nerve-racking.

One of the intriguing themes is the relative power that some of the household staff seem to have; the aristocrats almost suffer under their own noblesse oblige: they are compelled to take care of their staff, and give them each their full role in the house. A touching scene in the second or third episode has a nouveau aristocrat, formerly a "country" lawyer (hailing from Manchester), putting out his valet by insisting on dressing himself. The newer world this lawyer represents, one made of middle-classes and an idea of social equality, leaves no place for the undereducated man who so proudly stands at his side in a tuxedo far more crisp and ornamented than you or I have ever worn.

Echoes of Remains of the Day are hard to ignore. That book, and Anthony Hopkins' portrayal of the hero, gives great insight into the possible psychology—peculiar to modern eyes—of a great man of service, a butler.

Also intriguing are the ways the nobles use the servants in their gossip, and vice-versa, each perhaps tacitly aware that the other side must be sharing their secrets. Lady Grantham speaks freely with her ladies' maid, and her confidences are repeated selectively downstairs; meanwhile the Lady bends to persuasion from her maid, whose own ideas were shaken up by the other servants.

Unlike a fervent Communist's caricature of such a scene, the nobles are not perennial oppressors, hobbling their servants in every way. Instead, the show gives degrees of dignity to the men and women of the staff, in what was after all a human institution, molded in human softness. It renders its politics in subtler tones, showing how a housemaid, while dignified, might be trapped in this one role for life, despite all her talents—perhaps unable to meet a lover or make a family.

It is a fascinating clockwork, such a house, with its in-built tensions and simultaneously the pervasive sense of propriety, and of order, which assuages the nerves of all, allows them their sense of civility over the barbarians elsewhere, and yet wedges each person, lord and footman alike, into a narrowly determined role. Downton Abbey is a sweet, salty, and worthy realization of such a clockwork.

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