Downton Abbey just finished its fourth season with no signs of slowing — viewership is up 25 percent from Season Three, and Season Five is coming. It's the biggest British import since the Beatles, and this show about the haves and have-nots living under the same roof seems to have created its own cultural moment.
Our opinionators demand we pick a side: Are you with the lords and ladies or their live-in staff? George Will recently cited the show as proof of a coming class war, warning that we all could soon be living in the basement of "Obama Abbey." Others — including one who called Downton "a silvered tureen of snobbery" — argue that our global economic divide is dragging us back to the '20s, and that most of us already serve the 1 percenters. Downton just airbrushes exploited laborers into happy, devoted servants, they argue.
Julian Fellowes, the show's creator (and an actual English "Lord"), shared a different view with the Wall Street Journal: "I think the — well, not even the subtext, the supertext — of Downton is that it is possible for us all to get on, that we don't have to be ranged in class warfare permanently... "
Fellowes offers a character for everyone — from Lord Grantham, who is wrong about most everything but still a decent guy, to Tom Branson, the Irish socialist who marries into the family he once detested. There's Daisy, who finds hope in just doing her job; Lady Edith, the emerging feminist; Violet, the dowager countess and geyser of endless zingers; and Mrs. Hughes, who, along with stoic Mr. Carson, holds the entire improbable operation together. (And "improbable" fits, as it is someone's actual job to help Lady Mary on with her evening dinner gloves.)
And that's one of the delights of the Great British Period Piece — the constant reminders that, "Wow, this is how some people lived!" The drama itself — light and soapy — is anchored to the constant march of modernity, bearing down on the Abbey, but always kept just at bay. (Change terrifies all aristocrats, from Lord Grantham to George Will.) Fellowes knows when to take the drama up a notch by inflicting pain on his characters — often in the form of a killed-off spouse. But he has an eye for the beautiful moment, too. The grand ball and the day at the beach from Sunday's finale unfolded at a relaxed pace and were just plain delightful to watch.
Slowing down seems to be another of Fellowes' supertexts; depicting the time before cellphones and hyperscheduling has its own escapist appeal. "The Downton world seems like an ordered world at times," Fellowes says, "and ours feels like a rather disordered world." And you don't have to be endorsing a return to feudalism to agree. ♦