Written by Julian Fellowes and starring a glamorous cast of pensive thespians, Downton Abbey has been a Masterpiece Theater phenomenon on PBS and a hit in the United Kingdom.  The show follows the fortunes of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants in the titular Downton Abbey during the first decades of the twentieth century.  The British Upper Class (amongst the original one-percenters) is cleaving to a status and an identity that will soon be coming to an end thanks to World Wars, revolutions, universal suffrage, and electricity - even in the kitchens.


The show is a soapy ‘Remains of the Day.’  There is a loyal if sardonic Butler, swooning young women, dashing men, lots of arched eyebrows and the crumpled smiles of affectionate parents, hunts and balls; it is all held together by the wry sniping of Maggie Smith as the scene-stealing Dowager Countess of Grantham.

It is also one of the few shows over the past decade to consider, somewhat seriously, what it means to be at home when there is a war overseas.  Patriotism and nationalism are not just measured by pomp and teary-eyed toasts to the boys at war, they come with a sense of sacrifice: if the Crawley family acts somewhat ludicrous as their lifestyle is impinged upon when Downton Abbey is turned into a convalescence home for wounded officers, there is nevertheless a sense of doing one's duty and not relegating sacrifice (entirely) to others.

Distanced by the grandeur and traditions of a very different time, as well as the artifices of drama, the show nevertheless stands as a reproach, not just to frank contemporary politics (wars that are not paid for by a society waging them, wars that are invisible to those not caught in the crossfire) but ethically: who provides care for those who are injured, wounded, and suffer in a war?  Whose responsibility is it? What sacrifices need to be made?   One of the most important ethical questions is the ethics of invisibility and silence: of how the knowable is lost, whether it is lost in the thickets of incomprehensible numbers or pushed out of sight.  Downton Abbey has been one of the few shows that shows us some of the consequences of war: burned faces, lost limbs, a character with shell shock: a valet who was easily startled, haunted by flashbacks and nightmares, tremulous with survivor guilt, avoidant, all the hallmarks of what would now be called PTSD.  One would be hard pressed to say that the representations of suffering rank with Goya’s Disasters of War, but at least they are not justifications for torture or rampages.  

The generosity of the Crawleys may come with some self-aggrandizement, but it is possible to discern how they are not unaware that opening up their home to the officers is a movement towards a different social order. Indeed, one of the daughters becomes a nurse and, at the improbable risk of giving away a spoiler, inevitably hooks up with the handsome young Irish radical.  This is part of a slightly broader narrative about the influx of women into medicine, not just in nursing but also into leadership positions in medicine, all of which is dramatically introduced when Isobel Crawley, who had been a nurse in the Boer war, insists that a man with dropsy be treated with a pericardiocentesis against the wishes of the doctor; the intervention is a success and she is made Chairman of the Downton Cottage Hospital! 

Margaret Thatcher may have said that there is no such thing as society, but the most fully developed character in the show is Society, a shrewd player of rules and obligations, a disciplinarian of custom and duty, as sturdy, labyrinthine, and stolid as Downton Abbey itself.  


2012 Golden Globes: Best Miniseries or Television Film 2011 Emmy Awards: Outstanding Miniseries or Movie Brian Percival - Outstanding Directing for a Miniseries, Movie or a Dramatic Special Maggie Smith - Outstanding Supporting Actress In a Miniseries or a Movie

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