Magazine article The Christian Century

Downton Abbey

Magazine article The Christian Century

Downton Abbey

Article excerpt

Downton Abbey

Created by Julian Fellowes

Starring Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Maggie Smith and 3im Carter

I've been telling everyone who'll listen how great Downton Abbey is," I said in a sermon that was technically about evangelism. I was illustrating St. Augustine's point that when people love, say, a great actor they tell others about him--and so how much more should we tell others about the gospel. A week later I learned how (un)successful that point had been.

"I've watched every episode," a parishioner said. "Now what was it you were trying to say about that show?"

Maybe just that it's really, really good. The TV series made in Great Britain, which completed its second season this winter, has been a hit around the world. A third season is in production and talk about a fourth is under way. All this attention is being showered on a costume drama (the series is set in the era of World War I), which usually appeals only to stodgy, BBC-watching nerds. In the ultimate sign of pop culture respect, Saturday Night Live spoofed the show.

Cool aside, the show has some highbrow cred: Slate ran a series of eight essays, one after each episode during season two. Like Thomists arguing over fine points of the text, the critics pulled every episode apart with questions ranging from historical ("Did World War I soldiers really get as much leave as these characters do?") to ad hominem ("Is Lord Grantham really as awesome as he thinks he is?").

Downton, it must be said, is a soap opera. It follows an aristocratic family named the Granthams, which includes a dowager countess (played brilliantly by Dame Maggie Smith); the head of the family, Lord Grantham; and his three unmarried daughters. You may have already detected the key plot device--Grantham has no sons to inherit his title and estate.

The first episode opens with a dramatic portrayal of the Grantham family learning about the sinking of the Titanic. The tragedy touches this family more deeply than most, for two male cousins were on board. The inheritance thus passes to a distant and far less aristocratic cousin, Matthew Crawley, who suffers the indignity of actually having to work for a living (as a lawyer). Downton works partly as a shipwreck in slow motion. It shows a way of life that is passing away.

The show switches between those who live in luxury upstairs at Downton Abbey and the servants who work downstairs. Julian Fellowes (a Tory member of Parliament) wrote an earlier movie with similar themes called Gosford Park. In the case of Downton, the life upstairs is less eventful than the one downstairs, where footmen betray one another in an effort to become valets and servants fall in love with one another.

Sometimes the lightweight themes thicken into a meatier morality play, with the downstairs servants much more interesting than the whiny ladies and lords upstairs who are unable to dress or feed themselves. Two of the best downstairs characters are Thomas, a footman so keen to be a valet he'll trip a disabled fellow servant to humiliate him, and Mrs. O'Brien, a maid not above hurting her ladyship to get revenge for a slight. The two cravenly plot together at least once an episode. …

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