9 Reasons To Give Watching Downton Abbey A Chance Despite Everything

Downton Abbey8 9 Reasons To Give Watching Downton Abbey A Chance Despite Everything

By now, especially after the recently aired finale on PBS, most people probably have some awareness of Downton Abbey. Chances are you saw a title of an article on Twitter or somewhere on the internet about some dumb British period drama called “Downtown Abbey.” Then maybe you quickly forgot about its existence. Then perhaps you noticed the show receiving a bunch of awards from various groups and thought hey, that’s that show I heard about, oh but it’s Downton, not Downtown. And then perhaps you started to hear tons of people talking about it, from people you know personally, to Colin Quinn and Jerry Seinfeld on Seinfeld’s web show. And all of a sudden you were like “Why is everyone crazy about this stupid show?”

At least, this is sort of how it went about for me and people I know, before it became one of my favorite television programs, and probably my favourite programme on the telly. So I think the assumption that it’s stupid and lame and boring and not worth paying any attention to is completely fair. Even now when I talk about it, it sounds absolutely stupid. And I can’t rule out that actually is all of those things. Still, I’d like to lay out my reasoning for why I and many others have a strange and profound affection for Downton Abbey, and perhaps, if you’re so persuaded, you too may find it worth checking out. Please know that I’m aware how stupid the photos and descriptions must look and sound to you, and that I am urging you to watch despite all of this. For others who already love it, here are my reasons for finding the show so terribly irresistible.

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1) It’s so stupid, and stupider still how you become unwittingly emotionally invested

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I don’t actually mean that Downton Abbey is stupid; that is, it’s obviously an incredibly smart and smartly-crafted show. What I mean when I say it’s stupid is that if you tell someone that the moment you got hooked on this kind of soapy British period drama was when Granny made a courteous gesture at a flower show, it sounds completely ridiculous. My relationship with the show has become a back and forth between “OMG O’Brien, you monster!” and “Wait why are my fists clenched so tightly?” The show has this strange power to rid you of irony and cynicism before you can realize you’re not laughing at how stupid it is anymore. That’s quite a feat if you think about it.

Part of this is that it’s able to poke fun at itself by offering multiple perspectives on the period, which I’ll get to a little later. It’s not a story romanticizing the noble upper class folks of the time, as it may seem from the outside. It’s not a stuffy, melodramatic story offering mere escapism into the nostalgic past. And it’s not an uncritical look at the British class system then and now. It’s also not totally boring when you actually watch it, as hard as that may be to believe. I’ve yet to hear anyone describe it in a way that makes it sound as enjoyable as it is. The only way to tell someone about it is to have them watch it. Everyone I talk to seems to agree, it gets real at the flower show. It’s not as stupid as it sounds!

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2) Granny is hilarious, offensive, sweet: in short, she’s everyone’s grandma

Downton Abbey 9 Reasons To Give Watching Downton Abbey A Chance Despite Everything

The Dowager Countess, also known as Granny, also known as Cousin Violet, also known as the old lady who looks like a bird, also known as Maggie Smith, is another one of the show’s big hooks. I’m not going to reference the flower show again. Just know that I could. But here’s how Granny works, or at least how she worked for me: she starts off like this crazy old lady who we’re supposed to laugh at because she’s horribly racist and mean to everyone and doesn’t appear enough to really factor into the show all that much, it seems. Just about everyone else on the show seems likeable enough, agreeable one might say, so Granny stands out in part because Maggie Smith is so recognizable, but also because she says awful things.

She’s the first character to do anything really surprising, and it comes a couple of episodes into the series. It’s also one of the first things that makes the show feel real and interesting: rather than seeming like a mere gimmick, which gets predictable and boring rather quickly, Granny is shown to have a genuine care for people, particularly those in her house, even though she sticks to traditional British customs and points of view. Her offensive statements then get taken as more ignorant than hateful, more like we would take them if they were said by our own grandparents. Good luck escaping her talons of charm after witnessing her sassing rude dinner guests.

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3) Lady Sybil is a babe

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Alright, if an appeal to well-rounded and realistically depicted characters isn’t your bag, then try this one out: if nothing else, watch the show for the hotness that is Lady Sybil. The youngest of the three Crawley sisters, she’s naturally the most rebellious, a quality typically conducive to extreme hotness. While her elder siblings, Mary and Edith, are constantly fighting, Sybil is a quiet peacemaker, bridging the tension between the two competing factions, and doing so with forcefulness and grace.

She loves her family but ultimately doesn’t give a damn what they think when it comes to what she decides to do with her life. She’s liberal minded (hot) and a vocal supporter of women’s suffrage (way hot). She isn’t afraid to upend her family’s traditional tendencies, and demonstrates this by wearing pants (yowza). Oh, and she bangs the family’s hired driver. Don’t even try to tell her what to do. Jessica Brown Findlay plays her most admirably, recasting all those false caricatures of feminism as angry and scornful into a soft but firm voice saying “I’m sorry you feel that way, but I’m going to do what I decide is best.” Like I said: babe.

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4) Cousin Matthew is a babe

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But don’t think this show only caters to those attracted to strong-willed feminists. No, there’s some hotness doled out on the male side as well, primarily in the part of young Matthew Crawley, trained lawyer and new heir to the house, whose sole purpose is to do whatever he possibly can to help the family and all those he comes across—especially the ladies. He plays knight in shining armor too many times to count for the Grantham household, but never with a single beautiful blond strand of hair out of place.

Of course, the main source of frustration with Matthew is his on-off relationship with Lady Mary. You spend much of the series muttering “I know you two are not-super-distant cousins but could you please just make out already??” But don’t even try to tame that coy little smirk on his face, or he will enact his revenge on you by making you fall madly in love with him and then going off to war, or taking up with some other floozy, or spouting off some beautiful-sounding but hurtful witticism that cuts you to your core. In sum: he’s a babe.

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5) There are seriously compelling plot twists and character arcs

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This point may be a one-way ticket back to Borington but for anyone doubting the show’s ability to hold your attention, let me offer you one simple word: sex. Yes, despite the haughty exterior, these upper-class folk are no strangers to going upstairs-downstairs, nor are the servants. I haven’t even mentioned one of the most interesting parts of the show, which is that we get to know the servants as well as we know the nobility, which makes for some neat dynamics. But while we get to know them, they get to know each other, in the biblical sense.

Two events occur in the first few episodes that have implications for the entire run of the show to this point, and both involve some taboo sex. One involves at least one elicit gay affair between the servant Thomas and one of the house’s guests, which complicates the amount of sympathy we have for the often cold and ruthless Thomas. The other, involving Lady Mary, is an interesting parallel to the Thomas affair, with different fallout that’s appropriate to her status and cultural mores of the time. What I’m saying is Downton Abbey does not shy away from the natural urges of members of this society, despite the cultural tendency to assume the only stiff thing to discuss is one’s upper lip.

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6) It really is a fascinating glimpse into a transitional period for the English class system

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This show would probably not be at all interesting, despite the aforementioned hotness of Sybil and Matthew, without the equal attention devoted to the house staff. We see not only how the division works between upper and lower class people, but we see how each division operates within itself, and the systems of class that exist even among the servants. It’s a culture dictated largely by family, duty, and propriety. In other words, power and class.

This becomes more interesting thanks to the specific period of time in which the show is set. At the beginning of the first series, 20th century changes are beginning to reach Downton, but they’re really shaken up when the First World War arrives. Things become really interesting on a historical level at this point because it marks a shift in perceptions of the class system, and this is made apparent through the story of these characters. War brings with it a strange leveling of the playing field, with the servants fighting alongside the aristocrats in the trenches, women serving a vital function in providing medical care, and private mansions operating as public hospices for the injured. When the war ends, many assume that life will return to “normal,” with the previous classes and norms being put back in place, but at this point, there is no return. It makes for some interesting historical context to exciting developments with the characters. And maybe it explains why Robert is just angry all the time as the show goes on.

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7) Hitler and World War II will probably materialize at some point

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We’ve already been through the sinking of the Titanic, the First World War, Spanish Flu, women’s suffrage, Irish rebellion, and time continues to march on. The show is currently set in the early 1920s, but you know before long we’ll start hearing about Chamberlain and appeasement and Granny will probably talk about how the Nazis have some good ideas and everyone will shout her down. The show has to be getting more and more aware of its huge American audience and presumably will not be able to help catering to America’s romance surrounding the Second World War. It’s also shown a real lust for tragedy, so having Downton get bombed by the Germans may be a fitting course for the series. Disclaimer: I don’t know how much of this speculation is actually historically justifiable.

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8) The show’s worst character is at least a source of hope for us all

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I don’t know anyone who cares much for Bates, the Eeyore of Downton Abbey. He’s a sad sack, self-flagellating martyr who’s always moping about one thing or another. And yet somehow he nabs this young blond lady’s maid? Who seems legitimately cool and charming and full of life and enthusiasm and affection? I can accept a little exaggeration in my melodrama, but I don’t know. Still, in an atmosphere fraught with unrequited love, be it poor Daisy’s crush on every boy, or Thomas’ unwelcome advances on straight dudes, or Lady Edith being Lady Edith, I guess it’s nice to see some residents of Downton getting some. And if Bates can land Anna, maybe anything’s possible.

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9) The conversation around the show is really, really fun

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Honestly, the person who finally convinced me to start watching Downton Abbey may have been Patton Oswalt. I’m only slightly familiar with his comedy, a fan of his film work, and a follower on Twitter, which is where he livetweets episodes of Downton when they play on PBS. There are apparently a few other comedians who do this, but he’s the only one I follow. His response to the show sum up how a lot of people relate to it: with a sense of preliminary detached irony that morphs into sincere emotional attachment expressed with tinges of remaining irony. If that makes sense.

For the third and most recent season, these hilarious Facebook recaps have been passed around, chronicling each individual episode as if the characters were reacting to the events of their story on Facebook. Lord Robert checked into Foolish Railroad Investment. Carson is cleaning cutlery. Mrs. Hughes likes this.

Something about this show grabs people, and inspires them to really invest themselves in these characters. The premise seems simple and cliche, but the execution is beautifully handled. Skepticism is justifiable. I understand it completely. I’m just saying, despite the surely undeserved hype and presumed lameness of the show, it delivers. Give it a chance, get thee to the flower show, and your own intrigue with Downton Abbey will surely begin to bloom. And then you can have fun with the rest of us.

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