I am not giving up, though – just putting it on hold. However, as I’ve been silent here for far too long, I thought I’d do something a little different today and tell you about my most recent addiction – Downton Abbey. My being hooked on this series is a direct consequence of the first ever periodical (hey, one can hope) meeting of two thirds of Lady Business, featuring the awesome future LB guest posters Meghan and Ana (this is not in any way a hint *cough*). Our absent one third was of course very much missed, but nevertheless many books were coveted, laughs were shared, Shakespeare was watched, benign gossip was exchanged, good food was consumed, trains were very nearly missed, much fun was had by all, and Downton Abbey was pressed into my eager hands.
Downton Abbey is a period drama focusing on the lives of the Crawley family and the large staff that runs their stately home. The series is set in the years before WWI, which to someone like me gives it immediately appeal. While some of the Crawleys try to figure out whether there’s a way of preventing their home, Lord Grantham’s title and his wife’s considerable fortune from going to an unknown distant relative rather than their eldest daughter, international tensions mount, women fight for the vote, and society inevitable moves towards change. I am now five episodes into the series’ first season, which has a total of seven. I imagine that I’m still in for some surprises, but I feel that by now I have a good grasp of what Downton Abbey is all about.
I’m not sure if I would rank the series among my all-time favourites, but one thing is certain: it’s excellent storytelling, and it constantly has me dying to know what’s going to happen next. As I’m fairly sure is the case with all of you, I’m addicted to story. Although books are my preferred way of satisfying this craving, I’m not at all averse to satisfying it through other media. Thanks to my recent reading slump, I spent months and months without experiencing the delicious thrill of being completely enthralled in a story, and let me tell you, I’d really, really missed it.
Anyway, Downton Abbey is a series whose appeal largely depends on our tendency to romanticise pre-war upper class living – although, as we will see later, this is not an entirely fair comment. I’ve been known to become annoyed with novels that do this, but if I’m to be perfectly honest, I’m by no means immune to the lure of a good country house story myself. All historical periods are romanticised to some extent, so it seems unfair to pick on the early twentieth century in particular. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that most of my social history reading seems to focus on either this period or the Victorian era. Whatever the reason, I tend to roll my eyes at stories that don’t somehow acknowledge its dark underbelly, or at the very least the cost and social implications of this glamorous lifestyle. But of course, the best thing about Downton Abbey is that it actually does.
Downton Abbey does a remarkable job of balancing the romance and glamour of life at a stately home with the social insight that a twentieth-first century audience will undoubtedly have. I don’t think the series is actually particularly revolutionary, in the sense that most of the progressive values it espouses are easy and safe and widely accept in our day and age by people all across the political spectrum (e.g., women should vote. None but a radical fringe would argue with that). But at least there isn’t much about it that is careless or insensitive or dehumanising, unlike other stories of this kind I could mention.
The characters are all fully human regardless of their class or background, and the family’s servants are involved in storylines that are not only interesting in their own right, but don’t always involve their role as servants. Of course, the power dynamics between the upper class and their domestic staff are at the very heart of what Downton Abbey is about, but I was happy to see that the servants are allowed to exist as human beings beyond this. This is tricky to do well, because there were people who, for the sake of financial security and due to a lack of other options, often gave up their right to have lives of their own in the name of their employers’ well-being. The series acknowledges this, but it does so in a way that never really robs them of their humanity (and of course, now I’ve made myself really want to reread The Remains of the Day).
I said above that I didn’t think there was much about Downton Abbey that was insensitive, but there’s an exception to this that made me very, very sad. Why oh why does the one and only main glbtq character have to be so completely evil? (And the one supporting character wasn’t much better, really). I think Downton Abbey does a great job when it comes to representing women, and the main reason for this is the fact that there are so many of them. Because most of the cast is female, they’re allowed to be kind, scheming, competitive, smart, hard-working, lazy, ambitious, snobbish, gentle, thoughtful, competent, clumsy, awkward – you name it. The full spectrum of human emotions, behaviours and motivations is available to them without any ties between the nastier traits and their femininity being implicitly established, because for every example there is a different one to challenge it.
As I’ve said in the past, ideally this is what would always happen. I think a lot of progress has been on that front when it comes to representing women (although now I occasionally see people complaining when female characters display vulnerability, which… is not the point of feminism. But that’s a subject for a different post). However, glbtq characters are miles behind on this regard. Ideally they should have the full spectrum of human behaviours at their disposal too. There are plenty of glbtq people who are not particularly nice, so why shouldn’t fiction acknowledge this? But. If in a series you have a single token gay character who turns out to be evil, and in addition to this they are very very likely one of a very small number of glbtq characters being represented in the totality of series being aired at that particular point in time, then you do have a problem. Because no matter what the writers intended when they wrote the character, those implicit ties are going to pop up. Their identity and their evilness are going to get interlinked in some people’s minds. There just aren’t enough counterexamples for that not to happen. We can say that those people are READING IT RONG, but the world being what it is, are they really? Can their reading really be disregarded?
As I said, I have not yet finished season one, so it’s possible that I might yet be surprised, either in the two remaining episodes or next season. Also! I had almost forgotten how nice it can be to eat a light dinner in front of the laptop while watching an episode (… or three) of something with M. Series are stories we can share immediately, instead of pressing books/rpgs on each other and waiting a few months or years until the other gets to them so we can finally discuss them. All this to say that if you have further suggestions of things I should watch (other than Inception or Buffy, that is. It WILL happen, Amy and Renay), please throw them at me. I feel clueless when it comes to TV, so I will fully trust your guidance.