As season four of "Downton Abbey" winds down, and the show grows soapier than ever -- Endless suitors! A possible murder, but he was a bad guy! The collapse of an engagement nobody knew about! -- an amusing little skirmish has broken out over what the show’s message is, and whether those of us who watch should be enjoying it or not.
A useful place to begin is in the shot fired across the program’s bow by the estimable George Will in the Washington Post:
“It is fitting that PBS offers ‘Downton Abbey’ to its disproportionately progressive audience. This series is a languid appreciation of a class structure supposedly tempered by the paternalism of the privileged. And if progressivism prevails, the United States will be Downton Abbey: Upstairs, the administrators of the regulatory state will, with a feudal sense of noblesse oblige, assume responsibility for the lower orders downstairs, gently protecting them from ‘substandard’ health-insurance policies, school choice, gun ownership, large sodas and other decisions that experts consider naughty or calamitous.”
So "Downton Abbey," despite the conservative-to-libertarian leanings of its creator, turns out to be a paean to the virtues of protecting people from themselves -- a temptation, as Will fails to note, that does not uniquely entice liberals.
Then the equally estimable Megan McArdle (my fellow Bloomberg View columnist) piles on. After confessing that she enjoys the show, McArdle has this to say:
“One thing about it, however, drives me completely batty, so much so that I’ve considered swearing it off: the relationship between the servants and their employers.
“Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad ‘Downton Abbey’ focuses on the servants as well as the expensively dressed people mooning about in drawing rooms. Unfortunately, that focus has quite a lot of Vaseline smeared on the lens. The Earl of Grantham’s family frequently seems to care more about the welfare of their servants than they do about themselves, a position that seems out of touch with the actual attitude one finds in period literature. The servants reciprocate with a loyalty that borders on slavish.”
Now, criticism of a period piece for historical inaccuracy is important. I myself have had things to say about "Downton Abbey’s" ahistorical view of the British left of its day. And McArdle recommends (sensibly) that viewers peruse some of the substantial literature about the lives of servants in the great houses.
“In a certain sense, 'Downton Abbey' is quite realistic: It portrays the lives of the servants as the upper class imagined them. But I would almost rather they had ignored the servants entirely instead of erecting this Potemkin village of happy servitude.”
Strong words indeed -- but I don’t think that either Will or McArdle quite has the show right. The political philosopher Peter Lawler, whose defense of the show is hammered by Will and McArdle both, has argued more than once that "Downton Abbey" presents the possibility that hierarchical relationships can be loving rather than combative. In the wake of the contretemps, Lawler insists that Will has taken his claims out of context: “There’s a huge difference between an aristocratic manor and a government bureaucracy!”
I actually think the show’s appeal is richer and more positive than the critics claim. Few viewers, I suspect, tune in for a reassuring commendation of the virtues of the activist liberal state. And I would be surprised if many believe that the lives of servants in the great houses were anything like what the show portrays.
My own view is that David Kamp got it right in his Vanity Fair profile of series creator Julian Fellowes:
“Melodrama is an uncool thing to trade in these days, but then, that’s precisely why 'Downton Abbey' is so pleasurable. In its clear delineation between the goodies and the baddies, in its regulated dosages of highs and lows, the show is welcome counter-programming to the slow-burning despair and moral ambiguity of most quality drama on television right now. 'Mad Men,' 'Breaking Bad,' 'Homeland' -- all are about people who succumb to the darkest, most transgressive aspects of their nature. 'Downton Abbey,' meanwhile, is largely about people trying to be … good.”
The show isn’t a liberal fantasy or a conservative one. It’s an ethical fantasy, and the fantasy to which it plays is one that most of us share. We like to believe that if ever placed in positions of authority over others, we would be firm but just in its exercise. There are petty tyrants in the classroom and in the boardroom, in politics on both sides of the aisle, and in workplaces galore. "Downton Abbey’s" fans cherish the hope that they themselves, if ever in authority over others, would behave as lovingly as the Granthams.
There are worse dreams to attach to what is, after all, just a television show.
(Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of law at Yale University. He is the author of “The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama” and the novel “The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln.” Follow him on Twitter at @StepCarter.)
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