Sunday, January 6, 2013

Downton Abbey: Lord Grantham, Where Is Your Facial Hair?!

Seriously, it bothers me.  At the beginning of Series One, Lord Grantham was 42 years old.  That means he was born in 1870.  Men of that generation tended to grow moustaches and beards when they reached adulthood, like this guy.  Or this guy.  Or these guys.  Once they grew older, they tended to keep their facial hair.  While men of the younger generation, like Matthew or Thomas or Branson, might be clean-shaven, it stretches plausibility that Lord Grantham, Carson, or Bates wouldn't at least have a moustache.

There, I said it.  Just had to get it off of my chest.

While Downton Abbey has sometimes been criticized for historical inaccuracies, I doubt many people thought of the male characters' facial hair.  Although it's small and unimportant, to me, it's another sign that while Downton Abbey is history, it's history designed to prevent us from being too uncomfortable.  It's uncommon for grown men in the 21st Century to have facial hair, you say?  Well men in 1912 didn't have facial hair, either!  Women of the 21st Century don't usually become social pariahs after having casual unmarried sex, you say?  Well women of 1912 were made to feel bad for a little while, to think that their reputation might be ruined forever, but in the end, their sex had no consequences, either!  And people of 1912 believed in equality just as much as people of the 21st Century!  See how often the aristocrats and servants spend time together like they're the best of friends?

Downton Abbey is grounded in history... sort of.  But it's not an accurate view of history, and anyone who thinks that watching it will make them smarter (or seem smarter) is mistaken.  Just because it looks like the descendant of a Jane Austen novel does not mean it is.  To me, watching Downton Abbey is like eating a giant cupcake with elaborately decorated frosting -- it feels satisfying at the time, but you won't be any better for it.

That said, being a cupcake is not a bad thing.  A Downton Abbey marathon got me through a very difficult time last year.  There is so much on television that is plain inedible that being one of the few edible things is not bad.  So for the uninitiated, what is Downton Abbey about?

The series revolves around Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham, and his family.  They all reside at Downton Abbey, the family seat in Yorkshire -- "they" being Lord Grantham; his American wife, Cora; their three daughters, Mary, Edith, and Sybil; and Lord Grantham's mother, Violet, the Dowager Countess.  Since Lord Grantham and his wife have no sons, archaic inheritance rules dictate that when Lord Grantham dies, the title and estate go to the next male heir.  The next heir was supposed to be Lord Grantham's first cousin, James, but he and his son became casualties of the Titanic.  So Series One involved the Crawleys of Downton Abbey getting acquainted with the next male heir: third cousin Matthew Crawley, a solicitor, who lived with his mother, Isobel.  Matthew and his mother were determined to hold on to their middle class values, until they gradually became seduced by wealth porn -- I mean, tradition.  Then there was the perpetual "will they? won't they?" between Matthew and Mary, which lasted two series, until the Series Two Christmas special confirmed "they will."  Meanwhile, Edith the middle daughter was scheming and resentful, and Sybil the youngest was so down-to-earth, she didn't even seem to come from the same era, let alone the same family.  Now and then, Violet would pop in to say something witty, or to clash with Isobel.

That was the "upstairs."  Downstairs are the servants, led by Mr. Carson, the butler, and Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper.  In the first two series, the core of their "family" consisted of the two footmen, "good twin" William and "evil twin" Thomas; O'Brien, the lady's maid and Thomas's frequent partner-in-crime; Anna, the head housemaid; Daisy, the kitchen maid; Mrs. Patmore, the cook; Branson, the chauffer; and Bates, Lord Grantham's valet and former batman in the Boer Wars.  Despite the fact that the staff did not seem large enough to serve such an enormous house (at most, Anna had the help of one other maid), they seemed to have a lot of time to go to festivals and scheme behind one another's back.  The most significant story lines involved Bates and Anna.  In Series One, Bates had to figure out how to perform his job with a disability caused by a war injury.  He eventually fell in love with Anna, and they married in Series Two, only for Bates's crazy first wife to kill herself and frame him for murder.  I still don't get that one.  Less significant story lines involved Thomas scheming and stealing, Branson declaring to the world that he was a socialist, and O'Brien causing Lady Grantham to suffer a miscarriage of what would have been the male heir.  Maybe "less significant" wouldn't describe that last story line...        

Series One took place between the sinking of the Titanic and the start of World War I.  Series Two jumped ahead two years and took place between 1916 and 1918 (with the Christmas special around 1920).  In Series Two, Matthew and both of the footmen went to war.  Aside from Matthew's mysterious bout of paralysis, the only one worse for wear was William, who was mortally wounded and died.  Matthew briefly had a love interest besides Mary, but she conveniently died of Spanish flu.  And Sybil married Branson, earning temporary exile from her family.

Series Three is supposed to take place in the early 1920s.  What will it bring?  Judging from the fact that Dan Stevens will not be in Series Four, I'm going to guess more angst for Matthew and Mary fans.

Wild Blogger, I'm Getting the Sense That You're Not Too Keen On the Show.  What's Going On?  It's not that I'm not into the show at all.  If I weren't, I wouldn't be reviewing it.  It's just that when I first heard of Downton Abbey, the first series had just aired and it was winning all of these Emmys in the miniseries category, and people were talking about it like it was the Best Thing Ever.  So when I started watching it, I was prepared for a series with the production values of, well, Downton Abbey and the writing of Mad Men.  And it's really not.  Everything looks really pretty and high end, but the characters and writing are frequently flat.  Characters are usually good or bad, with not much in between.  For instance, there is one scene where bad boy Thomas leans back and slowly exhales from his cigarette, needing only a moustache to twirl to complete his "I am evil!" portrait.  Now and then, the "bad" character gets humanized a little, to prevent us from thinking he or she is a monster -- like O'Brien having a last-minute regret about causing the accident that leads to the miscarriage -- but then that character is back to being bad again an episode later.  So the bad characters tend to be pretty boring and meh, and the good characters are even more meh.  I liked Bates during the first series, when he was struggling with his disability, but he became flat and boring and long-suffering in Series Two, dealing with his hopelessly cartoonish first wife.  I think the only "downstairs" conflict that really rang true to me in Series Two was Daisy's guilt over deceiving William.  A basically good character with a real moral dilemma that lasts more than one episode.  Who would have thought?

But I think the thing that grates on my most about Downton Abbey is its benign representation of the class system.  Lords and masters of the household are just loving fathers to their "downstairs" children, protecting them from all harm.  Servants occasionally have dreams for more, but for the most part, they are content with their lot.  Their biggest problems are not that they are forced to perform backbreaking labor for tiny amounts of pay and little to no time off, but that the other servants irritate them.

Thomas and O'Brien resent the class system, but their resentment is made to appear the product of their innate badness, rather than their badness being the product of their resentment.  No "good" servant could possibly want more, except for the extraneous maid or two.  And even then, there is a "good" way to do it and a "bad" way.  The "good" way is to have modest goals, like being a secretary, and timidly seek the support of the "upstairs."  The "bad" way is to act above your "station" and fool around with people who are clearly too good for you.  Then you get yours.  I suppose it's not really that clear-cut -- Ethel, the maid who does it the "bad" way, isn't completely condemned, and it appears she has an interesting role in Series Three.  But she is made to look wrong and foolish for daring to question how good she has it downstairs.

Yet I am reminded of a different representation of the class system, a reality show called Manor House that aired in 2002.  The premise was that modern people took over roles in an Edwardian great house, with some occupying the "upstairs" roles and some occupying the "downstairs."  In one episode, one of the downstairs servants sneaks upstairs and luxuriates in the opulent rooms, only to be chastised by the butler.  Kitchen maids belong downstairs.  They can never go upstairs.  Your lot is to stay and clean pots and pans from morning until night.

It's true that I was never a servant, and my ancestors were not servants in a great house, so I can't say that Downton Abbey's depiction is flat out wrong.  I just don't think it is right.  It is the way we wish aristocrats treated their servants, and probably the way they think that they do.  It is a simplistic fantasy meant to appeal to us in the modern world, with our blurred lines and complicated dilemmas.  Don't you wish that you could go back to a time when things were just easier, when someone else was there to take care of you?  Yet you don't have to be a servant, or to have been one, to know that when someone else has power over you, the result can be horrifying.  Think of that toxic boss you had, the one who thinks you can't do anything right, who screams at you in front of your coworkers, and who fills the office with misery -- then factor in a situation where you have few legal rights and cannot afford to leave.  I'm sure Julian Fellowes, Downton Abbey's creator, would claim that the toxic boss is an anomaly, but then again, he has probably never had a boss, has he?

One scene in Series One, in particular, struck a nerve.  Up until this point, the storyline was pretty good: the extraneous maid, Gwen, was trying to become a secretary.  She kept trying and trying, but no one would give her a chance.  Finally, frustrated, Gwen broke down crying, telling Sybil that someone of her status could simply make her dreams come true, but that was hardly a given for "downstairs" people, no matter how hard they tried.  Then breakthrough!  In a scenario sadly true to life, Gwen finally got her chance to be a secretary only after Sybil pulled some strings.  Then comes the last scene: during a public garden party, Gwen breaks the news to Sybil and (I think) Branson, and they share a group hug.  In public, at an aristocratic garden party.  Sorry, I don't care how idealized the world of Downton Abbey is supposed to be.  That just would. not. happen.  

Yet that's just part of making history palatable for modern viewers.  Class divides weren't really that rigid.  No one would be at all shocked to see the daughter of an earl and a maid share a public embrace (complete with jumping around and squeeing).  Aristocrats and their children stood by willing to support their servants' dreams, so long as they did it the "right" way.  Sybil could just chuck aside the values system that had been ingrained in her since birth whenever she felt like it, with no regrets or consequences.

Okay, so maybe that did happen sometimes.  But I doubt it happened regularly, and certainly not as easily as it seems to happen here.  It may be Downton, but it doesn't feel true, and it definitely doesn't feel like history.

So What the Hell Do You Like About This Series?  I will confess that I am seduced by the pretty as much as anyone.  Also, despite the frequently flat writing, many of the performances are good, and I like several of the characters.  I'm strangely drawn to Edith -- poor Edith, the "Jan" of the family, never considered pretty enough or good enough.  She finally started to come into her own in Series Two, and I hope that continues.  I also like Daisy, and want to see if the show attempts to truly humanize Thomas.  And despite knowing that they would always end up together, I am drawn to the Matthew and Mary situation.  It will be interesting to see how they behave as a married couple.  If they get married.

Next Time: Episode One.  That Shirley MacLaine sure shakes things up, doesn't she?
    
 

3 comments:

  1. Read this first post last. And discovered gems like this:

    The bad characters tend to be pretty boring and meh, and the good characters are even more meh. [...] I think the only "downstairs" conflict that really rang true to me in Series Two was Daisy's guilt over deceiving William. A basically good character with a real moral dilemma that lasts more than one episode. Who would have thought?

    I think the thing that grates on my most about Downton Abbey is its benign representation of the class system. [...] It is the way we wish aristocrats treated their servants, and probably the way they think that they do. It is a simplistic fantasy meant to appeal to us in the modern world, with our blurred lines and complicated dilemmas.

    To me, watching Downton Abbey is like eating a giant cupcake with elaborately decorated frosting -- it feels satisfying at the time, but you won't be any better for it.

    Oh my word can I just say one more time how grateful I am for the unique sort of thing you're doing here without sounding like a stalker? We don't have to say the Emperor's clothes are WONDERFUL and PERFECTION to be glad that there's an Emperor and to feel that the world would be poorer without him.

    So, thank you one more time. Looking forward to Ep 5 as much now for your subsequent commentary as for the unfolding of the conflict over little baby Bransons's Catholicism.

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    1. Thank you for your posts, Mark! I definitely try to bring something new/original to my posts, though I'm not always sure I succeed. I'm glad to know that you enjoy them.

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  2. Interesting read, thanks. Won't bother watching. I actually stumbled upon your blog by googling "downton" and "too few moustaches".

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