I have recently been watching Downton Abbey, a British TV drama about the family of the fictional Earl of Grantham and their servants from 1912 to 1925. I tend to dislike period pieces, often finding the writing self-absorbed and characters difficult to empathize with. Nevertheless, I find Downton Abbey quite compelling, so I was trying to figure out why.
Downton runs over a longer time period than many shows and is deeply intertwined with historical events. Many major historical events have a real, permanent impact on the show, which makes Downton Abbey more engaging in several ways. First it adds a puzzle dynamic to the show, where you attempt to explain events based on what was happening in the world at the time. For instance, one of the characters has a severe limp and was in the military. This made me wonder whether he got the injury during the Boer War.
Second, it leads to anticipation about how major worldwide events will impact the family and servants. For instance, when the First World War ends, my first thought wasn’t, “Thank goodness it’s over.” It was, “Don’t celebrate too soon! You’re about to be hit with a huge influenza epidemic that will kill more people than the war itself.” With a show like Downton, you know that a major worldwide epidemic cannot pass without leaving a permanent mark.
Finally, it’s compelling seeing the perspectives on historical events through the eyes of the people at the time. While the writer cheats occasionally—not allowing the main “good” characters to have beliefs that would be commonplace at the time but considered repugnant now—it’s nevertheless interesting seeing the characters’ takes on things like the rise of labor and the women’s suffrage.
Different problems, same human nature
A second thing that makes the show compelling is that many of the problems that the characters encounter aren’t the same problems that we’ve seen a hundred times on contemporary shows. Instead, the problems are products of the times, such as the impropriety of a servant having an affair with a member of the aristocracy or the challenge in maintaining the estate despite capitalism making it non-economic to do so. You start to see the world through a difference lens, where problems that would be completely inconsequential today are world-shaking in the context of the time.
Simultaneously, the characters deal with these problems in human ways and with human emotions, allowing you to empathize with them. The challenges of this historical world are often foreign, but human nature is constant. Thus, the viewer gets drawn into the characters’ troubles.
The upstairs and downstairs interplay
The other compelling thing about the show is that it spends a similar amount of time on both aristocratic family and their servants. Their lives are different, but the value of the people is the same. The Earl has his problems and concerns, and they’re different than those of the scullery maid. But the writer doesn’t imply that the life of the Earl has more meaning than the scullery maid. They’re both just people with different problems, different perspectives, and different jobs.
The interplay between the aristocrats and their servants is also interesting. The Granthams feel a true sense of responsibility for their servants and tenants, and the servants feel a true sense of pride in their job and for the family they work for. In a sense, the servants are an extended part of the Grantham family. That’s not to say that servants don’t get fired. That does happen—sometimes for reasons that don’t make any sense in the modern day. But to be fired, that trust needs to be broken, or perceived to be broken.
That sort of shared responsibility is particularly interesting considering the cutthroat corporate world today. Corporations typically try hard to convince their employees that they care for them, but it you look at corporate actions, that largely seems to be a tactic to make employees docile and more productive. Instead, the corporate world is largely a matter of dollars and cents, without people having any real ethics or responsibility for each other. Our society has become convinced that greed is good, that ethics are outdated, that capitalism is sufficient justification for any action.
The bottom line
Downton shows that there is a different way of doing things, where people care about people. At the same time, under the onslaught of capitalism, the Grantham estate is crumbling—the Granthams and their servants trying to adapt to the new world is one of the major ongoing themes of the show. In the end, that sort of interplay between the old and the new, the conservative and the liberal, and the slow but inevitable progression of time are what make the show truly engaging.