Downton Abbey Season 1

February 19, 2012 by staff 

Downton Abbey Season 1, The international success of Downton Abbey feels somewhat anachronistic in the days of Occupy Wall Street. While its qualities as a costume drama are unimpeachable, this saga of the original 1% never wants to acknowledge the class politics of our era, or truly take in the harsh realities of its own. By treating the divisions between upstairs and downstairs as a sort of pageant in which the two parties are at a stand-off, Abbey creates a convincing world of its own, but one that bears little resemblance to our own.

Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) is the model patriarch of the British aristocracy: he is handsome, wealthy, and beneficent in his dealings with both equals and subordinates. In a way, he is the center of the action at Downton Abbey, as all who live and work there are subject to his rulings, but in another, he is entirely superfluous to it.

The primary action of this series involves his search for an heir to his land and money, both of which shall be invested in a husband to his daughter Mary (Michelle Dockery). While he certainly makes his opinions known in this matter, he is ultimately powerless to influence the situation in any more than a superficial way. His only agency rests in the social construction of aristocracy, which is held together in equal measure by the figureheads at its center and those who serve them (who are much better taken care of than the members of the lower class in no way connected to the landowners). While the family has the money and political influence, the serving staff is uniquely grafted to them, possessing of their secrets, and rendering nobility meaningful solely by their obeisance.

Beneath all of this, however, is a steady undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the standing social order, spurred on by historical influences such as socialism and the onset of world war. But if one were to judge based only on what Downton Abbey feels comfortable showing us, it would be difficult to understand why any of that change is necessary. There are no images of starving children, corporal cruelty, or any member of the aristocracy acting in any way less than beneficent to their social lessers; additionally, the angst expressed by their staff never comes across as anything more serious than the communal griping in Office Space. It’s a portrait of absolute power not dissimilar to that in Gone With The Wind, in which everyone is merely happiest when they know their place in the grand scheme of things.

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