The 1% meets the one true heir

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There is a right way to have a cold. In the U.S., we are encouraged to think the best way to be sick is to keep on working. As a result of this indoctrination, I'd forgotten how to be sick correctly until just yesterday, when the need to take a second round of antibiotics provoked me to get some rest.

So it was that on a gloomy, rainy day--the closest approximation to winter that we have in L.A.--I sat down in a comfy chair, in the middle of the day, wearing my flannel pajamas and watched Masterpiece Theater Classic on PBS video. If you have to be sick (and apparently I did), this is the right way to do it.

I'm a longtime fan of Masterpiece Theater, so no one had to convince me to watch the current series, Downton Abbey, the second seaons of which is now showing in the U.S. I fit the profile of the bookish, tea-drinking Anglophile that I imagine constitutes the Masterpiece Theater Classic's typical audience. I'd read, however, that "Downton Abbey" was attracting a wider and much younger audience than is usual for the PBS series.

My favorite charcter, Mrs. Patmore In fact, this Downton Abbey mania has prompted some cultural critics to speculate about why the show is appealing to younger Americans. Some say Americans have latched on to the series because they are mesmerized by its depiction of extreme wealth. Others claim Downton Abbey offers a vision of a more stable class structure that is reassuring to Americans in these uncertain economic times.

I admit I had been puzzled as to why "Downton Abbey" would strike a chord with a youthful American audience, and I wasn't convinced by any of the explanations being given. But when I cozied up in my arm chair, tissue box to one side, to watch my old favorite, Masterpiece Theater, it hit me. There's nothing particularly different or distinguished about "Downton Abbey"; "Masterpiece Theater" is the same as ever. It's the change in the American people's interests and attitudes that have made "Masterpiece Theater Classic" popular again.

"Masterpiece Theater" is, at heart, one story, one long series playing on a handful of themes: the charms and constraints of village life, the difficulty of maintaining human relationships during wartime, and--centrally--the drama of inheritance. This is why I found turning to "Masterpiece Theater" during my cold so reassuring. Once the familiar theme song plays, I know that despite varying settings, periods and manners, I will be treated to the theatrics of primogeniture run amok.

From "The Six Wives of Henry VIII" to "I, Claudius" to today's "Downton Abbey," the core drama is about who inherits. Many of "Masterpiece Theater's" series are drawn from English literature, in which the inheritance plot is a standard storyline. Though there are variations, the inheritance plot usually revolves around an older and younger brother vying to inherit, often leading to violence. In "Downton Abbey", the male heir goes missing in the first episode, throwing the household into a state of anxiety from which it has--to date, at least--not recovered.

There are stock characters in an inheritance plot, which we see in "Downton Abbey." Often there is a schemer, who tries to arrange the inheritance to his or her liking. The Lady Dowager Countess of Grantham fulfills this role nicely, though it rotates to others both upstairs and downstairs. Visting the family are cash-poor relatives who may be eligable to inherit, represented by Matthew Crawley and his mother, Isobel. Finally, we have sympathetic characters who appear ineligible to inherit, which includes all three Grantham daughters, but primarily Lady Mary.

Now many years into a financial depression, the American viewing audience is in a prime position to emphathize with the disinherited. There is growing intergenerational conflict, stemming from disparities in income and expectations for the future, as well as from pressures brought on by multigenerational living arrangements. Americans old and young--but especially young--are concerned about what one generation will leave to another.

The Downton Abbey household presents Americans with a mirror of their own pressing anxieties about inheritance. The winner-take-all dynamics of the American economy are perfectly reflected in the family's struggle to determine who inherits Downton Abbey and all that goes with it. Of course, the show is also a pleasing distraction from the present. I know I'd much rather worry about whether the estate will wind up with Lady Mary than worry about whether there will be any potable water for the next generation of Americans to drink.

3 Comments

I really like your take on the fascination with Downton Abbey. It truly is about following where and who gets the money - and inheritance is the fulcrum to this particular "drama".

When I watched one episode, and only one, I was struck at how familiar it seemed to me. I asked myself, what's the big difference - it's an updated "Upstairs/Downstairs" - it even has elements of "I, Claudius". Those Brits sure know how to do period pieces, don't they?

So when I read your observations I completely agreed. Maybe the younger viewer has never really seen this sort of thing before on TV or maybe never noticed it before because Jersey Shore had it's own kind of youthful drama?

OTH, perhaps shows like "The Real Housewives of..." helped greased the wheels a bit. I mean if that isn't about where and who gets the money - interspersed with the ongoing drama of friendships, marriages, and parenting in the local version of Rodea Drive - I don't know what is.

The 1% have always been entertaining on some level don't you think? From their swank marriages televised for the whole world to see to seeing their heads lopped off in guillotines - you can't ask for anything more, can you?

Very insightful but I also think this particular production moves faster than most Masterpiece Theatre pieces and seems directed at a more engaging pace. Should I dare say it seems to be a larger production, more expensively done and could it be directed to a certain degree, toward an American audience? Just saying. I've always found Masterpiece Theatre to be a bit stilted in its production quality as if the actors were on a live stage and the directing style somewhat a kin to early TV soap opera productions using 8mm cameras, or Playhouse 90 where you could always see the tip or the shadow of the microphone, not to mention this was written more recently, during WWI as opposed to most of Masterpiece Theatres genre which always adapt much older novels of English literature that perhaps younger Americans couldn't relate to as well. I also think one of its compelling qualities is that it has a more soap opera feel to it in its many different subplots that keep the viewers hooked. And you have to admit Maggie Smith's lines are priceless. Has there ever been a Masterpiece Theatre that had such a character? I am sure you would know. But with my limited knowledge, I believe that it's rare. IMHO

With all due respect- I agree with everything mentioned above, yet, I would like to add another potential scenario about the success of Downton Abbey:

Perhaps our American audience isn't brain dead after all. Can it be we are actually capable of watching a very well written production that neither relies on Schwarzenegger style explosions or gruesome blood and guts spilling out all over the place? Perhaps in these difficult times we are even a bit starving for television or movies with a little meaningful substance.

Art- regardless the medium- is nutriment for our souls. With so much fast food out there, I think there is a good chance, that we a simply grateful to receive a steak dinner and we are eating it with a hearty appetite.

Recent Comments

  • Higgins: With all due respect- I agree with everything mentioned above, read more
  • cutelittleredheadedgrrlfriend: Very insightful but I also think this particular production moves read more
  • Joe G.: I really like your take on the fascination with Downton read more