Katy Burns: Deliciously dramatic Downton
Pretty much the whole Crawley household is about to decamp for a shooting holiday trip to the wilds of Scotland. We suspect all will not go well. When a shooting party is scheduled on a soap opera – even as snooty and high-toned a soap as Downton Abbey – tragedy is sure to ensue.
Especially if all the characters are chattering about how life is finally going smoothly for the soap’s many, many troubled souls.
Tonight is the two-hour season-ender for the popular PBS soap, and its devoted fans are already debating the future of the colorful cast of characters in season 4.
In the servants’ quarters, rivalry and romance are on the boil, with any number of complications likely in the future.
For example, will Anna and Bates, he newly released from his unjust imprisonment, find connubial bliss in their freshly painted little cottage? Will Daisy shuck her apron and take up a shovel as a newly liberated young farmerette? And how about scheming allies-turned-enemies, lady’s maid O’Brien and ex-valet Thomas, both old hands at skullduggery?
The drama’s not all downstairs. There are a lot of questions ahead for the gentry as well.
Will Sir Robert, the earl of Grantham and the keeper of elegant Downton Abbey, ever be convinced that the estate’s business practices have to move into the 20th century if it is to survive?
And now that his beloved daughter Lady Sybil has died in childbirth, will the earl reconcile himself to the fact that Sybil’s grieving husband and father of his only granddaughter, is his former chauffeur? And Irish? And – ultimate horror – Catholic? All that Latin! All that incense! All that crossing and bobbing up and down!
Will Lady Edith, a newly minted newspaper columnist (to her father’s despair), finally stop sulking around the place and actually get a life? Will it include a little hanky panky with her editor whose poor wife is in a lunatic asylum and thus un-divorceable?
And lovely, headstrong and opinionated Lady Mary – is she finally pregnant? Someone has to come up with a male heir, after all.
Will the Dowager Countess – played with brio by the indefatigable Dame Maggie Smith – keep up her genteel war of (snarky) words with distant cousin and relentless do-gooder Isobel Crawley?
Finally, will the secret behind her ladyship Cora’s slip on the soap and subsequent miscarriage at last emerge?
These are just a few of the questions that will preoccupy Downton’s fervent fans on blogs and fan sites over the coming months. And fans are fervent indeed about all things Downton.
There are newspaper and web stories about every aspect of the show, from the elaborate
meals that the toffs eat each evening, decked out in formal dress and waited on by a retinue of servants, to sidebars on the political situation at the time in Ireland.
Go online. You can find out
how to brew a Downton Abbey cup of tea and bake Downton Abbey cakes. A Canadian happily hosts a blog devoted solely to Downton Abbey food.
The clothes of the nobility – especially the elegant finery sported by the three Crawley sisters – are discussed in great detail on line. There is said to be a minor revival in the Edwardian look. And especially fawning fans can buy a lovely ivory Downton Abbey cloche hat on line for only $235. Plus shipping.
Even Downton Abbey itself, or the Highclere Castle that plays the fictional abbey, has become a celebrity with regular tours of its lavish public rooms and occasional appearances by the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, the estate’s owners, in TV specials about the building.
Why? Why are so many in our resolutely democratic country so gaga for the goings-on at Downton Abbey, with its frothy tales of the highborn English gentry and the sturdy servants who cater to their precious needs?
(And we are gaga. Even our first lady apparently can’t resist the lure of Downton. When Michelle Obama, it was rumored, managed to score a DVD of the third season before it was run on PBS in the States, more than a few Downton fans were decidedly miffed.)
Partly, we love the look of the show – the gorgeous abbey (and the family’s other nearly-as-nice homes), the lovely clothes, the lavish attention to detail, from Lady Mary’s gowns and the servants’ livery to the period vehicles that ferry the Crawleys around the countryside. Even the detail of meal preparation in the kitchen is truly amazing.
It’s also the show’s sweep of history that holds the audience’s attention. We started gawking at the Crawleys in 1912, the year the Titanic sank and caused the crisis in the inheritance chain that drives the show’s plot. Events move at a brisk pace. By the end of this season, we’re in the mid-1920s, the Jazz Age. Privileged women are working, and servants are rethinking the whole notion of servitude.
The writing and acting are superb, with not only Dame Maggie but a host of tried-and-true British thespians – plus American Elizabeth McGovern as Lady Cora.
And, finally, it is unashamedly a soap. A big, glorious soap, with memorable characters and a new plot twist in every other scene. Illegitimate babies, long-lost kin possibly returning from the dead (or possibly not), paralysis caused by a war injury suddenly, amazingly, cured. If a story gets boring, well, trot out another relative, or a financial crisis, or a romance gone amiss or a sudden sad death. And keep the downstairs crew busy with an assortment of domestic and romantic crises.
We Americans love good soap operas, real or fictional. How else can one explain the devotion of so many normally sane people to the unending tales of triumph and woe of the Kardashians? And the Crawleys’ dramas have it all over the Kardashians’ banal affairs.
Think of Downton Abbey as pure escapist entertainment with great clothes and posh English accents.
After tonight’s seasonal swan song, Downton Abbey will go into reruns until a new season presents itself. Meanwhile its avid followers will have to content themselves with online Downton trivia sites and gossip about the season yet to come.
The rest of you sad souls, the non-Downton people? Well, eat your hearts out. Or take this time to catch up on the first three seasons so that when season 4 shows up you can join the fun.
(Monitor columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)