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So 20th century England, we’re not so different after all

blog by The Canisius Griffin  • 

Without a big budget, a major star or a marquee declaring “Executive Producer Steven Spielberg,” genre fare in the television industry typically has a hard time catching on, although even Spielberg’s Terra Nova isn’t invincible.  Aside from a few standouts like AMC’s block of programming and FX’s American Horror Story, if a show doesn’t take place in a hospital full of sexy RNs or the busiest precinct in NYC then it is an uphill battle to secure an audience.  This is what makes the success of Downton Abbey, a costume-period drama, sound all the more puzzling.

Set at the dawn of World War I in North Yorkshire, England, Downton Abbey is a story of the haves and the have-nots.  The Crawley family runs an estate called Downton.  And by the Crawley family I mean their staff of servants, maids, footman, valets and so on.  The cast is filled with seasoned British actors like Maggie Smith, otherwise known as Professor McGonagall from the Harry Potter films.  It premiered in September 2010 on ITV in the United Kingdom to strong reviews and ratings and has since crossed over to the United States thanks to PBS’s Masterpiece Classic. 

After cruising through the first season of the show on Netflix, I can see why the show is catching on.  Downton Abbey is filled to the brim with interesting, complex characters and engrossing drama.  For an era where manners were a top priority, I’ve never seen a cast of characters that were more thrilled to stab each other in the back.  Surely, the proceedings are exaggerated for television’s sake, but the show prides itself on the deep melodrama the characters find themselves in and the payoff for the audience is worth it.

The Crawley’s fortune is jeopardized in the premiere episode when the heir to the estate taxied the Titanic to the ocean floor.  Their eldest of three daughters gets one of the strongest arcs of the season.  Mary is placed front and center to marry and save the estate.  The youngest daughter, Sybil, takes an interest in women’s rights to leisurely pass the time. The unfortunate middle daughter, Edith, coasts through the first half of the season unnoticed, but she puts Jan Brady to shame in terms of the “jealous younger sister” role when all is said and done.  This is just the first of many season-long ordeals that unfold over the too brief, seven-episode season. 

The family’s staffers are constantly jockeying for more prominent positions and will do anything short of slitting each other’s throats to make it happen.  Oh, and they hate newcomers.  Apparently in the early 20th Century, all anyone in England did was whisper, plot against each other and eavesdrop which was spoofed mercilessly in Saturday Night Live’s digital short a few weeks ago. 

Aside from the threat of WWI, the show’s setting gives way to the women’s suffrage movement, introductions to “new” medicines and tongue-and-cheek handlings of technological advances like the telephone.  The writers treat the audience in a way that does not talk down to them, while managing to not feel dated at the same time.  It’s an interesting look into a society that’s still not that far behind us.  While the way the characters talk and address each other, especially between classes, or the way they dress may seem foreign, everything else about their motivations and actions is startlingly familiar. 

I didn’t think when I sat down for my first episode of Downton Abbey that I would be watching a program with such cultural relevance.  The parallels to modern culture are easily made, especially amidst the Occupy Movement and economic recessions and rebounds occurring around the world.  Those in control fear any change that may result in the shift of power, while the less fortunate wonder where the entitled get off thinking that way.

By Sam Scarcello
The Griffin

TAGGED: bbc, canisius college, canisius griffins, downton abbey, sam scarcello

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