Season two of the megahit British period drama Downton Abbey, the television series that raises the essential question, “Can you really put on a decent dinner party without footmen?” was released this week on DVD. I raced out, bought it, and then spent nine consecutive hours on my couch, gobbling it up, I mean doing research.
“You have a life worth living,” sighed one of my closest friends, up to her eyeballs in a bad business day, when she heard what I was doing.
It’s not just me. The most addictive British series since the 1980s hit Brideshead Revisited, Downton Abbey, the soapy saga of a grand estate in Yorkshire and the lives and loves of not only its owners – the Earl and Countess of Grantham and their three marriageable daughters – but of their vast domestic staff downstairs – has found giddy favour at a time when much of its audience is financially hurting and obsessed with the notion of class again.
I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
The U.S. presidential race is replete with back and forths about “class warfare” and President Barack Obama’s supposed “war against the rich.” (The President has been sternly talking about people at the top paying their “fair share.”) Prominent Republicans are turning themselves into instant comic canon fodder for comedians like Jon Stewart by intoning, as Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels did, “This is not a nation of the haves and have-nots, it’s the haves and soon-to-haves.” (This resulted in a pie chart on The Daily Show, with the “haves” and the “somewhat later to haves.”) And when GOP comer Senator Marco Rubio of Florida taking another stab at finding the upside in a country in which the myth of meritocracy has given way to a shockingly widening gap between the rich and the poor, explained that when Americans drive through rich neighbourhoods, “they don’t say we hate the people who live in these nice houses, they say congratulations on your nice house and guess what? We will be joining you here soon”, Mr. Stewart smirked: “There’s nothing that rich people like more than poor people circling their neighbourhood at night saying we will be joining you soon.”
Meanwhile a disturbing new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, by controversial American academic Charles Murray has been met with both criticism and approval even in Republican circles as it argues that “America is coming apart at the seams – not seams of race or ethnicity, but of class.”
According to Mr. Murray, we now have the “cognitive elite” living the gated good life, absorbing their own culture (like Downton Abbey?),safe in their self-perpetuating bubble of good schools, relatively stable marriages and well-paying jobs while the new lower class, unemployed and shorn of religious belief or the promise of a better life, wander morally unmoored in a bleak landscape of family breakdown.
I found some rueful truth in Mr. Murray’s depiction of a self-satisfied cognoscenti who wouldn’t be caught dead watching The Bachlorette but claim to know exactly what the audience of such a show is thinking or feeling. And the prospect of a world in which equal opportunity is a myth while only those at the very top plunder and prosper, is of course what fuelled the still percolating Occupy movement.
So it’s no wonder, with high unemployment numbers, continuing foreclosures, stacks of unpaid bills, and a bleak global economic outlook, the haves and the haven’t-quite-paid-for-it’s alike are feasting their sore eyes on the real-estate porn of a great fictional English country house in the 1900s.
But it has probably not been lost on many viewers that the current middle-aged Earl, played to gallant perfection by Hugh Bonneville, was forced to marry Cora, an American heiress (Elizabeth McGovern with an odd mid-Atlantic accent) whom he now loves dearly, just to keep that old pile of bricks going.
Meanwhile, down in the butler’s pantry, where there is more intrigue than you can shake a silver candle snuffer at, almost every servant is dreaming of a better chance in a fairer world.
So while the overwhelming attraction of Downton Abbey may be a cracking good storyline and great characters amid splendid garden parties and gleaming candelabra, it’s also about financial peril, how to keep what you’ve got and get more, and how to get ahead no matter what the world throws at you.
Or as everyone’s favourite character, the wickedly witty Dowager Countess Violet, deliciously brought to life by Dame Maggie Smith, says to Lady Edith, one of her downcast granddaughters who can’t seem to find a husband or a place in her rarefied world: “Don’t be defeatist, dear, it’s very middle-class.”