Thursday, February 3, 2011


A friend of mine lamented her addiction to Gossip Girl on Twitter the other day. "It's not so trashy it's good," she wrote. "It's really not. And yet." I advised her to try Downton Abbey instead: so good, I told her, you don't even realize how trashy it is.

Not since Colin Firth stepped out of a lake and into immortality has a British costume drama inspired such stateside obsession as Season One of Downton. So delicious were its plot twists, so iconic were its characters (the Plot-Hatching Footman, the Noble-Hearted Nobleman, the Dashing Eldest Daughter, the Upstart Heir, the Fire-Breathing Dowager), even my husband didn't so much as murmur when I flipped the channel from the NFL playoffs to PBS for an entire January of Sundays. (For the record, we only have one television in the house.)

So why did Downton blow the typical Masterpiece Classic ratings out of the water like a dreadnought at target practice? And did the series really belong in the rarefied air of PBS at all? Take away all those exquisite period details and pretty costumes (and oh! were they ever pretty!) and you've got pure, unashamed potboiler material, complete with dead lovers in the virginal bed and plot-device pregnancies. The show even had the chutzpah to leave its loyal viewers dangling on the brink of Armageddon last Sunday, with the cheerful reassurance that--not to worry--Season Two was now "in production."

But there's more to the Downton obsession than juicy storytelling. After all, if we're only looking for scandal and cleavage, Gossip Girl would do just fine. Downton succeeds not just because it plumbs the depths of the soap-opera well with a long line: it recreates a period that tugs at our historical imaginations with relentless strength. For the Great Britain depicted in Downton and for European civilization in general, there exists--in popular memory, at least--a world before the Great War, and a world after it: an age of innocence followed by an age of cynicism.

Of course, the reality isn't quite so simple. The years before the war roiled with scientific innovation and social turmoil; the crucible of 1914-1918 only forged that raw material into the 20th century we recognize today. But the Downton era beckons us because, until August of 1914, the dead millions and the great country houses still had a chance. It was still high summer, and the garden party was in full swing, and the earl was a good chap, and the housemaid was going to leave domestic service and become a secretary.

Now devotees will have to wait until 2012 to learn the fates of the Crawley family and its dependents. My prediction: at least one war wedding and at least one war baby. And not necessarily in that order.

After all, good trash is hard to find.